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James Forbes Writer and Illustrator



James Forbes (1749–1819) was an artist, amateur botanist and memoirist who detailed his observations of the people, animals, plants, and architecture in India, Africa, and South America. In 1781, he was one of the first Europeans to visit and sketch the Taj Mahal. He is honored in name of a town in the state of Bihar, India.

Forbes was born in London to Timothy Forbes and Elizabeth (Crow) Forbes. Although he claimed lineal descent from the Earls of Granard in Ireland, the genealogy "House of Forbes" (1935) could document no link since the authors “are reluctantly obliged to abandon their idea of a chapter on Forbeses in foreign countries whose connection with the main stem has been lost.”

At the age of 16, Forbes became a writer for the British East India Company. In 1765, he travelled to India where he lived until 1784. He filled a hundred and fifty folio volumes (fifty-two thousand pages) manuscript pages with detailed notes and sketches on all aspects of wildlife and culture. He lived in Sultan pokhar (pond) in what was called the “Residential Area” in the state of Behir. This was shortened to “R-Area” and became in the local language “Araria.” Today, the Araria District has two sub-divisions called Araria and Forbesganj ( फोर्बेस्गंज ), named after James Forbes.

In 1775, Forbes became a private secretary to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Keating, commandant of the artillery and engineers under the Bombay presidency. He accompanied the Colonel on an expedition assist Raghunathrao Bhat (also known as Reghoba) who was the 10th Peshwa of the Maratha Empire from 1773 to 1774. He was overthrown by Nana Phadnavis and Reghoba sought British military assistance. In 1775, Reghoba and the British East India Company signed the Treaty of Surat in which the Company agreed to help him regain his position as Peshwa. The Company failed to live up to the terms of the treaty and this launched the first of three Anglo-Maratha Wars between the British East India Company and Maratha Empire in India.

Forbes held another appointment at Baroche in Goojerat and, in 1780, became collector and resident at Dubhoy. However, in 1782 the East India Company and representatives of the Maratha Empire signed the Treaty of Salbai under which this district and other areas were ceded to the Mahrattas, and in 1784 Forbes left India for England.

In 1788, Forbes married Rose, daughter of Joseph Gaylard of Stanmore, near Harrow, Middlesex. He and his family alternated between residences in London and Stanmore. After the 1802 Treaty of Amiens which ended hostilities between France and Great Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars, Forbes and his family travelled to France. However, Britain declared war on France in May 1803 due to Napoleon Bonaparte’s aggression in Europe. Forbes was detained in Verdun but Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, pressured for his release and in June 1804 Forbes was allowed to return to England. In 1806 he published Letters from France, which was an account of his captivity.

Forbes then began editing his notes from his time in India, which was descriptively titled "Oriental Memoirs, selected and abridged from a series of familiar letters written during seventeen years residence in India: including observations on parts of Africa and South America, and a narrative of occurrences in four India voyages." He included engravings from his original drawings. The four volumes were published between 1813 and 1815. Even today, "Oriental Memoirs" remains a valuable document of the culture, flora and fauna of India at the time. These original quartos are now now preserved at St Mary's College in New Oscott, Birmingham, often called Oscott College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England.

Forbes’s only child Eliza married Marc René de Montalembert, who was a member of an old Poitou family driven to England after the French Revolution, and who had joined the British army. In 1810, Eliza gave birth to Charles de Montalembert, the future orator and historian. Since Eliza accompanied her husband with his regiment, Forbes raised the child himself. In 1819, Forbes and his grandson began travel to Stuttgart, where Count Montalembert was then French ambassador. However, Forbes took ill at Aix-la-Chapelle and died there on August 1, 1819. "Gentleman’s Magazine" (Number 126, July – December 1819) noted his passing and reported that “His piety was most distinguished – his virtue most active – his charity unbounded…”

His daughter Eliza returned to England after her husband died in 1831 and published an abridgment of "Oriental Memoirs" in 1834, which contained 24 colored prints. She died in 1839.

For a more in depth look, see the hour-long video lecture “James Forbes (1749-1819), Discovery and Perplexity,” presented by Ethel Groffier, Emeritus Researcher, Paul-André Crépeau Centre for Private and Comparative Law, at the McGill University Library, Rare & Special Collection - Oster, Art, and Archives. Ms. Groffier provides an illustrated tour of the work and art of Forbes, focusing on his account of his "grand European tour," Letters From France, and Oriental Memoirs. The lecture sheds light on the English perception of the East India Company in India and the strained relations with France during the rise of Napoleon after the French Revolution. See:

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