not all Asians are blonde

In 1704, George Psalmanazar was strolling the streets of London and claiming to be the first Formosan to do so.

image found here

Born in the South of France, sometime between 1679 and 1684, he traveled to Germany, took on the persona of an uncivilized Japanese–who spoke fluent Latin–and joined a regiment in the service of the Dutch. Psalmanazar recounted colorful stories of his past life to his fellow soldiers and when his regiment was posted to the Netherlands, he came to the attention of the Rev. Alexander Innes, who served as chaplain to a Scottish regiment.

(un) civilised Japanese and his harem found here

Innes soon discovered Psalmanazar’s fraud and became his confederate, as a means to better his own fortune. He baptized Psalmanazar a Christian and persuaded him to change his putative birthplace from Japan to the even more exotic Formosa (now known as Taiwan), which at the time was largely unknown in Europe. It was Innes who brought him to England to entertain audiences with his alleged adventures in Formosa.

Formosan push-car found here

It mattered little that he didn’t look in the least bit Asian as almost nobody in Europe, least of all blonde George himself, knew what an actual Asian looked like. But ¬†George’s deception was almost revealed when he attended a meeting of London’s Royal Society at which a Jesuit missionary recently returned from China was also present.

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The evening began with the usual matters natural and unnatural, with the examination of some ovarian cysts and a possum penis topping the list. George cheerfully spoke his invented language to the Society as Father Fountaney accused him of fraud. The astronomer Sir Edmund Halley also suspected trickery but George would not budge from his story.

possum found here

Psalmanazar quickly became a celebrity in London and was persuaded to write an account of his native country. In the space of two months he produced a 288 page book including dozens of illustrations. With its lurid descriptions of polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, and other grisly activities, the book was a sensation.

read first hand account of American polygamy here

He added a translation from Formosan to English of The Lord’s Prayer buttressed by fold out plates of the Formosan language and a chart of its numerical system. These he followed with botany, zoology, gastronomy and an account of the island’s history and a sensational account of religious practices. He wrote all of this while he was only 19 years old.

A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfurt in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.

images from his book found here

He worked at a variety of jobs, the most successful of which, ironically, involved writing. He became a respected man of letters and enjoyed the friendship of Samuel Johnson and others. Eventually, a repentant Psalmanazar wrote his memoirs and arranged to have them published posthumously. Accordingly, a year after his death in 1763, Psalmanazar’s Memoirs of ****: a Reputed Native of Formosa (1764) was published. In the Memoirs, Psalmanazar chronicled his fraudulent past; however, he never revealed his true name which remains unknown today.

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