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George Psalmanazar

George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763) is the only known name of an impostor who fooled the British to think he was from faraway island of Formosa.

He was a strange man that appeared in northern Europe around the year 1700. He looked European but claimed he came from the faraway island of Formosa, followed a foreign calendar and worshipped the Sun and the Moon.

In 1702 the man arrived in what is now the Netherlands and met Scottish priest William Innes, who was a chaplain of a Scottish army unit. Afterwards he claimed he had converted the heathen into Christianity and christened him as George Psalmanazar (in reference to biblical Assyrian king Shalmaneser). In 1703 they left for London via Rotterdam to meet the bishop.

In London the exotic foreigner gathered even more fame by his strange habits. He ate raw meat with lots of spices and slept upright in a chair. He claimed he had been abducted from Formosa by Jesuits and taken to France where he had refused to become Roman Catholic.

In 1704 Psalmanazar published a book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which revealed a number of strange habits. Formosa was a prosperous country of wealth with capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. Their main food is a serpent that they hunt with branches. Formosans were polygamous and the husband had a right to eat their wives for infidelity. They executed murderers by hanging them upside down and shooting them full of arrows. Annually they sacrificed the hearts of 18,000 young boys to gods and priest ate the bodies. They also used horses and camels for mass transportation. The book also described the Formosan alphabet.

The book was rather successful. It went through two English editions and French and German editions followed.

Shortly afterwards he was appointed at Oxford College. He begun to translate religious literature into Formosan and to lecture on Formosan culture and language. The Bishop of London supported him and he considered Dr. Samuel Johnson, a literary figure, as his friend. He spoke before the Royal Geographical Society.

Psalmanazar did not go unchallenged but he managed to deflect most of the criticism. He explained that his pale skin was due to fact that he was of upper class and did not have to work in the sun in fact, he had lived underground. Jesuits who had actually worked as missionaries in Formosa were not believed due to their rather unwholesome reputation in the anti-catholic atmosphere. He dodged questions of the Royal Society members like Edmund Halley.

Innes eventually went to Portugal as chaplain-general to the English forces. Psalmanazar got mixed with bad business ventures. Eventually either the pressure became too strong or he grew tired of the deception. In 1706 he confessed, first to friends and then in public.

Psalmanazar spent the rest of life as a writer and editor of books he did have a head for languages. For a time he worked as a clerk in an army regiment until some clergymen gave him money to study of theology. He learnt Hebrew, co-authored A General History of Printing (1732), and contributed a number of articles to the Universal History. He even contributed to the book Geography of the World and wrote about the real conditions in Formosa. He also apparently became increasingly religious.

He also wrote a book titled Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. It was published posthumously after his death on May 3 1763.

According to this autobiography, he was born in France in 1679 and was educated in the Jesuit school. His job as tutor ended when he refused the advances of the lady of the house and he became a pilgrim. At first he pretended to be an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome but there were too many who actually knew something about Ireland. Then he switched to being first a Japanese convert and then a heathen to sound even more exciting. He walked hungry around Europe as a beggar and sometimes even a soldier. He had taken the role of a Formosan at the urging of Innes when the priest had realized he was a fraud but wanted to join his imposture.

However, he forgot to mention his real birth name.

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