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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

George Psalmanazar

Travel books were very popular in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. The readers who bought Equiano's and Sancho's narratives were probably already familiar with tales of Africa and other parts of the world. Unlike today when we expect the writer to have actually been to the places he or she described it was normal in those days for accounts to include sections of previous travel books. To us it seems like cheating, but for them it was merely a way to make a book more informative. Some writers however were out and out frauds. These include George Psalmanazar who went about early eighteenth-century England claiming to be Taiwanese. He was in fact born into a poor gentry family in the south of France in 1679. He first began to pretend to be Asian when making a tour of northern Germany and the Netherlands. He needed money so he told people that he was a Japanese convert to Christianity. George then joined the army in Germany, now pretending to be from Formosa*, which he said was dependent on Japan. It was at this point that he met a British chaplain who saw through his fraud but allowed him to be sent to Oxford where it was intended that he should teach Formosan to Christian missionaries. In 1704 George became very famous when he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. His fantastical inventions raised suspicions among educated people, including his claim that the Formosans' religion required them to make an annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of nine. (I should think the island would have been depopulated if that had really been the case!) He also wrote that Formosan men ate their ex-wives. He was finally caught out when he met a French Jesuit who had spent time in China.

In the end George came clean. He spent the rest of life taking odd jobs such as tutoring and fan painting. He also worked with early journalists and contributed to books on subjects as diverse as printing and geography. He was very religious in his later years and died in 1763.

* Formosa is the old name for Taiwan. (source: DNB Look at this!!! The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is celebrating its first birthday with three days' free online access from 23 to 25 September 2005. Everyone will be able to access the full Oxford DNB and its 55,000 biographies of the men and women who have shaped the history of Britain. )

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