Identity Theft

French conman George Psalmanazar

Britain’s earliest regular commercial contact with China was made through a trading post in Taiwan (Formosa), established in 1672. Until well into the eighteenth century so little was known in Europe about the island that French conman George Psalmanazar was able to masquerade as Formosan.

Psalmanazar Elephant

Psalmanazar, whose real name is unknown, was born in the south of France, and educated by Jesuits. Early in life he went to Germany where he posed as Japanese. Presumably he had read of Japan in works by Jesuit writers. Still posing as Japanese, he became a soldier in the Netherlands. There he came to the notice of William Innes, chaplain to a Scots regiment, who suggested he pretend to be Formosan, as that country was even less well-known than Japan. Innes publicly baptised Psalmanazar and accompanied him to England where he was promoted as an oriental convert to Anglicanism.

Psalmanazar, with his talent for languages, was able to fabricate a "Formosan" language, and give detailed descriptions of "his country", most of which was gleaned from books or simply made-up. He became a celebrity, and was taken up by Sir Hans Sloane and other members of the Royal Society. The deception culminated in the publication of his Historical and geographical description of Formosa (London, 1705). The book includes details of his "Formosan" language and illustrations of "Formosan" religious customs. The image here shows a detail from a religious ceremony described in the book. The illustrator has drawn the elephant’s feet as paws.