The 1790 first edition of Benyovszky's autobiographical Memoirs and Travels
(see right), on which a dozen other editions and translations were based, is an interesting collection of adventuresome tales. Despite the fact that, even in 1790, many of these tales were met with scepticism - not to say outright disbelief - by contemporaries who were familiar with the Far East and Madagascar, they touched a nerve in a reading public always greedy for novelty. According to Benyovszky, he escaped Kamchatka in an act of incredible chutzpah and daring. He then visited the cold shores of Alaska, a number of the Aleutian islands, several Pacific islands of paradise, skipped down far Japan, fought a war on Formosa, and arrived in enigmatical China. Later he established himself in the wildly fecund island of Madagascar and was made King by the grateful native peoples. Returning to Madagascar a second time some years later, he was killed by the perfidious French.
...or my Story?
It was a little distressing to realise that many of Baron Benyovszky's tales were pure fiction, and that most of the rest suffered from wild exaggeration.
Which is not to say that Benyovszky did not visit some of the places he claims to have visited, and meet some of the people he claims to have met. It's just that he got carried away. And therein, still, lies the heady attraction of his Memoirs. They take us back to a world that was still shiny and new, and lead us deep into the psyche of the European and Russian explorers of the 18th century. The chronicled life of Moric Benyovszky both entertains and instructs. The past is a place of some amusement for us sophisticates. But here we see an unknown world through Benyovszky's eyes, we stand in the shoes of his companions (those shoes, at least, which had not been boiled and eaten on a particularly famished day on the high seas).
Fortunately, two of the Baron's travelling companions on the voyage from Kamchatka to Macao also kept logs of their experiences. Certainly, these were by no means as detailed or as melodramatic as the Baron's. For all that, they have the ring of truth. One in particular, by the clerk Ivan Ryumin - who clearly came on the voyage just to get away from Kamchatka - is a delight: Ryumin was an avid collector of new experiences and didn't mind who knew it. These travellers' tales, and corroborating reports from contemporary Russian authorities, are now presented to the discerning public for the first time in English. Additionally, during Benyovszky's interesting times on Madagascar, the French authorities on nearby Mauritius kept a careful note of what he did and did not do. Aligning these accounts with Benyovsky's own journals makes for interesting perspectives.