Never heard of him? Believable.
Maurice (or Moric) Benyovszky was a Hungarian adventurer who died in 1786 at the age of thirty-nine, killed by French troops on Madagascar. Into his short life he packed more excitements and travels than any man could reasonably hope for. Fighting for the Polish insurgents in their brief war of independence against Imperial Russia, he was captured and sent to Siberia. He escaped in an act of incredible chutzpah and daring. He visited the cold shores of Alaska, several Pacific islands of paradise, far Japan, and enigmatic China. Later he established himself in the wildly fecund island of Madagascar and was made King by the grateful native peoples..
His traveller's tales, when they appeared in 1790, were a publishing sensation. In a period when the Far East was still quite unknown, the Memoirs took Europe by storm and were assiduously pirated all over the civilised world. Stage-plays and operas were written celebrating his life. He became - and still is - a national hero in Hungary and Slovakia.
The Story According to Benyovszky
In 1769 the young Benyovszky is captured in battle while fighting for Polish independence and is exiled to the furthest outpost of the Russian Empire: Kamchatka, a journey across Siberia that lasts a year. No sooner does he arrive in that desolate place, than he immediately sets about organising a escape-plan, breathtaking in its vision. He easily wins the trust of the existing company of fellow-exiles, not to mention the Governor, whose 16-year old daughter falls in love with him. As his plans develop, he defies several attempts on his life. By his innate brilliance and persuasiveness, he brings this plan to fruition within six months of his arrival. The exiles, along with a sizeable number of disaffected local residents, seize the supply-ship, the St Peter and St Paul
, and set sail for California, in search of freedom, social justice and sunshine.
In the weeks between May and September 1771, the adventurous band of 96 men and women sails north to the Bering Strait, east towards America, south again to the Aleutian Islands, then ever south and west through the islands of Japan, Formosa and - ultimately - to China. Frequently, captain, commander and crew have no idea where they are. (Consult the map, right). Notwithstanding which, Baron Benyovszky meets gentlemen pirates, he establishes contact with the natives of several islands and sets up trade agreements with them, sometimes leaving behind a member of his company to nurture the relationship until Benyovszky can return in triumph with a European trading fleet. On Formosa, the company goes one step further and assists a local warlord in conquering his rival in open battle, thus earning his undying friendship.
This extraordinary journey brings the companions up against extremes of cold and heat, of starvation and thirst, against pirates and mutineers, and throws them into contact with islanders who have never seen Europeans in their lives before. The result of these encounters varies from open war to friendly ceremonies of betrothal.
Arriving at last in the Chinese port of Macao, numbers of the surviving sixty-odd voyagers promptly expire. The remainder fight amongst themselves until, feeling insulted, Benyovszky sails off to France. He never returns to the East. Instead, the French King asks him to colonise Madagascar and develop trade there. He succeeds so well in this that the natives elect him 'King of Madagascar'.
Quite a Different 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 Maurice 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, and 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. But they compensate by having 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, will now be presented to the discerning public for the first time in English.
We also have some documents prepared by 18th century Japanese officials describing the arrival of the St Peter
on their shores. These make for interesting reading, not least because of their frank astonishment at the behaviour of the voyagers.
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. The French documents also describe Benyovszky's second visit to Madagascar and his untimely and ignominious end.
Aligning all of these accounts with Benyovsky's own Memoirs
provides much illumination.
To provide illumination is the task I have set myself. My book on Benyovszky is due out in September 2017. For more information about it, click here...