Friday, January 29, 2010

Most Extraordinary Piece of Fraud

I love a good piece of fraud story. Here's a good one that is tangled up, and apparently partially responsible, for keeping European interest in Taiwan as a potential colonial target in the 17th century. I read about it in the brilliantly entertaining and dense Taiwan history, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan by Jonathan Manthrope.

George Psalmanazar was born in France around 1680 and not much verifiable information is known about him.

He took on trickery as a trade at and early age. His pompous alias was inspired by the ancient King of Assyria, Shalmaneser. He first pretended to be an Irish catholic on a pilgrimage to Rome. In order to blend in with pilgrimming gypsies he stole a cloak from the church to give himself a bit of plausibility. Once in the company of real pilgrims it wasn't too long before they realized he knows nothing about Ireland. So he went to London and took on a new role and heritage. He became a native "Formosan" an unprecedentedly new ethnic savage from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). Of course, there were no ethnically Taiwanese round about London so there were no jerks to call him out. Instead, he became an exotic gentleman who was showcased in the parlors of high society. John Locke had published Identity and Diversity, which had roused great interests in the ideas of culture and nationhood.

In 1704, Salmanazar wrote his own cultural treaty An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan, Giving an Account of the Religion, Customs, Manners, etc. of the Inhabitants, Together with a Relation of What Happened to the Author in His Travels. It was a success. He was invited to teach Formosan, a constructed language of his own invention that consisted of gibberish.

Here is an example of one of his religious translations from 1703, the Lord's Prayer:

Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin, bagne ant kau chin malaboski, ali abinaye ant tuen Broskacy, kens sai vie Bagalin, kay Fary, kay Barhaniaan chinania sendabey. Amien.

Salmanazar's facts and descriptions were outrageous and mostly patch-worked from other influential cultural accounts, such as those written about the Aztec and Inca civilizations, and by exaggerating descriptions of Japan. Utopia by Thomas Moore may have also been influential.

According to Psalmanazar, Formosa was a prosperous country with a capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. Their main food was a serpent that they hunted with branches. Formosans were polygamous and husbands 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 priests ate the bodies. They used horses and camels for mass transportation and dwelled underground in circular houses.

When ever his descriptions were challenged Psalmanazar would counter the charge with an ever more outlandish accounts. Eventually he was vetted and wrote another best-selling book about his duplicity. He would have fit in nicely with our age of media attention whores who spin whirl-wind stunts, which are followed by an incredible nose-dive that generates just as much fame and potential TV deals.

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