When Samuel Johnson left Lichfield in 1737, aged 28, to seek his fortune as a writer in London, he faced years of struggle and hardship in the Grub Street underworld before finally achieving recognition as the author of The Rambler essays (1750-52) and The Dictionary of the English Language (1755). During these years, living hand-to-mouth, he became acquainted with numbers of struggling, young writers and ancient, superannuated hacks, all trying desperately to keep the wolf from the door. Johnson later told Boswell that, of all these characters, ‘I sought after George Psalmanazar the most. I used to hang out with him in an alehouse in the city.’ He later told Mrs Thrale that George Psalmanazar was the best man he had ever known.
Psalmanazar (c.1679–1763) was then in his mid-60s and was to live for another 20 years. Tobias Smollett, in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, provides a cameo of Psalmanazar in his old age: ‘…Psalmonazar, after having drudged half a century in the literary mill, in all the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic, subsists upon the charity of a few booksellers, just sufficient to keep him from the parish.’ He was then living in Ironmonger Row, Old Street, where he was universally known and revered: ‘scarce any person, even children, passed him without showing him the usual signs of respect.’ He worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, and was renowned for his piety.
He was renowned for much more than that, as Smollett’s sly allusion to ‘the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic’ may suggest. For Psalmanazar, a blonde and blue-eyed European, had famously pretended to be a native of the island of Formosa and had become a celebrity in the early years of the 18th century. He was the author of the entirely fictitious Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704), which included lurid details of human sacrifice and cannibalism, as well as a description of the Formosan language, a diagram of the alphabet and translations of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments. He included details of the currency, ceremonies, festivals, clothing, food, and flora and fauna. He became an A-list celebrity, doing the rounds of society dinners, where he was obliged to eat raw meat, in accordance with his own description of the dining habits of Formosans. The Bishop of London sent him to Christ Church College, Oxford, to teach young men the Formosan language so that they could be sent out as missionaries. The widespread belief in his fraud lasted only a few years, but who was George Psalmanazar in fact, and how did he come to dupe so many? And how could the famously ethical and moral Samuel Johnson tolerate this old fraud?
In old age, Psalmanazar wrote his Memoirs, which were published posthumously in 1764, but he remained cagey about his early life. He was from southern France, with a Gascon accent, and was raised a Roman Catholic. His father, he wrote, ‘was of an ancient, but decayed family’ and left mother and child to fend for themselves. Psalmanazar was taught by Franciscans at a free school, by Jesuits at a college, and finally by Dominicans at an unspecified university, showing great aptitude for languages. He became a tutor in Avignon, but was forced to leave owing to the sexual advances of the mother of one of his charges. This is his own account, so a pinch of salt may be required.
And this is where Psalmanazar’s fraudulent career began. He started to roam around Europe, pretending at first to be a persecuted Irish Catholic theology student on pilgrimage to Rome. His fluency in Latin and knowledge of theology gave credence to this story, and he was able successfully to beg sums of money from clergy and lay people alike. Later, he changed his cover from Irish to Japanese, probably in the belief that he was unlikely to meet anyone who could challenge his identity. Eventually, he became a soldier in the Low Countries and assumed the name of Psalmanazar (derived from the Old Testament Assyrian king Shalmaneser), probably because it sounded exotic and untraceable to a particular place; though it was not particularly appropriate for a man of Japanese, or as he now claimed, Formosan, origin. He said he had been tricked into leaving Formosa as a boy by a Jesuit priest and invented a language which he was apparently able to speak quite fluently. He was discovered by a Scottish military chaplain, Alexander Innes, who in spite of quickly uncovering the fraud (and who later turned out to be a fraud himself), baptized Psalmanazar in the Church of England. Innes was invited to bring his prize convert to England by the Bishop of London and Psalmanazar immediately became a sensation. The publication of The Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa soon followed.
There was immediate and widespread scepticism about Psalmanazar’s claims, particularly as he stated that Formosa was Japanese, when it was in fact Chinese. He was interrogated at the Royal Society and deflected queries with astonishing audacity. When confronted with travellers who had actually visited Formosa, he said that European explorers had only seen the coast and had never penetrated into the mountainous interior (this was, in fact, true), where the real Formosan culture flourished. When asked why he was white, he replied that upper class Formosans lived underground!
There seem to have been many factors which contributed to the belief in Psalmanazar’s fraud. A significant cause was anti-Jesuit feeling: this young Formosan convert was seen as a great triumph for the Church of England. Psalmanazar himself fuelled this by writing about Jesuit duplicity: ‘How detestable then was the Wickedness of the Jesuits, which occasioned all this Mischief!’ Robert DeMaria, Jr, in his ODNB article on Psalmanazar, suggests that the Royal Society quickly established that his claims were fraudulent, but were unwilling to denounce him, perhaps in part because Psalmanazar portrayed himself as ‘a defender of revealed religion hounded by the rationalistic freethinkers of the Royal Society’.
Michael Keevak, in The Pretended Asian, says that: ‘As an exotic curiosity Psalmanazar was able to speak to contemporary expectation about what a Formosan native should have been like, and this is why his pretense was so difficult to dispute.’ He also comments that it was easier for Psalmanazar to pose as a Formosan than it was to prove that he was not. Underlying all of this, one suspects, was the desire to believe such a sensational story: an island where 18,000 boys under the age of nine were sacrificed annually, and sinful women or discarded wives were eaten by the men.
But gradually, the hoax lost its grip on the public imagination and Psalmanazar became the butt of ridicule. In 1711 The Spectator published a mock advertisement:
On the first of April will be performed at the playhouse in the Haymarket 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.
George Psalmanazar spent the rest of his life working as a freelance editor and translator on various publishing projects, many of them enormous reference works, including The General History of Printing (1732), An Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time (1736-50) and A Complete System of Geography (1744), for which he contributed 30 articles, including, unbelievably, one on Formosa.
Psalmanazar underwent a genuine conversion after reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a book which Johnson credited with his own return to the Church of England as a young man after a period of unbelief. This may well have been one of the strong bonds that brought the old hack and the young man from Lichfield together. Johnson, later in life, could be abrasively dismissive of fraud: he famously challenged the Scottish author James Macpherson to produce the original Gaelic manuscripts of the Ossian poems which he had ‘translated’. But in the case of Psalmanazar, he seems to have felt that the old man had truly repented and lived a pious life. Later in life, Johnson was asked if he ever discussed Formosa with Psalmanazar, and he said, no, he had never even dared to mention China!
In one of his Rambler essays, Johnson wrote:
The traveller who describes cities which he has never seen; the squire who, at his return from London, tells of his intimacy with nobles, to whom he has only bowed in the park or coffee-house; the author who entertains his admirers with stories of the assistance which he gives to wits of a higher rank; the city dame who talks of her visits at great houses where she happens to know the cookmaid, are surely such harmless animals as truth herself may be content to despise without desiring to hurt them.
George Psalmanazar was a traveller who told great and entertaining tales of cities he had never seen, and perhaps, like Johnson, we should forgive him for the sheer delight his story gives us. Or, we could recite with him in Formosan: ‘kay radonaye ant amy fochin, apo ant radonem amy fochiakhin…’; in other words, ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers’.
Two book-length studies of George Psalmanazar have been published: The Great Formosan Impostor by Frederic J. Foley (St Louis: Jesuit Historical Institute, St Louis University, 1968) and The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth- Century Formosan Hoax, by Michael Keevak (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004). Robert DeMaria, Jr, gives a succinct summary of Psalmanazar’s life and career in his article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Psalmanazar’s Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa is available on-line and will provide much amusement, if one avoids the long religious discussions and goes straight for the cannibalism.
Marty Ross Smith is a member of the Johnson Society (Lichfield) and secretary of the ALS. When she began work as a freelance editor in London in 1975, her first project was entitled Rulers and Governments of the World, Volume I: from Earliest Times to 1491 (Bowker, 1978). This may explain her sympathetic interest in George Psalmanazar.
This article was first published in ALSo, the journal of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Find out more about the ALS on their website