Sunday, 8 May 2011

George Psalmanazar: London's First Formosan

In 1702 the Reverend William Innes, an army chaplain, returned from Holland to London bringing with him a fantastic companion who would soon fascinate the city.
That companion was George Psalmanazar, a native of Formosa, an island off the coast of Japan now known as Taiwan.
Innes had met Psalmanazar in Holland where the Formosan had been abandoned having been abducted by Jesuit misssionaries in his own land.
Having baptized him and giving him his new name of George Psalmanazar, a name echoing that of Shalmanasar, a King of Assyria who is recorded in the Bible as having exiled the legendary Ten Tribes of Israel and the conquered people of Samaria, Innes decided to bring his prize back to London to be presented to his Protestant superiors as a heathen convert and, more importantly, a victim of Jesuit terror.
Innes introduced Psalmanazar to Henry Compton, the Bishop of London but word soon spread among the society of the city of the bizarre habits of this new, exotic visitor.
Psalmanazar would eat heavily spiced raw meat, explaining to curious observers that cannibalism was common in Formosa, particularly the consumption of adulterous wives, and that he had become accustomed to food prepared in this manner.
He performed various religious ceremonies based around the worship of the Sun and the Moon and centred around the Formosan calender, slept upright in a chair in the Formosan tradition and began, at the request of Bishop Compton, to translate the catechism into Formosan.
Eventually Psalmanazar bowed to public pressure and produced a book, 'An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa', that outlined Formosan society for the curious. His summary contained all the colourful details that his audience demanded.
The capital of Formosa was a prosperous city called Xternetsa where polygamy was common as there was a shortage of men due to the demands of the native priests for the sacrifice of up to 18,000 boys a year to appease local gods. Men walked naked but for a silver or gold codpiece that covered their genitals, their diet consisted mostly of serpents hunted with branches and murderers were executed by being hung upside down and shot with arrows.
Many people had their doubts about Psalmanazar and Edmond Halley, fellow of the Royal Society and discoverer of the eponymous comet, challenged him to a debate on Formosan society. Halley questioned Psalmanazar's own complexion which was very fair with blonde hair, unlike any of the other people from the region that had made their way to London. Psalmanazar explained that many Formosans lived underground to avoid the fierce heat of the Sun. He managed to deflect Halley's other questions about Formosa by asking how an Englishman in Formosa would prove he was English to the natives there given how little the two societies knew of one another.
This was the key point in Psalmanazar's appeal. People were eager to learn of exotic locations far away and Formosa was about as far away from London as you could get.
This also meant it was impossible to verify any of Psalmanazar's claims.
Those who did were decried as Jesuits which, given the religious and political climate of Protestant English society of the time, meant they were ignored or shouted down.
Eventually Psalmanazar was invited to study and lecture at Christ Church, Oxford where he fascinated his peers by lecturing with a python wrapped around his neck claiming it was a Formosan technique for keeping cool and studying through the night.
Innes and Psalmanazar parted acrimoniously with the chaplain eventually going to Portugal and leaving his protege in London.
Psalmanazar developed an addiction to opium and found his finances affected by a string of bad investments.
More importantly, people began appearing in London who had visited Formosa and their description of the island was very different to Psalmanazar's.
Initially Psalmanazar would defend himself and claim regional differences of culture for the confusion but eventually the evidence began to accumulate.
In 1706 George Psalmanazar made it known to London society that he was not Formosan and had never even visited the country.
In fact, he had never left Europe.
Born in France in his mother sent him away aged 16 to find his father in Germany.
He set off but soon ran out of food and money and decided upon an imposture to aid his journey. He stole a cloak and staff from the reliquary of a church and began to beg for alms claiming to be an Irish pilgrim. He soon realised that people were familiar enough with Irish culture to be able to make out his deception fairly easily so he set his sights a bit further afield and began to claim to be Japanese.
This worked reasonably well until he met Reverend William Innes who was doubtful about the young man's claims to Japanese ancestry. Despite knowing no Japanese, Innes asked him to translate an extract from Cicero into Japanese for him.
The young man, knowing Innes knew no Japanese, did so happily and produced a page of nonsense for the chaplain. But Innes had anticipated this and simply took the translation and handed back the extract and asked him to do just one more thing.
Translate the same extract again.
The imposter lost his nerve and admitted his deception to Innes, begging not to be revealed.
Innes looked the man who would become George Psalmanazar square in the eye and simply said:

'We'll have to be more careful from now on...'

They worked together to develop his new Formosan persona with Innes deciding that this nationality would be obscure enough to be able to avoid detection in London.
Once he was unmasked Psalmanazar threw himself on the mercy of London society.
Most people were unconcerned, the craze for Formosa having long passed.
More importantly Psalmanazar could count among his friends the famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson who admired the imposter's contrition and made himself the chief protector of the fraudulent Formosan.
A man given to plain speaking and not afraid to be among the harshest of critics, Johnson said of Psalmanazar:

'He was the best man I knew. His piety, penitence and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful even in the lives of the saints. I should as soon thought of contradicting a bishop.'

Of course, if that Bishop is Henry Compton and he's waving around a copy of his Formosan catechism, perhaps a spot of contradiction wouldn't be out of place...

1 comment:

  1. I'd be interested to see a story on Louis de Rougemont, the man who was feted by the Royal Society, Dickens and more for his fanciful tales of being shipwrecked among turtle-riding aborigines in the remote North West of Australia. Great work MB!