One side-effect of globalisation is that it’s very hard to be exotic these days. There are few places in the world that can’t be reached within a few days’ travel, and Phileas Fogg’s wager to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days would, today, seem laughably slow. Check me out, I used the word “circumnavigate.”
The point I’m making is that now, it’s hard to appreciate just how ignorant people used to be about those who lived overseas. We laugh at Elizabethan engravings that confidently portrayed North America as being populated by headless monsters or one-legged men, but no one knew any different back then. Before the advent of the steamship and the long-distance railway, even travelling to another continent was a rare and exciting thing.
So it should come as no surprise that some folk took advantage of the general lack of worldliness for the sake of fame and fortune. Such a man was George Psalmanazar. Psalmanazar (not his original name) was born in France, most likely at some point in the early 1680s, and got into the fraud game in order to save money on travel and to beg coins from strangers. His original plan was to pose as an Irish pilgrim, using a talent for languages, a fake passport and a stolen cloak. This was far more ingenious than the method I used to save travel costs in my student days, which largely consisted of not travelling until the station staff had gone home and the ticket barriers were open. But I digress.
The trouble with posing as an Irishman was that even then, enough people were familiar with Ireland that the lie didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. The solution was to go for broke, and pretended to be Japanese. Unlike modern-day white people who pretend to be Japanese, his disguise was a bit more complicated than watching anime, eating Pocky and going “OMG super kawaii!!!! ^__^ desu desu” every so often. In fact, as hardly anyone knew anything about Japan, he decided to just act weird. Accordingly, he started using a fake language, sleeping upright and eating raw meat.
By 1702, he had embellished his story further, adding a fake religion and a fake calendar. By this point, he was now claiming to be from the even more obscure nation of Formosa, or Taiwan as we now know it. To back his story up, he invented a whole Formosan culture, made up of a hotch-potch of reports from various exotic climes with some significant embellishment. For instance, although snake was the food of choice, ritual cannibalism was common. Everyone walked around naked and polygamy was practised. The religion – swiped seemingly from the Aztecs – was based around sun and moon worship and entailed an awful lot of human sacrifice.
He took the name George Psalmanazar as a result of having been “converted” to Christianity by a Scottish missionary in 1703, and moved to London. There, he became something of a sensation. He published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, which became a bestseller and managed to fool even serious scholars.
Nevertheless, his disguise was not entirely foolproof. One point made was that, for an Asian man, Psalmanazar was a little bit too, well, white. Psalmanazar worked this into his narrative – all Formosans were this white, due to the fact that they lived in round houses underground.
The more exposure Psalmanazar got, of course, the more likely it became that his claim would be challenged by someone actually familiar with Formosa. As it happened, there were a number of missionaries previously active there who pointed out that, in fact, the claims were a load of BS. But here’s the thing – they were Jesuit missionaries. Due to strong anti-Catholic feeling in Britain at the time, people were more inclined to believe Psalmanazar’s version of what Formosa was like than the story told by the Jesuits, and there was no one to corroborate either version. Indeed, Psalmanazar’s backstory included a kidnapping by French Jesuit missionaries, and he had become something of a cause célèbre among the Anglican clergy – one of his biggest fans was the Bishop of London.
There was no single event that caused Psalmanazar’s downfall. The Formosan fad grown old and, like everyone else, I think he grew tired of it. He found it increasingly hard to keep his story straight, and came clean in 1706. By this time, no one really cared – possibly those that did had already worked out that he wasn’t the real deal.
Thereafter, he led a humble life as a writer and editor until his death in 1663. Perhaps ironically for a man whose fame had been built on pretending to be a Formosan convert, he found religion and actually wrote an article on what Formosa was really like – openly damning his own account as he went. He became a respected figure in London, practically a saint. The only black mark against his name over the next half century was that he attempted to write a sequel to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. As we now know, the correct response to that novel was to spit in Richardson’s face.
Even to this day, the full truth about Psalmanazar is unknown – his posthumous confession didn’t include his real identity or anything by which his supposedly true story could be checked. Ultimately, all we really know about Psalmanazar is that he wasn’t Psalmanazar.