Friday, June 27, 2008

Funny, You Don't Look Formosan: George Psalmanazar

George Psalmanazar (1679?-May 3, 1763) claimed to be the first Formosan to visit Europe. For some years he convinced many in Britain, but was later revealed to be an impostor.

George Psalmanazar was born in southern France to Catholic parents sometime between 1679 and 1684. His birth name is unknown. He was educated in a Jesuit school, but discontinued his education after becoming bored with his studies.[2] In order to gain safe and affordable travel in France, he decided to pretend to be an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome. After forging a passport and stealing a pilgrim's cloak, he set off, but soon found that there were too many people who actually knew something about Ireland. [3] Then he switched to being first a Japanese convert and then a heathen to sound even more exciting. He walked hungry around Europe as a beggar and sometimes even a soldier.

He appeared in northern Europe, around the year 1700. He looked European but claimed he came from the faraway island of Formosa, followed a foreign calendar and worshipped the Sun and the Moon.

In 1702 the man arrived in the Netherlands and met Scottish priest William Innes, who was a chaplain of a Scottish army unit. Afterwards he claimed he had converted the heathen into Christianity and christened him as George Psalmanazar (in reference to biblical Assyrian king Shalmaneser). In 1703 they left for London via Rotterdam to meet the bishop.

In London, the foreigner gathered even more fame by his strange habits. He ate raw meat with lots of spices and slept upright in a chair. He claimed he had been abducted from Formosa by Jesuits and taken to France, where he had refused to become Roman Catholic.

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 a 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 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 also used horses and camels for mass transportation. The book also described the Formosan alphabet.

He lectured on Formosan culture and language and pretended to translate religious literature into Formosan. The Bishop of London supported him. He spoke before the Royal Society, where he was challenged by Edmund Halley. Here is an example of one of his religious translation 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 did not go unchallenged, but he managed to deflect most of the criticism. He explained that his pale skin was due to fact that he was of upper class and did not have to work in the sun. In fact, he claimed to have lived underground. Jesuits who had actually worked as missionaries in Formosa were not believed due to their rather unwholesome reputation in the anti-Catholic atmosphere.

Innes eventually went to Portugal as chaplain-general to the English forces. Psalmanazar got mixed with bad business ventures. Eventually either the pressure became too strong or he grew tired of the deception. In 1706 he confessed, first to friends and then in public.

Psalmanazar spent the rest of life as a writer and editor of books. He counted Dr. Samuel Johnson as his friend. For a time he worked as a clerk in an army regiment until some clergymen gave him money to study theology. He learnt Hebrew, co-authored A General History of Printing (1732), and contributed a number of articles to the Universal History. He even contributed to the book Geography of the World and wrote about the real conditions in Formosa, pointedly criticising the hoax he had earlier perpetrated. He also apparently became increasingly religious.

He also wrote a book titled Memoirs of ** ** , Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. It was published posthumously. These memoirs omit his real birth name, which is still unknown.

Before he died in England, he was supported by an admirer's annual pension of £30.

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