PSALMANAZAR (GEORGE) Autograph letter signed ("G Psalmanaazaar"), to the Rev Samuel Reynolds, 1706
Lot 71*
PSALMANAZAR (GEORGE) Autograph letter signed ("G Psalmanaazaar"), to the Rev Samuel Reynolds, 1706
Sold for £4,000 (US$ 6,723) inc. premium
Lot Details
Autograph letter signed ("G Psalmanaazaar"), to the Rev Samuel Reynolds, Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, devoting most of the letter to "a Hymn to St Occasionall Conformity sung at the same time & in the same words (mutatis mutandis) as The Hymne to St Jack, By the Gent.n of the other side" (comprising forty-one lines, beginning: "Help glimmering source of dimm infernall Light..."); with a postscript giving news of Defoe and hoping to be in Oxford again by Lady Day (25 March); tipped onto a leaf bearing the label of the Captain F.L. Pleadwell Collection, Honolulu, 2 pages, on paper watermarked with the City of London arms, address panel on verso, postmarked and bearing a fine impression of Psalmanazar's 'Formosan' seal, guard, small seal-tear professionally made good, some scattered foxing and light creasing, folio, London, datestamped 'NO/ 9' and docketed 9 November 1706


  • A RARE LETTER BY THE 'FORMOSAN' IMPOSTER PSALMANAZAR, REPORTING ON THE DOINGS OF DANIEL DEFOE: "We have no news here worthy of your Knowledge it is sayd Daniel De Foe is gone into Scotland to apease his dearly beloved the mobb who they say is a little tumultuous upon this union". (Defoe, then acting as an agent of the Government after the Union with Scotland earlier that year, had played a leading part in agitation against those who practised 'occasional conformity', i.e. nonconformists who occasionally took Anglican communion solely to qualify for office under the legislation then prevailing).

    Psalmanazar – whose real name is unknown – was born in southern France and educated under the Jesuits and Dominicans. As a young man he took to travel, posing first as a Japanese convert to Christianity, inventing his own version of Japanese, with characters resembling those of Greek and Hebrew (which are to be seen on the seal of our letter). He also, according to his later memoirs added 'many other particulars equally difficult, such as a considerable piece of a new language and grammar, a new division of the year into twenty months, a new religion, &c. and all out of my own head' (Memoirs, p. 137). To make his origins even more exotic, he went on to claim that he was a native of Formosa (Taiwan) which he described as culturally and politically dependent on Japan. While serving in the army, he met a British chaplain who baptized him into the Church of England, after which he was invited to Oxford in order to teach Formosan to student missionaries. In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa and became a celebrity: 'Among his entertaining but suspicious claims were that Formosa was Japanese rather than Chinese; that the state religion, founded by an avatar named Psalmanaazaar, required the annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of nine; and that the production of children was facilitated by the encouragement of polygamy, although adultery was absolutely forbidden' (Robert DeMaria, jun., ODNB).

    A rising tide of scepticism notwithstanding, he maintained his imposture and in 1707 published a Dialogue between a Japanese and a Formosan about some parts of the Religion of the Japanese. But by the following year support was growing thin. After another spell in the army, he was to spend the rest of his life as pious hack writer and, inspired by Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), made a full confession of his imposture. In old age he was greatly respected for his piety and was sought out by Samuel Johnson who said of him 'I should as soon think of contradicting a Bishop'.

    Psalmanazar's career continues to exert fascination: 'The obvious cultural milieu in which to place Psalmanazar is the impostors and forgers of the eighteenth century, including William Lauder, Thomas Chatterton, James MacPherson, and Richard Savage. In these and many other cases of forgery and assumed identity in the period, the impostor imagined he had access to hidden information and that he himself was in touch with a deeper or older, often more 'natural', tradition of knowledge than that accepted by the current establishment. The flourishing of such forgers at this time may have been a response to the increased professionalization of knowledge during the period... Psalmanazar's work, despite its fabrication, also has a place in the history of ethnography' (DeMaria, op.cit.).

    Samuel Reynolds, to whom this and most surviving Psalmanazar letters are written, was among the most loyal (or gullible) of his early supporters, and was father of Sir Joshua. There is no record of any letter or manuscript by Psalmanazar having been sold at auction in ABPC.
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  1. Simon Roberts
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
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