FAKE NEWS FROM FORMOSA: Ironmonger Row (Islington)

When in 1737 Samuel Johnson left Lichfield for London to start his career as a writer, he faced years of financial hardship before finally achieving fame in the early 1750s. One of many competing hacks and authors in the jungle that was Grub Street, he would later tell James Boswell that he vividly remembered one immigrant character with whom he spent many hours in pubs and coffeehouses. 

The person who had made such a memorable impression on him was living at the time in Ironmonger Row, Old Street, Islington, and went by the unusual name of George Psalmanazar.

Johnson met Psalmanazar when the latter was preparing his Memoirs of ** **, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar. The book was published in 1764, a year after his death. Without ever revealing his real name, the author relates that he was born around 1679 in southern France. Descendant of an ancient but ‘decayed’ family, his father had abandoned wife and child. George was educated at a Franciscan free school, then attended a Jesuit college, and finally studied with Dominicans at an unspecified university. 

As a student he showed a talent for linguistics. He settled in Avignon as a tutor, but left the town under a (sexual) cloud and travelled to Germany and the Netherlands. It was during that time that he started to cultivate multiple identities. He first pretended to be an impoverished Irish Catholic student on pilgrimage to Rome. Fluent in Latin and trained in theology, he tricked both clergymen and lay people into financial support. 

Having refined his skills of deception, he gradually developed the grand ‘fraud’ for which he is remembered to this day. During a spell as a soldier in the Low Countries, he assumed the name of Psalmanazar (derived from the Old Testament Assyrian King Shalmaneser who led his forces into Palestine). 

Having been confronted at school with Jesuit travel accounts from East Asia, he first changed his identity from Irish to Japanese. He subsequently presented himself as a person of Formosan origin (Formosa was the Portuguese name for Taiwan). 

By 1703 he had arrived in London from Rotterdam where he soon became a figure of interest. He claimed to have been abducted from Formosa by a malevolent French Jesuit priest for his refusal to become a Catholic. Psalmanazar declared himself to be a heathen who had been converted to the Anglican Church. 

In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. The book was an instant success. It included lurid details of slaughter (the annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of nine) and cannibalism (the right of a man to eat his unfaithful wife), as well as a description of the Formosan language, a diagram of the alphabet, and translations of the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments. His detailed descriptions of local customs, geography, economy, flora and fauna, were entirely fictitious – but the book made him a celebrity. He lectured at universities and spoke before the Royal Society. The Bishop of London sent him to Christ Church College, Oxford, to teach young students to speak the Formosan language so that they could be sent out as missionaries. 

To the Church of England, the rescue of a heathen alien from the clutches of evil French Jesuits and his subsequent conversion by the Bishop of London was a story of triumph. In enlightened circles, Psalmanazar’s claims were received with suspicion and disbelief (especially his description of Formosa as being under the control of Japan). When confronted by travellers who had visited the island, he argued (correctly) that European explorers had only reached coastal areas. They had never made the effort to push into the mountainous interior to encounter the island’s real culture. 

To the query why he was a blue-eyed European man, he replied that upper class Formosans lived underground developing a different pigment of skin. The Royal Society quickly established that his claims were false, but kept quiet. Members ignored rather than denounced his presence, partly because Psalmanazar had put himself forward as an opponent of rationalist freethinkers (i.e. members of the Society) in defence of those who adhered to revealed religion. The spreader of fake history was siding with the forces of socio-religious orthodoxy. 

It was not until about 1710 that the author was condemned as a fraudster and hoaxer. The ‘Formosan craze’ was over, but the labels stuck doing injustice to a talented writer. The fact that the contents of his book had been taken literally by a majority of (Anglican) readers proved to be a death blow to Psalmanazar’s reputation. Once it was clear that the story was a fabrication, both clergy and critics realised they had been fooled. The literary elite lacked the generosity to acknowledge that his travel account was a fine piece of fiction, the creative product of a fertile and versatile imagination. 

This work set a precedent for Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue. It opened up the pathway for an author such as Théophile Gautier who wrote extensively about the Orient without knowing the region (he first visited Egypt three years before his death). 

Psalmanazar convinced many of his readers of the charm of armchair travel. In À rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans presents us with the character of Jean des Esseintes who dreams up vivid details of a trip to London without ever leaving his Paris apartment. Psalmanazar‘s Memoirs is a literary masterclass. Samuel Johnson recognised and respected that.

Jaap Harskamp, PhD at Amsterdam University (Comparative Literature), Researcher at European University Institute (Florence), Curator Dutch & Flemish Collections at British Library (retired), Researcher at Cambridge UL. His work has been published by the Wellcome Institute, British Library, and Brill. He writes a regular blog for the New York Almanack at www.newyorkalmanack.com/author/jharskamp/