No Man Is an Island: Early Modern Globalization, Knowledge Networks, and George Psalmanazar’s Formosa

in Journal of Early Modern History
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The 1600-1800 period was an era of global travel and encounters. Yet this “early modern globalization” was highly unstable, characterized by miscommunications and doubts regarding the credibility of both individual witnesses and the facts they adduced. The Formosan hoax of George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763) offers a unique perspective on these themes. Although Psalmanazar was a fraud, his inventions about the island of Formosa circulated widely in different languages, nations, and inscriptive contexts. The divergence between Psalmanazar’s personal credibility and the longevity of his invented facts sheds light on the nature of evidence and information networks in early modern globalization. This episode highlights the imperfect and contested nature of early modern communication networks.

Journal of Early Modern History

Contacts, Comparisons, Contrasts. Early Modernity Viewed from a World-Historical Perspective




Sloane to Locke, 26 February, 1704, Correspondence of John Locke, Esmond Samuel de Beer, ed. (Oxford, 1976-89), 8: 216.


Daston, “Empire,” 90.


Simon Schaffer, “Newton on the Beach: The Information Order of Principia Mathematica,” History of Science 47 (2009): 243-276. Schaffer briefly discusses Psalmanazar in this article, noting that his “tales of papist cannibalism in Formosa chimed nicely with Protestant horrors of the eucharist and Swift’s ferociously plausible jokes about Anglo-Irish anthropophagy.”


Pound to Flamsteed, July 7, 1705, in The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, the First Astronomer Royal: 1703-1719, ed. Eric G. Forbes.


British Library, Sloane MS 4039, f. 334-5.


Richarderie, Bibliotheque, 290.


Dooley, Skepticism, 146-154.


Lorraine Daston, “Fear and Loathing of the Imagination in Science,” Daedalus (1998): 75.


Winterbottom, “Producing and Using,” 517, 519-20.


Ann Heylen, “Dutch Language Policy and Early Formosan Literacy (1624-1662),” Missionary Approaches and Linguistics in Mainland China and Taiwan, ed. Wei-ying Ku (Leuven, 2001), 199-251.


Elsner and Rubiés, Voyages and Visions, 46; Joan-Pau Rubiés, “Theology, Ethnography and the Historicization of Idolatry,” Journal of the History of Ideas (2006): 593. On Dooley see f. 48 above.


Cook, Matters of Exchange, 84.


G. P----m----r, A Dialogue between a Japanese and a Formosan, about some Points of the Religion of the Time (Bernard Lintott at the Cross-Keys: London, 1708).


  • Ethnographic engraving of typical Formosans based on drawings supplied by Psalmanazar, from Description (London, 1704), 230. Courtesy of the Hay Library, Brown University.
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  • Maps that accompanied the second English edition and French translation of Psalmanazar’s work depicted a fictional chain of islands connecting Formosa to Japan. “Thiowan” is depicted as an island west of the main island of “Formosa.” “Carte du Japon,” George Psalmanazar, Description de L’Ile Formosa en Asie (D’Estienne Roger: Amsterdam, 1705). Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Pasadena, CA.
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  • The University of Pennsylvania Van Pelt Library’s copy of An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704) [call number DS895.F7 P8], 12. Courtesy of the Singer-Mendenhall Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
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  • Title pages of the (left) English (London, 1704) and (right) French (Amsterdam, 1705) editions of Description. Psalmanazar’s account of his debate with Fontenay (mentioned on the English title page as “a Jesuit lately come from China”) has been elided from title page of the French edition, among other changes. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Pasadena, CA.
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  • “The Formosan Alphabet,” a table in Description (1704), 122. Courtesy of the John Hay Library, Brown University.
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  • Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise (Vol. 3), plate between p. 78 and p. 79. Images of Jesuits adopting Chinese fashions proliferated in late seventeenth-century Europe. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
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