One of the most amazing successful fake descriptions of far-flung lands ever perpetrated was actually about Taiwan. In the early years of the eighteenth century a young man called George Psalmanazar was the talk of London society. Claiming to be a native of the island of Formosa, he wrote a book in Latin called An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, which was published in 1704 to wide acclaim. Students were enrolled in his classes to learn the "Formosan" language, and large audiences turned out to his lectures to hear of the wonders of Formosa -- from the horrors of human sacrifices and cannibalism, to the splendid riches of an island where; "Utensils and Dishes, are usually made of Gold and China Earth: Their Temples and Houses are often cover'd with Gold, both in cities and Villages...."
George Psalmanazar became a minor celebrity, spoke before the Royal Geographical Society, and mixed with some of the leading men of the time. Among his many supporters was the Bishop of London, and in his latter life he counted the great English literary figure, Dr. Samuel Johnson, as a friend.
The perpetrator of this hoax was indeed from overseas, but rather closer than he claimed. He was, in fact, from France. Most of what is known about the impostor's background comes from his autobiography which was published in 1765 (in keeping with his wishes) just after his death. The autobiography still, however, leaves many questions unanswered, including what his real name was.
The son of French parents, Psalmanazar was born in about 1679 in the south of France. After attending a Jesuit school he began a theological course at university. The teenage boy had a great aptitude for learning languages, especially Latin, but found theological lessons too dull for his active mind and soon dropped out. He became a tutor to a rich family's children, until, refusing amorous advances from the lady of the house, he lost his job and decided to hit the road as a pilgrim. Psalmanazar's first assumed identity was as an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome. He later travelled on to Germany, Holland and Belgium, this time passing himself off as a Japanese converted to Christianity (although he soon realized that exotica paid better and changed to being a Japanese heathen). Psalmanazar endured terrible hardships on the road, was reduced to rags and covered with vermin, and was at various times driven from hunger to enlist in several armies.
The Frenchman's knowledge about Japan was limited to a few incomplete accounts he had heard from his Jesuit teachers. Still, he went to the trouble of forging a Japanese passport and to bolster his disguise made a little "bible" filled with figures of the sun, moon, and stars, and verses in a language of his own invention which he would chant to the rising and setting sun.
In 1702 Psalmanazar had a fateful encounter with William Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment then stationed in Holland. It was perhaps a case of requiring one con artist to recognize another: the chaplain smelt a rat and invited the "Japanese pagan" to his house. Innes asked Psalmanazar to write a passage of his language, then pretending to have lost the piece had him rewrite it. The Scotsman presented his guest with the two different copies thereby forcing Psalmanazar to admit he was an impostor. Rather than condemn the fraud, Innes saw a chance of fame and money, and decided instead to elaborate the hoax; he had Psalmanazar baptized publicly as a Christian, named him George, and changed his supposed origin from Japan to Formosa as so little was then known about the island. Henceforth Psalmanazar's story was that he had been abducted from Formosa by Jesuits and carried off to France, and although he had been threatened with the tortures of the Inquisition, he had bravely refused to become a Roman Catholic.
Innes took Psalmanazar to England where he was warmly received, although people were surprised to see an oriental with such a fair appearance. This was, he explained, because Formosans went to such great lengths to avoid the sun. He later wrote in his History of Formosa that; "Altho' the Country be very hot, yet the Men in all Formosa are very fair, at least those who can live upon their Means. ... The Men of Estates, but especially the women, are very fair; for they during the hot season, live under ground in places that are very cold; They have also Gardens and Groves in them so thick set with Trees, that the Sun cannot penetrate thro' them; ... And hence it comes to pass, that altho the Formosans live in a hotter Country than the English, yet they cannot so well endure heat."
Two months after arriving in London, Psalmanazar was persuaded to translate some religious texts into the supposed Formosan language. These translations were so well received that Innes prompted him to write a complete history of Formosa. The resulting work is an amazing hodgepodge of oriental exoticism, wild imagination, and religious philosophy, with a touch of Homer and a few borrowed tales from books, sailors, and priests thrown in.
The Taiwan of Psalmanazar's invention is a rich land of good government, prosperous towns, and a magnificent capital city called Xternetsa, all built upon the wealth of fertile soils and mines of gold and silver. He described a novel form of transport; rather than using coaches drawn by horses the inhabitants had "another kind of Carriage which is much more convenient, for they are carried by two Elephants or Camels, or Horses, in a thing like a Litter, called by the aborigines Norimonnos, into which thirty or forty Men may enter." Illustrations were supplied. The book also relates how the Japanese emperor used a Trojan Horse stratagem -- litters full of soldiers instead of offerings of oxen and sheep -- to conquer Formosa.
After the issue of the first edition, Psalmanazar was sent to Oxford by the Bishop of London who hoped that some men could learn the language (said by Oxford dons to be grammatically logical) then travel to Formosa to convert the inhabitants.
A few people came forward to challenge Psalamanazar -- especially after French and German editions were published -- but they were not listened to. Social London wanted to lionize Psalmanazar. The impostor certainly played his part well, and gained plausibility from his moral life, and apparent dislike of fame and wealth. He also benefited enormously by being such a champion of the Protestant church. Indeed, nearly half his book was taken up with attacks against the Jesuits and descriptions of his conversion to Protestantism.
When Psalmanazar returned from Oxford to London he was surprised to find that Innes had gone to Portugal as chaplain-general to the English forces. Without the support of his co-conspirator the impostor began to lose heart as attacks against his authenticity increased. He retired from public life and criticism to spend a decade "in a course of the most shameful idleness, vanity, and extravagance." Psalmanazar ran up large debts which various unsuccessful business ventures only made worse. After working for a time as a clerk in an army regiment, some clergymen raised money for him to return to the study of theology. He learnt Hebrew, and (now living in London) spent the rest of his working life writing and translating.
Ironically the atheist saw the light in his middle-age years. During an illness in 1728 he read a religious text and was converted. Thereafter he lived a pious life, and became known for his sanctity. George Psalmanazar died on May 3, 1763, aged about 84, apparently carrying a sense of shame for his lies with him to the grave. He had written in his will that, "I am to this day, and shall be as long as I live, heartily sorry for, and ashamed ... ."