The Newsletter 59 Spring 2012

Science in a changing world

Gerard A. PersoonJan van der Ploeg

In 1703 the Frenchman George Psalmanazar travelled to London and claimed to be a native from Formosa. A year later he published a scientific book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, in which he gave an account of Formosan customs, language, geography and political economy. In Formosa, according to Psalmanazar, crocodiles and lions were common, and people rode on camels and ate snakes. His book was an enormous success. It went through two English editions and was translated into French and German. He was invited to Oxford University to lecture on his ‘native’ country. Skeptics occasionally questioned Psalmanazar, for example, on his physical appearance, but he cleverly deflected criticism: his skin was pale because the upper classes of Formosa lived in underground houses. Only in 1706 did Psalmanazar confess his fraud (Keevan 2004).

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