The Fake 'Asian' Who Fooled 18th-Century London

George Psalmanazar, a blond-haired man with blue eyes, convinced English intellectuals that Jesuit priests had kidnapped him from the savage island of Taiwan.

A Modest Proposal makes a passing reference to “the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa.” This blond, blue-eyed “savage” claimed people ate children in his homeland. “When any young person happened to be put to death,” Jonathan Swift recounted, “the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality as a prime dainty.” George Psalmanazar claimed to be a kidnapping victim who was snatched from Formosa (now known as Taiwan) by a Jesuit named Father de Rode of Avignon. This sinister missionary brought him to Europe and pressured the fair young lad to convert from paganism to Catholicism. He was thrown into prison after resisting their overtures but soon escaped their clutches. Soldiers belonging to the elector of Cologne captured Psalmanazar and shipped him off to another batch of scheming Catholics, but he got away again. Then Dutch soldiers detained him and pushed Calvinism on him, to no avail (he just couldn’t buy into the doctrine of predestination). While in the Netherlands, Psalmanazar crossed paths with an Anglican priest named Alexander Innes, who dazzled him with the Church of England’s teachings. “At my arrival at London,” he later recalled, “Mr. Innes, and some worthy clergymen of his acquaintance, introduced me to the bishop of London, and got soon after a good number of friends among the clergy and laiety.”

In eighteenth-century England, Psalmanazar gained the same level of fame or infamy as a modern-day reality-television-star train wreck. Nobles and rich merchants invited him to their dinner tables, where he spoke gibberish while inhaling mouthfuls of bloody food. (According to imaginary custom, Formosans ate their meat raw.) He impressed many, but Psalmanazar also had “a much greater number of opposers to combat with.” At a meeting of the Royal Society—which on that day included discussions of ovarian cysts, possum penises, and this blond, blue-eyed specimen from Formosa—he was questioned by the group’s resident astronomer. Edmund Halley asked detailed questions about how long twilight lasted on the island, the amount of time the sun shone down chimneys, and other quantifiable queries. Psalmanazar calmly told Halley that Formosan chimneys were bent and, therefore, the sun couldn’t shine down them. He remained fast on his feet and had an explanation for everything that was thrown his way, turning each objection against his story into evidence that it was for real.

After fending off attacks from astronomers, botanists, and possum-penis enthusiasts, Psalmanazar was confronted by Father Fontenay. “You are a fraud,” he declared, noting that Formosa was a province of China, not Japan. “You are wrong,” replied Psalmanazar, who then asked if there were any other ways people referred to Formosa. “Tyowan”—that is, Taiwan—Fontenay said. Ahhhh, he told the Jesuit, that was a different island colonized by the Dutch! Psalmanazar said people from China referred to Formosa as Pak-Ando and natives such as himself called it Gad-Avia. Fontenay protested that “Pak” wasn’t even a Chinese word. Other Royal Society members questioned why Psalmanazar had such light skin. “My complexion, indeed, which was very fair,” Psalmanazar recalled, “appeared an unanswerable objection against me.” (The Royal Society report on him noted that “he looked like a young Dutchman.”) In the face of this skepticism, Psalmanazar told an elaborate story about how the upper classes of Formosa lived “in cool shades, or apartments under ground,” which kept their skin chilly and white. This explanation made sense within then-current assumptions about pigmentation. Although some ethnic distinctions existed during this period—such as the difference between light-skinned northern Europeans and sub-Saharan blacks—modern categories of race didn’t yet exist. There was simply no conceptual framework in place to ask the question, “Aren’t you Caucasian?”

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Psalmanazar’s performance of a phony tongue was the most convincing feature of his masquerade. The “Formosan” alphabet had 20 letters that were written from right to left, as Psalmanazar probably imagined was true of all Asian languages. It was a mulligan’s stew of “Hebrew (e.g., Mem, Nen, Kaphi), Greek (Lamdo, Epsi), and nonsense (Hamno, Pedlo, Dam, Raw).” By mixing pronunciations from “the many languages [he] had learned, and nations [he] had been conversant with,” Psalmanazar made it impossible to pin down his dialect. The little evidence that remains suggests that he was from France, but when Father Fontenay was asked to guess Psalmanazar’s origins, the Frenchman replied that he had never heard an accent like that in his life. Language also played a big role in Psalmanazar’s posthumously published memoirs. “The Memoirs, in short, presents us with a long series of fluid and flexible identities,” biographer Michael Keevak writes, “all of them constituted (or at least supported) by the acquisition of another tongue, living, dead, real or imaginary.” Because no one that Psalmanazar crossed paths with had ever been to Formosa, it was up to him to define how a Formosan spoke, dressed, and acted. Also, he may have been a savage, but at least he was unthreatening, was light-skinned, spoke fluent English, attended Anglican Church services, and hated Catholics.

Genuine cross-cultural encounters during this era were much uglier. For example, a Jesuit priest named Jean-Francois Foucquet hired a Chinese man named John Hu to be his copyist in 1721. On the rocky nine-month trip across the Pacific and Atlantic, curving around South America and arriving in France, Hu grew increasingly disturbed. He brooded, had wild mood swings, and got into verbal altercations with other passengers. Foucquet’s only conclusion was that he suffered from something he called “Chinese madness.” This impression was bolstered when Hu had a meltdown in a French church after seeing males and females commingling during the services—something that was forbidden in China. When Foucquet mocked him for this, Hu crafted a drum and a foot-long banner with Chinese characters that read, “Men and women should be kept in their separate spheres.” He then pounded the drum and waved his banner through the streets of Paris, gathering a curious crowd at the doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fearing Hu would be arrested for this strange behavior, Father Foucquet locked him away for two and a half years in an insane asylum. Eventually, Hu was summoned by a hospital cleric who was investigating his case. When asked if he had any questions, Hu only had one: “Why have I been locked up?” Life in Europe as an actual Asian man held only indignities.

George Psalmanazar, on the other hand, had access to valuable cultural resources that offered him a relatively good life. After he wowed London with his colorful stories, customs, and far-out accent, the public clamored for more about his homeland. It took Psalmanazar only two months to knock out a 288-page volume titled Description of Formosa, which sold out immediately. The book contained illustrations of native clothing and architecture and a lovely image of a grill used to roast the hearts of little boys. Description also featured foldout plates of the Formosan language and numerical system, along with information on botany, zoology, and gastronomy. British antiquarian Isaac D’Israeli dashed off a sarcastic exclamation-slathered summary of Psalmanazar’s book: “wretched inventions! of their dress! religious ceremonies! their tabernacle and altars to the sun, the moon, and the ten stars! their architecture! the viceroy’s castle! a temple! a city house! a countryman’s house! and the Formosan alphabet!” And then there was the book’s long, unwieldy title and subtitle.

an historical and geographical description of Formosa an Island subject to the Emperor of japan

giving An Account of the Religion, Customs, Manners, &c. of the Inhabitants. Together with a Relation of what happen’d to the Author in his Travels; particularly his Conferences with the Jesuits, and others, in several Parts of Europe

By George Psalmanazar, a Native of the said Island, now in London

Description covered every imaginable (or, to be more precise, imagined) topic. Chapter 3 outlined the island’s “Form of Government, and of the new laws made by the Emperor Meriaandanoo,” while chapter 8 discussed “the Worship of the Sun, of the Moon, and of the Ten Stars.” Psalmanazar explained that the Formosan year was divided into 10 months: Dig, Damen, Analmen, Anioul, Dattibes, Dabes, Anaber, Nechem, Koriam, Turbam. The primitive people of this island originally worshiped the sun, moon, and 10 stars, but this changed in the early days of Formosan society. Throughout the book, Psalmanazar sounded like an anthropology major tripping on peyote. The Aryan Asian claimed that two philosophers, Zeroaboabel and Chorche Matchin, rose to prominence and insisted Formosans devote themselves to a single, powerful god. They built a gigantic temple for a high priest named—yes, wait for it—Gnotoy Bonzo, who commanded them to annually sacrifice “the hearts of 18000 young Boys, under the Age of 9 Years, on the first day of the Year.” This was obviously a major logistical flaw for such a sparsely populated nation. Psalmanazar smoothed it over by claiming that men were permitted to have multiple wives, so that “they may beget many Children every Year; of whom some of the Sons are Sacrific’d, but the Daughters are all preserv’d for Matrimony.”

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Psalmanazar’s book also offered a political history of Formosa, complete with conquests and daggered intrigue. It included a reproduction of a letter addressed to the Formosan king, written by the king of Japan (though no one asked how this wretched refugee acquired this rare document). To be sure, Description was outlandish, but Psalmanazar’s account wasn’t much different from that of an actual traveler such as George Candidius, the first missionary in Taiwan. Psalmanazar’s con worked because he tailored it for an Anglican audience predisposed to hating the Catholic Church. (If you are going to spin a crazy yarn for anti-papist Englishmen, it helps to say that French Jesuits kidnapped you.) Psalmanazar’s critics grew louder, which prompted a group of his supporters—or perhaps George himself?—to publish 1710’s An Enquiry into the Objections against George Psalmanazar of Formosa. The pamphlet cleared him of all charges, of course, but his novelty was wearing off. Within half a dozen years, he became a national joke, as is evidenced by an April Fools’–themed goof published in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator. The March 16, 1711 issue announced, “On the first of April will be performed at the Play-house in the Hay-market an Opera call’d The Cruelty of Atreus. N.B. The scene wherein Thyestes eats his own children, is to be performed by the famous Mr. Psalmanazar, lately arrived from Formosa: the whole Supper being set to kettle-drums.”

Psalmanazar drifted from odd job to odder job, such as marketing chinaware with the curious tagline “a White sort of Japan.” A few years later, he took up fan painting, and when that failed to bring in a steady income, he tutored Latin and later re-entered military service as a clerk. Psalmanazar lived the rest of his life as a hack—one of the many Grub Street writers that churned out encyclopedia entries, histories, and prefaces for the most minimum of wages. He wrote 12 hours each day and sustained himself with 10 to 12 drops of opium mixed with a pint of punch. In 1732, Psalmanazar published another book, A General History of Printing, and in the 1740s, he wrote a chapter for a proposed sequel to Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. The Pretended Asian also contributed to 1747’s Complete System of Geography—including, bizarrely, an entry on Formosa in which he referred to himself in the third person. In it, he finally admitted that Psalmanazar was a liar and assured readers that a full confession would be published after his death. Sure enough, he left behind an autobiographical manuscript in a desk drawer. If published today, it might be hailed as a postmodern masterpiece simply for the proto-pomo textual erasure in the book’s title: Memoirs of ****: Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar: A Reputed Native of Formosa.

Memoirs of **** was alternately low-key and histrionic. It began with the line, “the last will and testament of me: a poor sinful and worthless creature commonly known by the assumed name of George Psalmanazar.” He described his hope for the book: “to undo, as much as was in my power, all the mischief I had done.” But there were many major holes in Psalmanazar’s story, especially because he provided no account of the dozen or so years after his arrival in England. Those indiscretions would only disgust the Christian reader, Psalmanazar said. He did not reveal his birth name or leave any trace that could identify him, his family, or even his country of origin.

The man known as Psalmanazar is almost totally lost to history. In an unlikely postscript to this improbable tale, the disgraced hoaxer gained a famous admirer near the end of his life: Samuel Johnson. “I never sought much after any body,” the writer remarked. “But I sought after George Psalmanazar the most. I used to go and sit with him at an alehouse in the city.” Johnson regularly mentioned the faux-Formosan’s name with enthusiasm, claiming he was so highly esteemed in the neighborhood that “scarce any person, even children, passed him without shewing him the usual signs of respect.” Hester Thrale, a close confidante of Johnson’s, recorded one such memory: “When I asked Dr. Johnson, who was the best man he had ever known? ‘Psalmanazar,’ was the unexpected reply.”

This post is adapted from Kembrew McLeod's new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, published by NYU Press on April 1.