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This notorious travellers’ tale was concocted by George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763), the name (derived from that of an Assyrian king) given by a Scottish army chaplain, the Rev. Alexander Innes, to a colourful fellow who claimed that he came from the faraway island of Formosa and worshipped the sun and the moon.

Taken to London by Innes, this exotic character gained further notoriety by his habit of eating raw meat with lots of spices and by sleeping upright in a chair. He also claimed to have been abducted from Formosa by Jesuits and then taken to France where he had refused to become Roman Catholic.

In his book, Psalmanazar describes Formosa as a prosperous country with a capital city called Xternetsa, where men walk naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. The main food of the inhabitants of that island, he claimed, was a serpent that they hunted with branches. Formosans, said this teller of tall travellers’ tales, were not only polygamous, but husbands had a right to eat any wife found guilty of infidelity.

Murderers were dispatched by hanging them upside down and shooting them full of arrows and Formosans annually offered up the hearts of 18,000 young boys to gods, while the priests ate the bodies.

The book was a sensation and with some influential if gullible support, Psalmanazar found a post at Oxford, translating religious texts into Formosan and lecturing on the island’s culture and language. He also addressed such august bodies as the Royal Geographical Society.

Psalmanazar’s bluff did not go unchallenged among sharper scientific minds, but he managed to deflect most criticism, explaining that his pale skin was due to the fact that he was upper class and did not have to work in the sun – in fact, he had lived underground. Jesuits who had actually worked as missionaries in Formosa and knew better were not believed, perhaps due to the widespread distrust of the order in England.

Eventually, either the pressure and questioning became too persistent, and/or he tired of the deception, for in 1706 he confessed, first to friends (among them Samuel Johnson) and then in public.

Psalmanazar spent the rest of life as a writer and editor. He did, it seems, have a head for languages, even if he knew nothing of Formosan, and he became an accomplished Hebraist as his religious leanings became stronger. He also co-authored A General History of Printing (1732) and contributed a number of articles to the Universal History. He even contributed to a book on world geography and wrote about the real conditions in Formosa.

In his Memoirs, published the year after his death, Psalmanazar owned up to having been born in France in 1679 and educated at a Jesuit school. His job as tutor ended, he claimed, when he refused the advances of the lady of the house and he became a vagrant. At first he pretended to be an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome, but there being too many who actually knew something about Ireland, he switched to being first a Japanese convert and then a heathen.

Travelling around Europe as a pilgrim, a beggar, even a soldier, he had in fact adopted the Formosan role at the urging of Innes, who having himself realised that Psalmanazar was a fraud, decided that he could exploit the gullibility of others to their mutual advantage. One thing Psalmanazar did not reveal in his Memoirs was his true identity.