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Friday, June 22, 2012

Famous frauds of the 18th Century

As you may know, I have a substantial and abiding interest in fabulous imposters. While researching Jonathan Swift, I found this guy, a Frenchman who came to England and pretended to be Taiwanese, and then wrote a travel memoir about his dear native country:
Building upon this growing interest in his life, in 1704 Psalmanazar published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which purported to be a detailed description of Formosan customs, geography and political economy, but which was in fact a complete invention on Psalmanazar's part...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 genitals. 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.
Apparently, when people asked him why he appeared to be so European, he replied that this was because the Formosan elite lived underground and so were very pale. He also entirely invented the Formosan language, which he describes as follows:
The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it isJerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery'd as in the preterit. The future Tense of Jerh Chato is pronounced by failing the Voice in the first Syllable, and raising it in the rest; and the paulo port futuram is pronounced after the same manner, only adding the Verb Viar, as Jerh viar Chato, ego ero amo. But the Japannese say, Jerh Chato, Jerh Chataye, Jerh Chatar, pronouncing the auxiliary Verb always after the same manner.
A for effort, no? Kind of a great story. Some things about open societies never change.