January 2014 Book of the Month: An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa by George Psalmanazar (1705)

Title-page: Fellows’ Library P.1.7 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Title-page: Fellows’ Library P.1.7 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This book purports to offer Europeans the first account of Formosa (now Taiwan) written by an inhabitant. The work was published in English to both acclaim and scepticism.

Psalmanazar’s book describes the island’s topography, language and customs, complete with illustrations of national dress and funeral rituals. The factual tone of the work is, however, at odds with sensational descriptions of polygamy, mass human sacrifice and cannibalism.

An engraving of a Formosan funeral rite: Fellows’ Library P.1.7 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

An engraving of a Formosan funeral rite: Fellows’ Library P.1.7 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Many were content to believe him. The island had been explored by only a handful of Jesuit missionaries, and Psalmanazar’s portrayal of Jesuits as unscrupulous schemers endeared him to prominent public figures such as the Bishop of London. In life, too, the author exhibited an idiosyncratic ‘Japanese’ set of habits, including eating raw meat and speaking an unknown tongue.

However, others – notably Royal Society member Edmond Halley – disputed his claims. This second edition includes a lengthy additional preface which addresses these criticisms point by point. Nevertheless, disbelief mounted and Psalmanazar later confessed to his pretence. Even today his true identity remains unknown.

Jesus College’s copy is shelved next to both genuine and spurious travellers’ tales, signs of the Fellows’ interest in exploration.

Emma Jones (Graduate Library Trainee, 2013-14)

Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • DeMaria Jnr., Robert. ‘Psalmanazar, George (1679–1763)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2007.
  • Lynch, Jack. ‘Forgery as Performance Art: The Strange Case of George Psalmanazar’, 1650–1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 11 21–35, 2005.
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