George Psalmanazar’s 18th century fabulations of Taiwan – Graham Earnshaw
EXCERPTED FROM FORMOSA FRAUD
Taiwan is the topic on everyone’s lips. What’s going on there? Who does the island rightfully belong to? How important is the influence of the West? What is the real culture of the island’s residents? The debate rages.
Is this the early twenty-first century? No. It’s London more than three hundred years ago, at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In 1704, a man appeared in England with the most extraordinary stories about Taiwan, or Formosa as it was then called. How eighteen-thousand boys are killed every year as part of Formosan religious ceremonies; the island is a major producer of gold and silver; and Catholic priests are causing trouble there.
He said his name was George Psalmanazar, and his information about Formosa – it’s culture, history, society and economy – captivated the English reading public. He published a book on the topic which went into a second edition, he gave speeches, he was fêted by the Bishop of London, he went to Oxford to teach Formosan. There was just one problem with the situation: his whole story was fake.
George Psalmanazar knew nothing of Formosa, had never been anywhere closer to it than Avignon in the south of France. And yet with enormous skill and creativity, he created an entire world around the idea of Formosa, including a fake language, a fake religion and a fake history.
The choice of Formosa for this story is somewhat serendipitous, but Formosa was then, and to an extent remains today, a place in exotic East Asia that is both separate and not separate, a place that is both known and also not fully understood. It is, most importantly, an island, and it was that fact that George Psalmanazar used as the basis of his web of deceit. But to what purpose?
George Psalmanazar was born somewhere around the year 1679, and while the exact date is not known, it was certainly not with that name. He became famous for pretending to be a Formosan, a fabrication which for a time made him a celebrity in London, but his Memoirs, published the year after his death in 1764, indicate that he was born in southern France, for he had long since given up the fiction that he was a native of that island off the coast of China which today is called Taiwan.
He says in the Memoirs that his parents were Roman Catholics, but gives no further information about them, not even their names. An advertisement to the first edition of his Memoirs quotes from a clergyman and long-time acquaintance of his suggests that the Languedoc region of southern France was his place of birth, writing:
“He was a Frenchman. His pronunciation had a spice of the Gascoin accent, and in that provincial dialect, he was so masterly, that none but those born in the country could equal, none though born there could excel him.”
Yet Psalmanazar makes few references in his Memoirs to his very early years, beyond the suggestion that his family was poor, that his father left when he was less than five years old to live in what is today southern Germany, and that he was considered as a child to be a gifted student.
His delight in keeping his origins a secret was part of a lifelong game which far outlasted the Formosan scam. Here is an excerpt from his Memoirs showing how hard he worked throughout his life at the artifice by masking his accent and jumbling together phrases and pronunciations to make it impossible for anyone to figure out his origins. He clearly relished every minute of it:
“My idiom and pronunciation were so mixed and blended, and I may say designedly so, by the many languages I had learned, and nations I had been conversant with, that it was impossible for the most curious judge to discover in it any thing like an uniform likeness to any other European one they knew of.”
“The truth was,” he added, “I knew enough of all of them to blend my discourse more or less with any of them, as either to put people upon the wrong scent, whilst I kept every one from getting into the right one; for I can safely say that I never met with, nor heard of any one, that ever guessed right, or any thing near it, with respect to my native country.”
This was the beginning of one of the greatest frauds in literary history.
Fakery is a part of life. Telling one hundred percent of the truth one hundred percent of the time is just not possible for anyone, nor advisable.
The truth about dishonesty is that most of it is modest in nature – simple lies of omission, slight obfuscations, the dressing up of inconvenient facts, putting a somewhat generous spin on unfortunate circumstances. There would be few CVs that have ever been sent out that are totally and completely honest in terms of the experience and qualifications and capabilities listed. Marketing and public relations are two huge professions that are wholly dedicated to putting lipstick on reality – and the astute consumer of products and information is, on one level or another, in on that “secret.”
But fakery in information is taking on a new significance these days. Social media, which we have all come to depend on to some extent, is flooded with fake news, something that played an important, maybe even decisive, role in the 2016 US Presidential election. The irresistible pull of marketing gravity sucks in the mainstream media as well, unwillingly or all-too-willingly. And then there are the accusations that the same media are themselves pushing “fake news.”
As a former journalist and someone who deals every day with the shadowy dividing line between fact and spin, reality and hype, lies and the truth, the story of George Psalmanazar was particularly appealing because it is not simply a story of the past. It has a relevance to today, as we try to make sense of the flood of information coming at us unfiltered through our myriad devices, or worse, filtered by an algorithm optimized for click-throughs instead of the “public good.”
The sense of general unreliability of information, of individuals being left to make up their own minds as to the veracity or fakeness of what they are told would have been as true for people in London in the early eighteenth century who heard the stories of Formosa told by George Psalmanazar as for viewers of various YouTube channels today. The difference is that today, we have the means, if we choose to use them, of verifying information in various ways. In 1704 in London, there was no Google, no fact-checking websites and no easy way for anyone to call Psalmanazar on any details of his story. And he used that fact, the inaccessibility of the source material, to his advantage. But in many cases today, the existence of evidence to the contrary hardly slows down the wildly implausible, to say nothing of the merely mistaken, just as the authorities of the days – Jesuit priests who had lived many years in China – were not necessarily believed when they called Psalmanazar out on details of his fantasy.
There are many parallels to situations and events in modern times, but the experience of James Frey seems particularly apposite. Frey is an American writer whose book A Million Little Pieces was published in 2003 as a memoir. It includes sometimes harrowing stories of his years growing up, and even Oprah Winfrey, who unlike the rest of us is surrounded by specialists who professionally manage her life, bought into it. Frey was eventually exposed, and admitted that many episodes in the book were either exaggerated or plain made up. But in an interview in 2006, Frey defended his work, saying that all memoirs change some details for literary effect. Oprah also took the view, in part, that regardless of the issues, Frey’s story had been inspirational for her viewers – a claim that is useful in its in-built resistance to verification.
There are perhaps two common themes that can be discerned in a comparison of the many examples of fake news today and the story of George Psalmanazar. One is a determination on the part of the faker to double down in the face of objections. Do not admit the lie, instead build on it. Be categorical. Cast doubt on the objector, and accuse them fakery too. The second theme is a desire on the part of the audience to believe the lie. Just like Oprah with Frey, English readers including the Bishop of London saw a fantastic story in Psalmanazar story something that was useful to them.
With Psalmanazar’s tales of riches and exoticism in a corner of far-off Asia, there was a ready audience in the early eighteenth century ready and primed to lap it up, embracing the Formosa fantasy for their own reasons regardless of, even in the face of, obvious flaws to the story. The link between this story and how information flows and audiences deal with it in the early twenty-first century is obvious.
Many people have told a white lie to get their first job, to get on that crucial first rung of the ladder. There is an English saying that “First you get on, then you get honest.” Which says much the same thing – fake it if need be until you are in a position to be real. Psalmanazar just took the same idea and built it out with a creativity that in some ways matches J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
This is not in any way a defence of fakery or of Psalmanazar, but simply a recognition of the universality of the psychology involved. Social media in the early twenty-first century has provided an opportunity for doing exactly the kind of thing that Psalmanazar did – the creation of an entire castle in the air. The siloed and discrete nature of online social media communities recreates in a way the geographical distances and difficulties of travel that made it possible for Psalmanazar to pull the wool over the eyes of Londoners all those years ago. ∎