Interesting If True - Episode 13: The Caribou of Formosa
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that totally promises to be as good and important as that popular show you listen to—except not really.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are Jim and Shea!
I’m Shea, and this week I learned a fun new game to play with your spouse during quarantine, it’s called “Why are you doing it that way?” There are no winners…
I’m Big Gay Jim, and this week I learned that the same policy that bans the Confederate Flag on military bases will also prohibit the rainbow flag, so…two steps forward, and one step back?
Nope, not a new show on Sci-Fi, though I’m sure it’d be at the Formomo-st front of their line up. Eh? eh?! Yeah, I’m funny.
No, Formosa was what the ye-oldie western world called Taiwan. How ye-oldie? Well our story might begin in 1679… ish, and probably southern France… ish, with the birth of someone not named George Pslamanazar.
Not-George, whose real name is lost to time, is generally presumed to have been born to Catholic parents and grew to attend a Jesuit academy where he learned that Japan existed became fluent in Latin thanks to his “uncommon genius for languages”.
Quotes from Not-George primarily come from his memoirs, which you would think would include his name, but don’t. Where one might find a memorial moniker there are only asterisks. Because by the end of his life, his name didn’t matter to anyone, least of all himself.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have an uncommon genius for… knowing Irish stuff. Being a Jesuit at the time was not ideal, so to travel safely he would tell people he was an Irish Catholic pilgrim journeying to Rome, this also frequently meant free meals, a place to sleep, and maybe gifts of coin or beer.
Basically, it was as good as traveling got before Uber. Sadly, he would often meet Irish travelers—or just people who knew literally anything at all about Ireland—and his lack of ability to speak or sound Irish, or know Irish things caused him to quickly be discovered as a fraud. He bounced around some, staying anywhere that would accept him until his easily-to-discredit-even-before-Google lies caused him to be run out of town. He tried to pretend to be Japanese for a while, but he had the same problems of… not knowing anything about Japan.
It was the early 18-century when our story begins in earnest. In 1702, which began on a Sunday and saw the printing of London’s first non-English news paper, the founding of the Delaware colony, and the East India Company settling on what is now Con Son Island in southern Vietnam. As much as I know you love my year facts, they actually matter today. See, thanks to the East India Trading Co., colonization, and a handful of wars, travel to Asiatic locations and consumption of Asian culture was all the rage in England. Especially when it made English culture look good by comparison because of… you know… Imperialism.
And that, friends, is why George Psalmanazar was welcomed with open arms to all the finest dinner parties.
You see, George was a native of the island of Formosa. Not… France, Formosa. And despite his fair skin color, blue eyes, and Dutch accent, he was, like totally and for surezies, Formosan.
And not just Formosan, but of their upper class don’t’cha know!
So George just… appeared… one day in Holland claiming to be a Formosan official. While his ruse was likely terrible he met the right person. Sensing that there was a buck to be made Scottish clergyman William Innes accepted George’s story, baptized him, and set out to introduce him to the Bishop of London. For Innes it was bragging rights to have converted someone from so far away. For George it was about being the toast of London. Which this very much made him.
Everyone was chomping at the bit to learn about how much better they were than the people of the wondrous and far away land of Formosa. George, for example, often ate with his bare hands and insisted on eating his meat raw, after all, he was a “savage”.
From his memoirs:
I fell upon one of the most whimsical expedients that could come into a crazed brain, viz. that of living upon raw flesh, roots and herbs; and it is surprising how soon I habituated myself to this new, and, till now, strange food, […] whilst my vanity, and the people’s surprize at my diet, served me for a relishing sauce.
When asked about how he came to Holland he endeared himself by playing against peoples prejudices. He would tell people that he had been made the captive of a Jesuit missionary. Which was well received by everyone except the Jesuits.
George’s life of wandering and BSing was finally starting to pay off so he extra doubled down on everything he did.
He created a Formosan language. As he knew that Japan was a thing when he created a Formosan alphabet he did so out of nonsensical, Asian-esque, pictographs. Naturally, Formosan had the good and right number of 26 characters.
As a gift to the Bishop of London George presented the Lord’s Prayer “translated” into Formosan.
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin, bagne ant kau chin malaboski, ali abinaye ant tuen Broskacy, kens sai vie Bagalin, kay Fary, kay Barhaniaan chinania sendabey. Amien.
Now, if that sounds like nonsense to you it’s because it is. He would often speak in his “native Formosan” to the delight of his patrons but because he didn’t even know how Japanese or Taiwanese sounded, much less were spoken, he basically just did a super-racist version of speaking in tongues. He would pray to the sun, told people of Formosa’s 10-month calendar, and while lecturing to prospective missionaries at the Royal Academy, he told grand tails of cannibalism and human sacrifice.
When asked about daily life he would make up wild claims such as Formosan women smoking pounds of tobacco daily and everyone being super-duper, all-the-time, into opium. So much so that gifts of it were common, which was convenient, because by this time he’d developed a rather intense opium habit himself.
Formosan dress was… awkward. Check your podcast player. Men and women wore animal skins and kimonos, though open at the front. Peen and vagoo was covered with Flava-Flave style, giant dishes. Poorer Formosans had to use bark or clam shells. Men often had beards, married women wore masks in public, and widows wore wreaths in their hair. It truly was a zany land!
Things were going well. So well that he wrote and sold out his first book, “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan”.
Published in 1704, full text is available here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004775536.0001.000?view=toc
The book was hastily written and entirely nonsense. He used words and phrases Spanish Conquistadors brought back, calling Formosa’s capital “Xternetsa”. He detailed long running wars with China (keeping in mind that Taiwan was, at the time, a Chinese territory). Of course his people won that war only to be conquered by Japanese forces lead by, for some reason, a Chinese man named “Meryaandanoo” who sought to be Emperor. Also none of that is even remotely true.
He claimed that the Formosan holy book, the “Jarhabadiond”, required 18,000 children to sacrificed annually to their terrifying God. Which caught the attention of folks he’d been telling that Formosa was sparsely populated. To cover his tracks he claimed Formosan men took many wives, impregnating them all annual but giving most of the male-babies up for sacrifice. Because if you’re just making stuff up anyway, why not?
By now though, people are starting to question his authenticity.
George was quick on his feet though and had an answer for nearly all rebukes. When asked why he was so obviously Dutch he told people that as a member of Formosa’s elite he lived underground and therefore his skin was pale due to lack of sun.
He was challenged to a historical debate by Jesuit Father Fontaney—who had been to China and knew people who had actually been to Formosa. George accepted and more or less won the debate because Fontaney was a Jesuit. While Fontaney did have a fact or two to work with, George had bigotry on his side so easily won.
His critics grew louder until in 1710, either George’s supporters or George himself under another assumed name, printed a pamphlet titled “An Enquiry into the Objections against George Psalmanazar of Formosa” which, of course, cleared him of all wrong doing.
Still, fewer and fewer people were buying what he was selling. For example, in 1711 Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator published an April Fools’ article announcing George would be in a play:
in the Hay-market an Opera call’d The Cruelty of Atreus. N.B. The scene wherein Thyestes eats his own children, is to be performed by the famous Mr. Psalmanazar, lately arrived from Formosa: the whole Supper being set to kettle-drums.”
Being a better liar than business man (yep) George had forsaken rights to his book in favor of a one-time pay out. While sizable at the time, opium is expensive and George was broke.
George would eventually wrote a confession titled “Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar” in which he detailed his lies and tried to set the record straight. It would be posthumously published and largely ignored in 1765.
He would spend the rest of his life toiling at various kinds of writing, often taking dictation or transcribing books for 12 hours a day. Eventually he began marketing fine china with the curious tagline “a White sort of Japan.” Of note during this time is his transcriptions of a book called “Geography of the World” which included as fact many of the lies George had initially spread and later attempted to recant. In his transcriptions he added passages explaining the fabricated information.
George would eventually die at 80 in 1763 living his last years on the pensions of his admirers. Apparently in his old age he’d made friends of Samuel Johnson who, apparently, enjoy his obviously BS stories.
So who was George Psalmanazar of Formosa really? No one really knows. His only really legacy is that of a ridiculous fraudster occasionally referenced in contemporary plays or books when the author needed an idiot to deride or a cannibal to mock.
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For the patrons this week I’m telling the fantastical tale of Princess Caraboo, who, unfortunately, is not the princess of Caribou… at least not until Disney gets ahold of her licensing.
the story of Princess Caraboo starts on Thursday, April 3rd, 1817 when a strange woman appeared in Almondsbury. Listeners of Skeptics with a K may know of nearby Bristol in Gloucomashire (Gloucestershire), which just sounds horrible.
Those who saw her at the time described her as about 5 foot, extremely attractive, and dressed in shawl fitted turban-style around her head. Take a look at your phones for Edward Bird’s portrait of the princess. And… yeah, she was a handsome lady who only looks a little bit more like every painting of Christopher Columbus than Phoebe Cates who would play Caraboo in the 1994 film adaptation of her journey.
The woman spoke no language known to the locals so she was taken to the Overseer of the Poor, which was a job you could have in ye-oldie terrible times, who in turn sent her to the home of Samuel Worrall, the Magistrate of the County.
At the time being a vagrant was a punishable offense that would see you shipped off to Australia or for particularly egregious cases of poverty, simply executed.
Fortunately for the princess Samuel and his American-born wife Elizabeth were more interested than bothered by the woman. They took her to a local Inn for boarding when she began pointing at things and giving their names in her dialect and, wouldn’t you know it, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Enes said he spoke her language and translated her story.
According to Enes, she was Princess Caraboo of the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean—which absolutely explains the Portuguese I guess—she was captured by pirates until she was able to escape by jumping overboard into the Bristol Channel.
Realizing they were host to a dignitary from a totally real place, not some made up land like Formosa, the Worralls spent the next 10 weeks presenting the exotic royalty to local dignitaries and the whose-who of the area. While none could understand her because Enes had…. left… she was a delight to those who met her. She shot a bow and arrow, fenced, and frequently swam around naked which I’m sure did wonders for her popularity.
A local by the name of Dr. Wilkinson attested to her royal authenticity based on his identification of her language in Edmund Fry’s Pantographia—a book that collected all the known languages of the world at the time. Which is impressive, given that she was spouting made up nonsense.
In fact, it was the nonsense that gave her away. During one of her socialite evenings a woman called Mrs. Neale recognized the language—and thereby the woman under all the ostentatious garb—as being the make-believe language her former, now missing, servant used to entertain her children. She told the Worrells that Caraboo’s name was really Mary Baker, daughter of a cobbler in Witheridge, Devonshire. Once pressed, Caraboo reluctantly admitted that she was a fraud.
Mary, it seems, had always had a theatric nature. Having heard tails of the Native of Formosa Mary found that posing as an exotic foreigner allowed for much easier travel as it was easier to prey upon the sympathies of the aristocracy than beg for scraps from the other surfs.
Moreover, as with George, people wanted to believe her. There was a romantic sensibility surrounding foreign lands and their exotic, perhaps mystical, inhabitants. Basically, people ate it up, she was literally treated like a princess, and her patrons enjoyed a great deal of popularity for what was essentially room and board expenses. It was win-win… until it wasn’t.
When she was revealed, her popularity soured almost instantly. She was immediately seen as a symbol of the crumbling power and pompous gullibility of English nobility.
Embarrassed and desperate to be rid of her Samuel paid for her voyage to Philadelphia. Based on whose story you believe she either made it to Phili, failed miserably as a show-woman, and retired back to England to sell leeches, or was shipwrecked on St. Helena island where Napoleon became fixated on the exotic queen and asked the Pope to allow their marriage.
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms. All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.