With its tales of underground palaces and a diet of vipers’ blood for breakfast, it was one of the great literary hoaxes of the 18th century – now a work of travel fantasy which fooled high society.

The History of Formosa gives a fantastical account of life on the island now known as Taiwan.

Supposedly written by a native, its accounts of criminals being killed and eaten and priests sacrificing thousands of children to bloodthirsty horned gods captivated London society.

There was only one catch: it was completely made up and author George Psalmanazar was actually a white, blond-haired Frenchman who had never left Europe and whose real name is still unknown.

St John’s College in Cambridge has put its first edition of the 1704 book on display for the first time, in a rare opportunity for the public to assess the work of the Enlightenment-era Walty Mitty for themselves.

Mark Nicholls, the college’s librarian, said: “His tales, imaginative as they are, fit into a wider genre alongside travellers’ accounts and maps featuring grotesque creatures, sea monsters and alien, exotic peoples, images that enthralled audiences who had never left their home country.”

The book was phenomenally successful with the first edition selling out rapidly and French and German editions achieving similar success.

In a posthumously-published autobiography, Psalmanazar describes himself as a child genius with a gift for languages.

He set about creating false identities and crafting fantastic tales – even eating raw meat and speaking a language of his own creation in a bid to convince others of his authenticity.

Psalmanazar explained away his pale skin by telling doubters he had lived underground with Formosa’s upper classes and never saw the sun.

It was not until British explorers began to travel to Formosa – sometimes equipped with a copy of his made-up dictionary of Formosan language in a bid to communicate with confused locals – that the con was uncovered.

Psalmanazar eventually grew tired of his forged life and spent his later years living a quiet existence as a clerk in London and writing theological pamphlets.

His will included instructions for a confession to be published after his death in 1763. Nicholls added: “Psalmanazar’s fraudulent description of Formosa was so successful because it first appeared at a time when interest in exploration and strange new lands was at its height across European society.”

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us