Psalmanazar claimed to be a citizen of Formosa, the first native of that Japanese* island to visit Europe. His was a spellbinding story for a public hankering after exotica, and soon the blond-haired, blue-eyed stranger was being invited into academic circles in the British capital. He told how he was kidnapped by Jesuit missionaries, a sect maligned by the mainly Anglican populace, and his subsequent journey via Rotterdam. That voyage, however, paled in comparison to the lurid customs and culture of his native land.
In Formosa, for instance, people feasted mainly on snakes. Once a year thousands of boys’ hearts were sacrificed to an ox god in a sacred temple called the Tabernacle, their bodies eaten afterwards. Polygamy was the norm amongst Formosans, and it wasn’t uncommon for a man to cannibalize his wife. Not surprisingly, Psalmanazar’s account—seemingly tailor-made to buttress Britain’s prejudices about an alien and grotesque non-Europe—was a hit. It was also completely fabricated.
Details of Psalmanazar’s life are scant. He was probably born in the south of France around 1680. In order to finance his way across Europe he initially traveled in the guise of an Irishman on a pilgrimage to Rome, then as a Japanese convert in fancy attire. Between 1700 and 1702 he scammed his way to Germany, eventually ending up in the Netherlands. During that period he coined an entire country, along with his Formosan heritage and a suitably uncommon moniker. Nothing about his assertions was authentic, but that didn’t stop Psalmanazar from completing the coup de grace of his hoax. An historical and geographical description of Formosa appeared in 1704 to quench the public’s clamor for more information about his homeland. Illustrations of Formosan architecture, the device used to burn the sacrificial hearts, native clothing and a particularly demonic totem are scattered throughout the faux tell-all.
Psalmanazar says, in a preface to the second edition, that he “thought myself indispensably obliged to give you a more faithful History” of the island. The Description tapped into a need for sensationalism and was an immediate bestseller. Many attacked its author for his charlatanry, notably the libeled Jesuits, whom anti-Catholic feelings caused everyone to ignore anyway. But what Psalmanazar’s book lacked in believability, it made up for in originality and breadth. Similar in scope to Lucian’s ancient satire True Histories, Psalmanazar’s work mixes Aztec and Incan myths, borrows freely from contemporary seafaring travelogues and makes more than passing references to Thomas More’s Utopia.
It’s a curiosa of blatant inventions and weirdly specific anecdotes. Some residents of Formosa live on floating villages, writes Psalmanazar. Besides its renown for cannibalism the island has a draconian criminal justice system: criminals are hung by their feet and riddled full of arrows. Many of Psalmanazar’s improvisations border on the fancifully unnecessary, such as Formosans’ habits of always sleeping upright. Odd tales crop up in the narrative, putting a personalized touch on the big lie. In one, a wizard tells a nobleman that a large flock of birds signals the apotheosis of his relatives into stars. In these and other non-sequiturs, a deeper truth about human frailty underpins the elaborate hoax.
Psalmanazar’s history, as improbable as it is, showed the world to be a place of mercurial realities. The Description, however, hardly convinced everyone. During a high-profile lecture at the Royal Society, Edmond Halley, of comet fame, grilled Psalmanazar for hours. What is the angle of a shadow on the chimneys of Formosa? Impossible to tell, Psalmanazar said, because the chimneys of Formosa are crooked. How could he explain his obvious Caucasioness? Simple, the author responded: Formosan aristocrats like him reside in “apartments under ground” in the capital of Xternetsa. Psalmanazar had an answer for everything.
But Psalmanazar one-upped himself with the most incredible feature of his scam: an artificial language. Mixing Greek, Hebrew and gibberish, with a smattering of other tongues, the Formosan alphabet was a linguistic riff composed of 20 symbols. Psalmanazar was briefly hired by Oxford University as a translator, and long after his imposture was known, foreign language guides were still being printed with examples of how people communicate in Formosa. In this and other respects, George Psalmanazar was like some pseudo-scholar from a parallel Borgesian universe.
Finally, in 1706, Psalmanazar announced that Formosa was a sham. Already the public’s interest in him had waned, and so his confession didn’t have the intended effect. He leapt into religion and laudanum addiction and worked on Grub Street alongside the likes of Samuel Johnson, who recalled later that Psalamanzar was “The greatest man I have ever known”. His memoirs appeared in 1764, but his legacy would be enshrined by another creator of bogus places, Jonathan Swift. Psalmanazar is referred to in “A Modest Proposal”, an essay partly inspired by the imposter’s talk of communal cannibalism.
The Formosan nobleman was no less elusive than his history: his origins remain a mystery, his actual name unknown to this day. His blueprint for a nonexistent civilization was an unadulterated view of the era’s outlandish theories and fears about the East. Formosa goes far beyond most hoaxes: while building a fraudulent society, the author made himself an inhabitant. Psalmanazar created Formosa, yet it seems somehow that Formosa was instrumental in conceiving him too.
*Editor: Our apologies. “Japanese” is technically correct these days, but there’s much more to the story. Formosa (Taiwan) wasn’t under Japanese influence until after the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895. Throughout the 18th century and all but 5 years of the 19th century, it was Chinese.