The First Formosan in Europe

Sometimes I stumble upon a link that forces me to drop all of my work and shift my focus entirely. Such was the case when after lunch I learned of George Psalmanazar, “the first Formosan to visit Europe.”

In 1704, Psalmanazar published a book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which revealed a number of strange habits. Formosa was a prosperous country of wealth with capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. Their main food was a serpent that they hunt with branches. Formosans were polygamous and the husband 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 priest ate the bodies. They also used horses and camels for mass transportation. The book also described the Formosan alphabet.

Of course, it was all a hoax. In fact, I came across it via this Ishbaddidle post linking to the 10 Greatest Impostors in History.

Not everyone was fooled by George Psalmanazar. William Innes, a Scottish army chaplain was one of the first to see through his ruse. But rather than exposing him, Innes helped him refine his story. Originally Psalmanazer (his real name is unknown) claimed to be Japanese, and it was Innes’ idea that he claim to be Formosan:

In 1702 Psalmanazar had a fateful encounter with William Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment then stationed in Holland. It was perhaps a case of requiring one con artist to recognize another: the chaplain smelt a rat and invited the “Japanese pagan” to his house. Innes asked Psalmanazar to write a passage of his language, then pretending to have lost the piece had him rewrite it. The Scotsman presented his guest with the two different copies thereby forcing Psalmanazar to admit he was an impostor. Rather than condemn the fraud, Innes saw a chance of fame and money, and decided instead to elaborate the hoax; he had Psalmanazar baptized publicly as a Christian, named him George, and changed his supposed origin from Japan to Formosa as so little was then known about the island. Henceforth Psalmanazar’s story was that he had been abducted from Formosa by Jesuits and carried off to France, and although he had been threatened with the tortures of the Inquisition, he had bravely refused to become a Roman Catholic.

Jack Lynch, in his talk “Orientalism as Performance Art: The Strange Case of George Psalamanazar” writes:

This marks an interesting episode in what we might call the prehistory of Said’s Orientalism. For him, real Orientalism requires that the West have a stake in the East. Britain soon had such a stake, having established enough connections with the Near, Middle, and even Far East that a Formosan imposture of this sort could not have succeeded much later. Empirical data were plentiful, and would conspire to expose the deception. He arrived right on time, and timing, as I said, is everything. But even though this strange case lacks many of the qualities of Orientalism proper, or “mature” Orientalism, it has one of them in spades. It shows the susceptibility of the Orient to be written upon by others, a characteristic it has never entirely shaken off. For Psalmanazar takes advantage of the fact that Oriental consciousness was entirely unavailable to Europeans.

But I wonder if early Europeans were any more susceptible … after all, we do have other examples of such Orientalist hoaxes from later in history: such as the Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu (aka Mary Baker) in 1817, or even Virginia Woolf who participated in the famed Dreadnought hoax of 1910. There are even examples from the colonies, such as the Kumar of Bhawal (1909) about whom Partha Chatterjee has written. I might even add Ahmed Chalabi to the list, even though his case is more that of a conning a nation into war than faking his identity, but I still see a certain continuity…

For those interested in reading more about George Psalmanazar there is an extensive online bibliography (last updated in 1999) which lists several books about him. A more recent book, not listed there, is The Pretended Asian (2004) by Michael Keevak. A Google search will also turn up about a half dozen other web pages summarizing the life of George Psalmanazar.

And anyone wanting to know about the real original inhabitants of Formosa, I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry on Taiwanese Aborigines

3 thoughts on “The First Formosan in Europe

  1. One important hoax-as-orientalizing, in fact a pile of such hoaxes, is the career of con artist and forger Edmund Backhouse, who nearly got himself a position at Oxford with the forged Chinshan Diary of the Boxer Rebellion.

    One thinks also of the way Mormon claims about archaeology and history, including the “reformed Egyptian” that Joseph Smith was supposed to have tranlated, are also an Orientalist project…

    Great post, as always.

    Michael

  2. Hello,

    I came across this interesting story via Michael Turton’s site and was really intrigued.

    I run a bilingual magazine on the East Coast of Taiwan called highway 11. It’s small, and it doesn’t make any money, but we continue to grow.

    Our focus has been on all things East Coast. Restaurants, sites, music and culture. The peice above really interests me and I wonder whether you would allow me to translate and publish it in an upcoming issue. I understand if you don’t but I thought it was worth the try.

    You or I would have to shorten it somewhat since the entirety of the article is a bit too long for the magazine, but it’s just too interesting to pass up.

    Let me know,

    Ryan

Comments are closed.