An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa

An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa by George Psalmanazar

Introduced by Emma Balch

For a small town – a village really – Hay has an abundance of rumours, myths and legends. Typically a small detail or character gives license to suggest there could be some truth in the wild tale, and so it is indulged in, elaborated and delightfully passed on to others.

This is not a new thing, or one confined to parochial gossip. Story has it that one of great imposters of literary history once resided at Hay Castle. Despite any hard evidence to support the claim, a brief sojourn at Hay Castle is frequently cited one of few details known about the life of a 18th century Frenchman known as George Psalmanazar who completely made up a guide to  Formosa (now Taiwan). Little is known of his early life, but from his memoirs we do know that he came from humble beginnings. In later life he was mixing in the company of literary greats like Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson.

In the early 1700s novels posing as travelogues were in vogue, but Psalmanazar stretched the form. He claimed to be a native of Formosa, a bold claim given his long, blonde hair and French accent. He created a fake Formosan alphabet, described the islanders as if from first-hand encounters – Formosan aristocrats who breakfasted on viper’s blood, students who were fluent in ancient Greek, and priests who sacrificed thousands of infants to a horned god.

The English at that time knew little of Asia and were duped by his fanciful accounts. His invented Formosan language was consistently complex and continued to fool linguistic scholars even into the 19th century. Yet it was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

So too is Psalmanazar’s residency at Hay Castle unlikely to have any factual basis (see Geoffrey L Fair’s article ‘Further light on the history of the Hay). Psalmanazar does, however, mention Lady Powis in his memoir, and the family estate was not that far from Hay. Perhaps that detail will allow us to indulge in the story, and keep alive the legend of Hay’s links with the man who claimed to be the first Formosan to visit Europe?

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Some of Psalamanzar’s illustrations (see a digital copy of the entire book here):

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One thought on “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa

  1. excellent choice, though I disagree with you (Emma) about the author, and indeed about his significance for us, in our tiny town of books, either side of the new millennium.
    I doubt he was French, for example (he denied it) and everything else in his Memoirs, though most (if not all) readers assume he was no longer fibbing when he wrote them. Personally, I am unconvinced (that he wasn’t Irish, say, like myself, or James Stephens or Flann O’Brien. The Blarney is a good indicator. Better than any scholarship.)
    On a point of order; Fairs doesn’t imply that the link with Hay Castle is unfounded; quite the reverse. He implies it would hardly arise if there wasn’t some truth in it, though he concedes, in the absence of (hard) evidence, this is purely conjectural. As a rule, no evidence at all is NOT evidence to the contrary.
    Another recent resident of Hay (who wrote a paltry book about the place) Paul Collins has a chapter on Psalmanazar in his book, Banyard’s Folly which is witty but ultimately shallow (in my opinion). It simply regurgitates the facts, which you (more mercifully) summarise; a neat precis. I like the fact that you include some of Psalmanazar’s illustrations; where (I suspect) we disagree is over your suggestion that it was all (or in part) ‘nothing more than a figment of his imagination’. What could such a ‘sentence’ possibly mean (in Hay of all places)?

    Like

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