George Psalmanazar (1679–1763)
|Died||3 May 1763
|Known for||being an outrageous impostor|
George Psalmanazar (1679? – 3 May 1763) claimed to be the first Formosan (modern day Taiwan) to visit Europe. For some years he convinced many in Britain, but was later revealed to be an impostor. He later became a theological essayist and a friend and acquaintance of Samuel Johnson and other noted figures of 18th-century literary London.
Although Psalmanazar intentionally obscured many details of his early life, he is believed to have been born in southern France, perhaps in Languedoc or Provence, to Catholic parents sometime between 1679 and 1684. His birth name is unknown. According to his posthumously published autobiography, he was educated in a Franciscan school and then a Jesuit academy. In both of these institutions, he claimed to have been celebrated by his teachers for what he called "my uncommon genius for languages." Indeed, by his own account Psalmanazar was something of a child prodigy, since he notes that he attained fluency in Latin by the age of seven or eight, and excelled in competition with children twice his age. Later encounters with a sophistic philosophy tutor made him disenchanted with academicism, however, and Psalmanazar discontinued his education around the time he was fifteen or sixteen.
Career as an impostor
In order to gain safe and affordable travel in France, Psalmanazar decided to pretend to be an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome. After learning English, forging a passport and stealing a pilgrim's cloak and staff from the reliquary of a local church, he set off, but soon found that his disguise was hindered by the fact that many people he met were familiar with Ireland and were able to discern that he was a fraud. Deciding that a more exotic disguise was needed, Psalmanazar drew upon the missionary reports of the Far East he had heard from his Jesuit tutors and decided to impersonate a Japanese convert. At some point he further embellished this new persona by becoming a "Japanese heathen" and exhibiting an array of appropriately bizarre customs such as eating raw meat spiced with cardamom and sleeping while sitting upright in a chair.
Having failed to reach Rome, Psalmanazar traveled through the German principalities between 1700 and 1702, and appeared in the Netherlands around the year 1702, where he served as an occasional mercenary and soldier. By this time he had shifted his supposed homeland from Japan to the even more remote island of Formosa (present day Taiwan), and developed more elaborate customs, such as following a foreign calendar, worshipping the Sun and the Moon with complex propitiatory rites of his own invention, and even speaking an invented language.
In late 1702 Psalmanazar met the Scottish priest Alexander Innes, who was a chaplain of a Scottish army unit. Afterwards, Innes claimed that he had converted the heathen to Christianity and christened him George Psalmanazar (in reference to biblical Assyrian king Shalmaneser). In 1703 they left for London via Rotterdam to meet with the Anglican clergy in England.
Upon reaching London, news of the exotic foreigner with bizarre habits spread quickly and Psalmanazar began to achieve a high level of fame. Crucially, Psalmanazar's appeal derived not only from his exotic ways, which tapped into a growing domestic interest in travel narratives describing faraway locales, but also played upon the prevailing anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit religious sentiment of early 18th century Britain. Central to his narrative was his claim to have been abducted from Formosa by malevolent Jesuits and taken to France, where he had steadfastly refused to become Roman Catholic. Psalmanazar soon declared himself to be a reformed heathen who now practiced Anglicanism, and became a favorite of the Bishop of London and other esteemed members of London society.
Building upon this growing interest in his life, in 1704 Psalmanazar published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which purported to be a detailed description of Formosan customs, geography and political economy, but which was in fact a complete invention on Psalmanazar's part. The "facts" contained in the book were in fact an amalgam of other travel reports, and were especially influenced by accounts of the Aztec and Inca civilization in the New World and by embellished descriptions of Japan. Thomas More's Utopia may also have served as an inspiration. According to Psalmanazar, Formosa was a prosperous country with a capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their genitals. Their main food was a serpent that they hunted with branches. Formosans were polygamous and husbands had a right to eat their wives for infidelity. They executed murderers by hanging them upside down and shooting them full of arrows. Annually they sacrificed the hearts of 18,000 young boys to gods and priests ate the bodies. They used horses and camels for mass transportation and dwelled underground in circular houses.
Psalmanazar's book also described the Formosan language and alphabet, which is significant for being an early example of a constructed language. His efforts in this regard were so convincing that German grammarians were including samples of his so-called "Formosan alphabet" in books of languages well into the 18th century, even after his larger imposture had been exposed. Here is an example of one of his religious translations from 1703, the Lord's Prayer:
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin, bagne ant kau chin malaboski, ali abinaye ant tuen Broskacy, kens sai vie Bagalin, kay Fary, kay Barhaniaan chinania sendabey. Amien.
Psalmanazar's book was an unqualified success. It went through two English editions, and French and German editions followed. After its publication, Psalmanazar was invited to lecture upon Formosan culture and language before several learned societies, and it was even proposed that he be summoned to lecture at Oxford University. In the most famous of these lecture engagements, Psalmanazar spoke before the Royal Society, where he was challenged by Edmond Halley.
Psalmanazar was frequently challenged by skeptics in this period, but for the most part he managed to deflect criticism of his core claims. He explained, for instance, that his pale skin was due to the fact that the upper classes of Formosa lived underground. Jesuits who had actually worked as missionaries in Formosa were not believed due to British anti-Jesuit prejudice.
Chaplain and theological essayist
Innes eventually went to Portugal as chaplain-general to the English forces. In the interim, Psalmanazar developed an opium addiction and became involved in several misguided business ventures, including a failed effort to market decorated fans purported to be from Formosa. Psalmanazar's claims became increasingly less credible as time went on and knowledge of Formosa from other sources began to contradict his own claims. His energetic defense of his imposture began to slacken. In 1706 he confessed, first to friends and then to the general public, although by this time London society had largely grown tired of the "Formosan craze".
In the following years Psalmanazar worked for a time as a clerk in an army regiment until some clergymen gave him money to study theology. Following this period, Psalmanazar participated – in a humble fashion – in London's Grub Street literary milieu of book editing and pamphlet writing. He learned Hebrew, co-authored Samuel Palmer's A General History of Printing (1732), and contributed a number of articles to the Universal History. He even contributed to the book A Complete System of Geography and wrote about the real conditions in Formosa, pointedly criticising the hoax he had earlier perpetrated. In this period he appears to have become increasingly religious and disowned his youthful impostures. This new-found religiosity culminated in his anonymous publication of a book of theological essays in 1753.
Friend of Samuel Johnson and others
Although this last phase of Psalmanazar's life earned him far less fame than his earlier career as a fraud, it nonetheless resulted in some remarkable historical coincidences. Perhaps the most famous of these is the elderly Psalmanazar's unlikely friendship with a young Samuel Johnson, who served with him as a fellow Grub Street literary hack. In later years, Johnson reminisced that Psalmanazar was well known in his neighborhood as an eccentric but saintly figure, “whereof he was so well known and esteemed, that scarce any person, even children, passed him without showing him signs of respect”.
Psalmanazar also interacted with a number of other important English literary figures of his age. In the early months of 1741, Psalmanazar appears to have sent the novelist Samuel Richardson an unsolicited bundle of forty handwritten pages which attempted to continue the plotline of Richardson’s immensely popular epistolary novel Pamela. The novelist appears to have been unimpressed, calling Psalmanazar's attempted sequel "ridiculous and improbable". In "A Modest Proposal", Jonathan Swift ridicules Psalmanazar in passing, sardonically citing "the famous Salamanaazor, a Native of the island of Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty Years ago," as an eminent proponent of cannibalism. A novel by Tobias Smollett refers mockingly to "Psalmanazar, who, after having drudged half a century in the literary mill in all the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic, subsists on the charity of a few booksellers, just sufficient to keep him from the parish".
Death and memoirs
Before he died in England, he was supported by an admirer's annual pension of £30.
In the last years of his life, Psalmanazar wrote the book upon which much of contemporary knowledge of him rests: Memoirs of ** ** , Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. The book was published posthumously. These memoirs omit his real birth name, which is still unknown, but they contain a wealth of detail about his early life and the development of his impostures.
- Constructed language
- Constructed alphabet
- Travel literature
- History of Taiwan
- Princess Caraboo
- George Psalmanazar: the Celebrated Native of Formosa by the Special Collections Department of University of Delaware Library. Last modified 3 November 2003. Accessed 3 November 2003.
- The Native of Formose by Alex Boese. Museum of Hoaxes. Last modified 2002. Accessed 3 November 2003.
- George Psalmanazar, Memoirs, London, 1764, pg. 79
- Orientalism as Performance Art by Jack Lynch. Delivered 29 January 1999 at the CUNY Seminar on Eighteenth-Century Literature. Accessed 2007 – 3–11.
- George Psalmanazar, Memoirs, London, 1764, pg. 339
- Foley, Frederic J. The Great Formosan Impostor. New York: Privately printed, 1968, p. 65
- Foley 53
- Davis, Lennard J. Factual Fictions: the Origins of the English Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, 113
- Foley 59
- The Passing Parade – John Doremus – Radio 2CH, 21 June 2007
- Psalmanazar, George, A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, in "Japan in Eighteenth-Century English Satirical Writings" in 5 vols., edited by Takau Shimada, Tokyo: Edition Synapse. ISBN 978-4-86166-034-4
- Keevak, Michael (2004) The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar's Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. ISBN 978081433198
- Lynch, Jack (2005) 'Forgery as Performance Art: The Strange Case of George Psalmanazar,' 1650–1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 11, (2005) : p21–35.
Banvard's Folly, by Paul Collins, Published 2001 by Picadore USA and later in UK [ISBN 0 330 48688 8] Chapter 7 is devoted to Psalmanazar and adds greatly to what is contained here (2013)
- Works by or about George Psalmanazar at Internet Archive
- Selections from An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa
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