Monday, January 28, 2008

The King of Formosa

The 18th and 19th centuries produced a flood of uniquely gifted and adventurous individuals, like Alexander von Humboldt, Jean-Francois de La Perouse, Richard Burton, and James Cook. One of the lesser known but still fascinating fruits of this amazing crop was Maurice Benovsky, the self-styled King of Formosa.

Benovsky was born in Vrbova, Hungary (now Slovakia) in 1746, a Hungarian nobleman. He left his native land at 22 and joined the Polish confederation, to fight for Polish independence against the Russians. In 1770 he was captured by the Russians and exiled to Kamchatka after a stint in Kazan

Nothing daunted, Benovsky fomented a prison revolt, captured the governor's fort, and made off with his daughter to boot. One of the few educated men in the area, the hapless governor had appointed him to teach his daughter to play the piano. He then stole a Russian ship, and reflagging it as a vessel of the Polish Confederacy, sailed through the Northern Pacific, traveling by way of the Aleutians, Alaska, Japan, and Taiwan, where, he recorded, he became King of Formosa. In 1771 he reached Macao where the governor's daughter died (Wiki says she was accidentally killed in Russia in an ambush). Selling the captured Russian ship and purchasing a new one, he set off for Europe, passing by Madagascar on the way.

In 1772 he reached France, where he found out that he had been made a general in the Polish Confederation, and had scored an international reputation. He suggested to Louis XV that the King establish a protectorate over Formosa or Madagascar. Louis was not interested in Formosa, and the King appointed him governor of the Madgascar instead, and gave him the title of Count. The King of Formosa went off to become the governor of Madagascar.

In 1774 Benovsky, a group of French soldiers behind him, arrived off Madagascar. He established a colony in what is now Antongil Bay, and explored the island. His efforts to create a unified island population paid off in 1776 when he was named emperor by the locals. However, French colonial officials on nearby French-held islands sent negative reports back to Paris on his work.

That same year Benovsky was also made a French general upon his return to Paris. The King of France, however, ignored him, so he turned to Austria. Maria Therese gave him a pardon and the title of Count, and he worked overseeing a road project for her. She empowered him to take control of Madagascar for Austria.

While in Paris Benovsky became close to Benjamin Franklin and Casimir Pulaski. In 1779 he went to American with Pulaski and the Emperor of Madagascar joined the American Revolution. Pulaski would die in his arms at the Battle of Savannah. In 1781 he went back to Europe to raise a legion of troops for the Americans. Two years later he published his memoirs, which were an instant bestseller, becoming a rich source of materials for turn of the century operas, plays, and books. He returned to Madagascar, and there, the King of Formosa was killed in 1786, fighting the French.

Sources: Slovak Encyclopedia, this page with his state flags, Wikipedia


Tommy said...

Wow! What an awesome life story. However, I find it disturbingly ironic that a man who set off to fight for independence for his own country and for the United States proclaimed himself emperor of Formosa, and became French colonial governor of Madagascar as well as Austrian "colonial governor" of the same place.

Michael Turton said...

Not only that, but the main export of Madagascar under his crown was -- what else? -- slaves.

Nevertheless, a larger-than-life figure, and extremely interesting. Our age doesn't give us much chance to do this kind of thing anymore.


Anonymous said...

an article you might be interested in:

Anonymous said...

“Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Count de Benyowsky” – 1st Publication, London 1790. Available at, favor of Prof. Hideo Fukazawa.

The first half deals with the Okinawan leg of the odyssey. Read this action-packed 92 pages extract from vol. 2 of Benyowsky’s memoirs where he gives an account of his involvement into yet another instance of Taiwanese internecine feud under the perennial “Chinese yoke” (in his words) between August 26 and September 12, 1771.

Prof. Fukazawa's field is social anthropology. He has been doing field work with the Tsimihety tribe of Madagascar for the last 25 or 30 years. He is on the faculty at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA), Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (東京外国語大学アジア・アフリカ言語文化研究所). Prof. Fukazawa’s HP available in Japanese at:

Andre said...

michael, great story. very cool. also, "king of formosa" would make a very cool blog name for someone.