George Psalmanazar and the fake history of Taiwan

Written by Hung-yi Chien.

Image: Psalamanzar’s depiction of a “Formosan Funeral”

Taiwan was a strange island for the British people. Known as “Formosa” in European literature, this East Asian island’s engagement with Great Britain did not begin until the seventeenth century. 

When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) colonised Taiwan from 1624 to 1662, some British people set their feet on Taiwan as employees of the Dutch company. Scottish man David Wright was one of them. As an employee of the VOC, Wright visited Taiwan around 1650 and wrote reports about indigenous Formosan and the Chinese religion. Both reports were published in Dutch author Olfert Dapper’s collection of Dutch embassies to China and then translated into English by Scottish publisher John Ogilby (1600–1676). Besides Wright’s reports, Ogilby incorporated Georgius Candidius’s 1628 report on the indigenous Formosan, making Atlas Chinensis (1671) the most authoritative English publication about Taiwan in the seventeenth century. 

While Ogilby was collecting travellers’ accounts, the East India Company also settled a trade treaty with Cheng’s regime in Taiwan, who expelled the Dutch in 1662 and was referred to as the “King of Tywan (Taiwan)” at that time. The British factory was established in 1672, and the trade was maintained until the Qing Empire conquered Taiwan in 1683. Then Taiwan was locked into the Qing Empire for nearly two centuries. People soon forgot all British engagements with Taiwan within a decade; Taiwan became terra incognita again.

In 1704, a “native of Formosa” appeared in London that awakened British people’s curiosity toward this remote island. The man was called George Psalmanazar (ca. 1679– 1763). Apparently, a Jesuit took him out of his native country Formosa, converted him to Catholicism, and brought him to Europe. In the southern Netherlands, he encountered a British chaplain who converted Psalmanazar to the Church of England. “George” was the christened name at this time. As a native of Formosa, Psalmanazar became a walking wonder in London. Many people wanted to witness the young man from a strange island in East Asia. 

On 11 August 1703, Psalmanazar was invited to join the meeting of the Royal Society. At the conference, Psalmanazar announced that he would soon publish a book about his native country. However, some participants left their doubts in the minute that Psalmanazar looked “like a young Dutch-man.” On 2 February 1704, Psalmanazar was invited to the Royal Society again, but he encountered Jean de Fontaney, a Jesuit missionary who had just returned on a British ship from China. That night, Psalmanazar had an intense debate about East Asia with Fontaney. 

Psalmanazar knew he must have his book published as soon as possible to gain an advantage to defend his account. In the spring of 1704, Psalmanazar published his book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa and reported many strange customs beyond people’s imagination. He claimed Formosa had a sophisticatedly organised society but was conquered by Japan in the seventeenth century. People of Formosa sacrificed thousands of boys’ hearts to worship their deities. Their religion was given by a prophet named “Psalmanaazaar,” meaning “the Author of Peace,” and our George was named after this prophet. There are many other detailed but exaggerated descriptions of every aspect of Formosa that fascinated contemporary readers. However, they also raised doubts because many historical and ethnographical accounts from Psalmanazar differed from known ones.

Georgius Candidius’s account of Formosa was the most cited source to challenge Psalmanazar, re-published in Great Britain in 1704, just before Psalmanazar’s book. Unfortunately, Candidius’s account contains some strange details that we cannot still verify today, so Psalmanazar could accuse Candidius’s account of being full of absurdity. Nevertheless, Psalmanazar was a native of Formosa who sincerely converted to the Church of England; shouldn’t people trust his sincere account?

No, they shouldn’t. Psalmanazar was an imposter. He was probably from southern France and had never been to Formosa. His voyage from Formosa to Europe was fictional, and his accounts about Formosa were all fabricated. However, because Psalmanazar claimed himself as a native of Formosa, no one had sufficient counterevidence to challenge his account successfully. Nevertheless, some members of the Royal Society were eager to expose Psalmanazar. Hans Sloane asked Jean de Fontaney to verify Psalmanazar’s journey, and Fontaney replied that no one in Avignon knew a man called Psalmanazar. Dutch politician-scientist Nicolaas Witsen published a Chinese Jesuit’s account about China, including the latest news about Formosa. John Harris also included a passage about Formosa from a German traveller travelogue in his Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca, or, A Compleat Collection of Voyages and Travels (1705).

Edmond Halley, the astronomer who successfully predicted the comet’s return, was the most enthusiastic scholar to expose Psalmanazar. He presented a map of East Asia drawn in 1667 on the society’s meeting, significantly different from Psalmanazar’s. He also questioned Psalmanazar if the sunlight came straight down to the chimney on the summer solstice. Formosa lies on the Tropic of Cancer, so the answer should be positive. However, Psalmanazar said it does not. Perhaps noticing falling into Halley’s trick, Psalmanazar argued Formosan chimney was not straight but crooked, so sunlight could not come through it.

Unfortunately, most of these scholars attacked Psalmanazar based on secondary sources or indirect evidence. They could not challenge Psalmanazar’s authority because he claimed himself a native of Formosa; Psalmanazar himself was the primary source! Therefore, the Royal Society needed someone who had been to Formosa to report what the country was to contest with Psalmanazar.

A surprising help came from the outside of the Royal Society in mid-1705. Henry Newman, who later became the secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), found a Suffolk physician Samuel Griffith. The latter had been to Formosa and introduced him to the Royal Society. Griffith was a former employee of the East India Company and arrived in Formosa in 1672 as a merchant and a physician. According to the extant letters between Newman and Griffith, Newman first asked Griffith many questions based on Psalmanazar’s book. Perhaps the SPCK was considering sending missionaries to Formosa, so they needed to verify Psalmanazar’s account. Griffith replied to Newman quickly and disapproved of Psalmanazar’s account. 

Later, Newman let his friend in the Royal Society, John Chamberlayne, know this communication. Chamberlayne urged Newman to obtain more information about Formosa from Griffith so that the Royal Society could expose Psalmanazar at once. Again, Griffith gave a prompt reply in which he described the situations of Formosa. Griffith’s Formosa account was primarily correct except for a few mistakes. To conclude the letter, Griffith remarked his history of service in the East India Company, which we can still verify in the company’s archive today.

Finally, Newman presented his communication with Griffith to the Royal Society at the meeting on 20 June 1705. With Griffith’s strong testimony against Psalmanazar, the Royal Society decided to reject Psalmanazar’s account. However, they neither published their conclusion nor notified their colleagues in other countries. This communication failure allowed Psalmanazar’s false account to circulate on the European Continent for several decades, even when Psalmanazar had lost all his credit in British society.

Psalmanazar was in his twenties during the Psalmanazar affair, and he spent the rest of his life in Great Britain. With erudite knowledge and excellent language skill, Psalmanazar became a hack writer on Grub Street who wrote and compiled articles for his customers. He helped complete The Ancient Part of An Universal History (1730-1744) and was probably involved in the compilation of The Modern Part of An Universal History (1754-1765). The most important announcement in Psalmanazar’s later life was his apology in A Complete System of Geography, published under Emanuel Bowen’s name in 1747. In this book, Psalmanazar apologised for his imposture and promised to provide readers with the most accurate information about Formosa. He cited Dutch accounts to describe Formosa in the seventeenth century and French Jesuit Joseph de Mailla’s travelogue from 1714 to describe the Formosa under the rule of the Qing Empire. He believed they were the most reliable accounts about Formosa and hoped this action would compensate his imposture forty years ago.

Psalmanazar also announced that he would publish a memoir to tell the story of his life after his death. Finally, in 1765, this posthumous work appeared on the market. Now, this memoir is the most important source to study Psalmanazar’s extraordinary life. However, perhaps Psalmanazar did not realise that his bold imposture and brave apology opened the critical Taiwan studies in Europe and built an unexpected link between the United Kingdom and Taiwan.

Hung-yi Chien is a Postdoctoral Researcher of the Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education, Taipei, Taiwan. She obtained her doctoral degree from the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University, in 2017. Her PhD dissertation focuses on Taiwan’s role in the history of ethnography. She is now exploring the genealogy of Taiwan-related knowledge in European books, the Psalmanazar affair and the beginning of Taiwan studies in Europe, as well as Formosan indigenous peoples’ and Chinese colonisers’ activities in Taiwan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This article was published as part of a special issue on UK and Taiwan.

One comment

  1. How curious! Fake knowledge, presented by an imposter, instigates extensive research. Now I understand why Taiwan studies are relatively prominent in Great Britain. They have a long tradition.


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