Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Psalmanazar, George
PSALMANAZAR, GEORGE (1679?–1763), literary impostor, was a native of the south of France. His real name is not revealed. That by which he is alone known he fashioned for himself from Shalmaneser, an Assyrian prince mentioned in the second book of Kings (xvii. 3; Memoirs, p. 141). According to his vague autobiography, his birthplace was a city lying on the road between Avignon and Rome. Both his parents were Roman catholics. His father's family was 'antient but decayed.' His pronunciation of French 'had a spice of the Gascoin accent.' He was educated in the neighbourhood of his birthplace, successively attending a free school kept by two Franciscan monks, a Jesuits' college, a school taught by the rector of a small Dominican convent, and a university. Well grounded in Latin, he soon spoke it fluently, and developed a marked faculty for learning languages. A passion for notoriety also declared itself at an early age. When barely sixteen he secured a passport, in which he contrived to have himself described as 'a young student in theology of Irish extract[ion], who had left his country for the sake of religion' (p. 98). With this document he set out for Rome, but he changed his plans, and resolved to join his father, five hundred miles off, in Germany. Reduced to the utmost destitution, he begged by the roadside, but his appeals, in the guise of a persecuted Irish catholic, failed to attract much attention. At length he found his father, who proved unable to support him, and he extended his tour, as a mendicant student, through Germany and the Low Countries. Hungering for public notice, he now hit on the eccentric device of forging a fresh passport, in which he designated himself a native of Japan who had been converted to Christianity. His Jesuit tutors had instructed him in the history and geography of Japan and China, and he had heard vaguely of recent Jesuit missions to the former country. To render his new device more effective, he soon modified it by passing himself off as a Japanese who still adhered to his pagan faith. This rôle he filled for many years. The trick was worked with much ingenuity. He lived on raw flesh, roots, and herbs, in accordance with what he represented to be the customs of his native land. Then, with bolder assurance, he set to work to construct a language which he pretended was his native tongue. He completed an elaborate alphabet and grammar, making the symbols run from right to left, as in Hebrew. At Landau the whimsical account that he gave of himself led to his imprisonment as a spy, but at Aix-la-Chapelle he obtained, in his assumed character, an engagement as a waiter at a coffee-house. The employment was not permanent, and, in despair, he enlisted in the army of the elector of Cologne. Weak health brought about his dismissal, but he re-enlisted at) Cologne in a regiment belonging to the Duke of Mecklenburg, which was in the pay of the Dutch, and consisted mainly of Lutherans.
He now first called himself Psalmanazar, and his singular story excited curiosity. By this time he had invented a worship of his own, which he represented as the religion of Japan. Turning his face to the rising or setting sun, he muttered or chanted gibberish prose and verse which he wrote out in his invented character in a little book, and he adorned the work with 'figures of the sun, moon, and stars, and such other imagery as his frenzy suggested to him' (Memoirs, pp. 144-5). He challenged his fellow-soldiers who were interested in religious controversy to defend their faith against his. When the regiment moved to Sluys at the end of 1702, his eccentricities were reported to Major-general George Lauder, the governor of the town. Lauder invited Isaac Amalvi, the minister of the Walloon church, and William Innes, chaplain to a Scots regiment at Sluys, to examine him. Conferences on religion between Amalvi and Psalmanazar were held in the governor's presence. Psalmanazar claimed the victory, and his honesty was not generally suspected. Innes was a shrewder observer. He detected the imposture at once, but wickedly suggested to the youth a mode of developing it which might profit them both. The first step was for Innes to publicly baptise Psalmanazar as a protestant. Thereupon Innes described the ceremony in a letter to Henry Compton [q. v.], bishop of London. To render the story of Psalmanazar's early life more plausible, Innes declared that the convert was a native, not of Japan, but of the neighbouring island of Formosa, of which he safely assumed that very few Englishmen had heard. Jesuits, Innes said, had abducted him from his native island, and had carried him to Avignon. There the young man had withstood all persuasions to become a Roman catholic, and the Jesuits, angered by his obstinacy, threatened him with the tortures of the inquisition. In order to escape persecution he fled to Germany, where he suffered the direst poverty. The bishop accepted the story without question, and bade Innes bring his convert to London. Psalmanazar's discharge from his regiment was easily effected, and at the end of 1703 he landed at Harwich.
In London Psalmanazar at once attracted popular interest. He presented Compton with a translation of the Church of England catechism into his invented language, which he now called 'Formosan.' He was voluble in Latin to Archbishop Tillotson. Not only did the bishops and clergy thenceforth regard him with compassion and set on foot a fund for his maintenance and further education, but scientific men were anxious to study his language and to learn something of so unfamiliar a land as Formosa. His assurance silenced suspicions of fraud. He made it a practice never to withdraw or modify any statement that he once made in public, and having committed himself to the assertion that Formosa was part of the empire of Japan (instead of China), and that its population was impossibly large, he steadfastly declined to entertain corrections. Father Fountenay, a Jesuit missionary to China, was at the moment in London, and readily perceived Psalmanazar's blunders. But Psalmanazar met his critic at a public meeting of the Royal Society (2 Feb. 1703-4), and, according to his own account, successfully rebutted Fountenay's censures. Sir Hans Sloane, the secretary of the Royal Society, invited the disputants to dine with him eight days later, and among the guests was the Earl of Pembroke, who became one of Psalmanazar's most generous patrons. 'He was now invited to every great table in the kingdom' (Gent. Mag. 1765, p. 78), and on all occasions he paraded his Formosan language, which was 'sufficiently original, copious, and regular to impose on men of very extensive learning' (Richardson, Languages of the East, p. 237). By impudent raillery he succeeded in turning the laugh against sceptics. When Bishop Burnet asked him for proofs that he came from Formosa, he replied that the bishop, if chance took him to Formosa, would be placed in an awkward dilemma when, on his declaring himself an Englishman, he was asked to prove the statement. 'You say you are an Englishman,' the Formosan, according to Psalmanazar, would retort ; 'you look as like a Dutchman as any that ever traded to Formosa' (Pylades and Corinna, by Richard Gwinnet and Elizabeth Thomas ; Gent. Mag. 1765, p. 78).
At the expense of Compton and his friends, Psalmanazar spent six months, apparently in 1704, at Oxford, where rooms were assigned him at Christ Church. The bishop hoped that he would there 'teach the Formosan language to a set of gentlemen, who were afterwards to go with him to convert these people to Christianity' (Memoirs, p. 161). He fascinated large assemblies of ladies and gentlemen at the university by detailed accounts of the human sacrifices which formed part (he said) of the Formosans' religious ritual. He thought it no sin, he told his hearers, to eat human flesh, but owned it was a little unmannerly. He made some learned researches at Oxford, and, according to Hearne, 'left behind him at Christ Church a book, in manuscript, wherein a distinct account was given of the consular and imperial coins, by himself' (Collections, i. 271).
To improve his position, Psalmanazar, at Innes's instigation, prepared a full account of what he alleged to be his early life and experiences. He wrote in Latin, and the main portion of his manuscript was translated by Mr. Oswald. It was completed in two months, and was issued before the end of 1704, with a dedication to Bishop Compton, as 'An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan . . . illustrated with several Cuts.' There was prefixed a long introduction, describing his reception in England, his travels, and his conversion to protestantism. He seized every opportunity of abusing the Jesuits, a policy which commended the work to English churchmen. In a later section the language, dress, religious beliefs, and political constitution of Formosa were set forth in detail. What was not due to his own imagination he borrowed from Varenius's 'Descriptio Regni Japoniæ et Siam' (Amsterdam, 1649) or Candidius's 'Voyages.' Though the book met with much success, Psalmanazar only received ten guineas for the first edition. A second edition, next year, brought him twelve. A French translation, edited by 'le Sieur N. F. B. R.,' with some additional plates, appeared at the same date at Amsterdam, and a German version was published at Frankfort in 1716. The French rendering provoked a reply, entitled 'Eclaircissemens' (Hague, 1706), from Amalvi, the minister at Sluys, who complained of Psalmanazar's misstatements respecting himself. Other criticisms rendered Psalmanazar's position perilous, but he was slow to acknowledge defeat. In 1707 he published a singular 'Dialogue between a Japanese and a Formosan about some parts of the Religion of the Japanese.' Here the Japanese interlocutor is represented as a freethinking critic of priestcraft which the Formosan champions. About the same time Psalmanazar's mentor, Innes, was rewarded for his zeal in converting and teaching him, by his appointment as chaplain-general to the English forces in Portugal. Innes's withdrawal discouraged Psalmanazar, who felt incompetent to sustain the imposture unaided. The tide of incredulity rose, Psalmanazar's credit was shaken, his patrons gradually deserted him, and after 1708 he was the butt of much ridicule. In the 'Spectator' (No. 14) of 16 March 1710-1711 a mock advertisement announced that in an opera, called 'The Cruelty of Atreus,' to be produced at the Haymarket Theatre, 'the scene wherein Thyestes eats his own children is to be performed by the famous Mr. Psalmanazar, lately arrived from Formosa.'
Psalmanazar, bowing to the storm, retired into obscurity, and indulged, according to his own account, in all manner of dissipation. About 1712 he was induced to revive his false pretensions. One Pattenden persuaded him to father 'a white sort of Japan' paint which he had invented, and it was advertised as 'white Formosan work,' and as introduced by Psalmanazar from his own country. Subsequently he obtained more honourable employment. He became a tutor, and then acted as clerk of a regiment engaged in Lancashire in the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. In 1717, when he left the regiment at Bristol on its departure for Ireland, he tried his hand at fan-painting, and afterwards did some literary work for a London printer. A clergyman, who still believed his discredited story, collected subscriptions in his behalf ; but a serious illness in 1728, during which he read Law's 'Serious Call' and Nelson's 'Methods of Devotions,' led him to renounce his past life and errors, and to begin 'a faithful narrative' of his deceit, which was to be published after his death.
Thenceforth Psalmanazar gained a laborious livelihood as a hack-writer, and the sanctity of his demeanour was held to be convincing proof of the thoroughness of his repentance. His sole indulgence was in opium. At one time he took 'ten or twelve spoonfuls every night, and very often more,' but he succeeded in reducing the dose 'to ten or twelve drops in a pint of punch,' which he drank with the utmost regularity at the end of each day's work. He invariably wrote from seven in the morning till seven at night, and was very abstemious in his diet. He spent much time in learning Hebrew, which he came to speak with ease. He prepared for the press a new edition of the Psalms, with Leusden's Latin version ; but it was not published, because Dr. Hare, bishop of Chichester, anticipated him in the scheme in 1736. He wrote privately against the bishop's theory of Hebrew metres, which Lowth finally refuted. Psalmanazar's chief publication was 'A General History of Printing,' originally designed by Samuel Palmer (d. 1732) [q. v.], whose name alone appears as author on the title-page. This Psalmanazar claimed to have compiled under the patronage of the Earl of Pembroke. Between 1735 and 1744 he was employed, with Archibald Bower [q. v.] and others, in compiling the 'Universal History,' To the first edition he contributed 'Jewish History,' the 'Ancient History of Greece,' the 'Ancient Empires of Nice and Trebizon,' the 'Ancient Spaniards,' the 'Ancient Germans,' the 'Gauls,' the 'Celtes and Scythians.' In the second edition he wrote on later Theban, Corinthian and Jewish history, and on Xenophon's retreat.
In 1747 he contributed an anonymous article on Formosa to Bowen's 'Complete System of Geography' (ii. 251). The article stated that Psalmanazar had long since owned the fraud, though not publicly, out of consideration for a 'few persons who for private ends took advantage of his youthful vanity to encourage him in an imposture which he might otherwise never have had the thought, much less the confidence, to have carried on.' In 1753 he published, under the pseudonym of 'an obscure layman in town,' a volume of 'Essays on the following subjects : I. on Miracles, II. on the Extraordinary Adventure of Balaam, III. on the Victory gained by Joshua over Jabin, King of Hazor.'
Late in life he lived in Ironmonger Row, Old Street, Clerkenwell, and bore an irreproachable reputation. 'Scarce any person, iven children, passed him without showing aim the usual signs of respect' (Hawkins, Johnson, p. 547). Smollett, in 'Humphrey Clinker,' described him in his old age as one who, after having drudged half a century in the literary mill in all the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic, subsists upon the charity of a few booksellers, just sufficient to keep him from the parish.' His fame for sanctity reached the ears of Dr. Johnson, who 'sought after' him and 'used to go and sit with him at an alehouse' in Old Street. Johnson said that he never saw 'the close of the life of any one that he wished so much his own to resemble for its purity and devotion.' Johnson never contradicted him. He would, he said, as soon have thought of contradicting a bishop ; and, according to Mrs. Piozzi, he declared that 'Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints.' Johnson mentions him in his 'Prayers and Meditations' (p. 102) as a man 'whose life was, I think, uniform.'
Psalmanazar died in Ironmonger Row on 3 May 1763, aged about 84. 'His pious and patient endurance' (wrote Mrs. Piozzi) 'of a tedious illness, ending in an exemplary death, confirms the strong impression his merit had made upon the mind of Mr. Johnson' (Anecdotes, p. 175).
All his property he left, by will dated 23 April 1754, to his friend and housekeeper, Sarah Rewalling. In 1764 there was published, by his direction and for the benefit of his executrix, his 'Memoirs of * * * commonly known by the name of George Psalmanazar.' A portrait is prefixed, together with his will. A second edition appeared in 1765. The story of his imposture and early struggles fills two-thirds of the book. The success of his deceit and the interest it excited seem to justify Horace Walpole's comment that, as a literary impostor, he possessed a greater genius than Chatterton. In the 'Bibliothèque Universelle des Voyages,' by G. Boucher de la Richarderie (Paris, 1808), a full summary of Psalmanazar's history of Formosa is unsuspectingly supplied (v. 289 sq.)[Psalmanazar's Memoirs, 1764, and Account of Formosa, 1704; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, iii. 314, 443-9 (an essay by Dr. Hill), iv. 274 ; Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature; Célébrités Anglaises by Jules Lefevre Deumier, 1895 (a very slight sketch).]