Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The king of Madagascar

Maurice, Count de Benyovszky, was born 270 years ago today. A gloriously romantic figure, a nobleman who fought for different countries across Europe and during the American revolution, he was also the self-declared king of Madagascar, having claimed it, at various times, for France, Austria, and American business associates. He died, killed in a skirmish with the French, when only 39; nevertheless, he left behind a journal/memoir of his colourful life.

Benyovszky (spelled in various ways) was born into a noble family on 20 September 1746 in Verb√≥ (then within Hungary, part of the Hapsburg Emprire, now near Trnava in Slovakia). His parents died when he was 14, and two years later he began his career as an officer of the Habsburg army during the Seven Years’ War. He became involved in a legal dispute over family inheritances, which led to him fleeing the country.

In 1768 Benyovszky joined the Confederation of Bar, a Polish national movement against Russian intervention. He was captured by the Russians, interned in Kazan, and later exiled to Kamchatka, in the east of Siberia. Before long, though, he had organised a rebellion of Polish prisoners, seized weapons as well as a Russian vessel. He sailed through the northern Pacific Ocean, landing at Taiwan, Macau (where he and the rebels exchanged their vessel) and Madagascar, reaching France in mid-1772, where he learned of his promotion to general in the Polish Confederation.

Benyovszky returned to Madagascar in 1774, with French royal approval and a large number of volunteers, to establish a colony. He set about unifying local tribes, building a fortified garrison with a hospital, and even introduced a Latin script for the language. Having been appointed governor by the French king, the island’s inhabitants named him emperor. On returning to France, he was made a French general and awarded the Order of Saint Louis. He became friends with Benjamin Franklin, in Paris at the time, and the Polish nobleman and military commander, Cazimir Pulaski. However, his further proposals for Madagascar were rejected by the French, and he returned to Central Europe. There, he obtained a pardon from the Austrian Empress and Queen of Hungary, Maria Teresa, who also promoted him to the status of Count in 1778. He was empowered to take control of Madagascar in the the name of Austria, though nothing seems to have come of this.

After serving in the Austrian army during the War of the Bavarian Succession, Benyovszky followed his friend Pulaski to the American colonies and fought on the side of the revolution. Pulaski is said to have died in his arms at the siege of Savannah, after which Benyovszky returned to Austria. In 1781, he was again in North America, and, with a plan to raise a body of German troops for America, was introduced to George and Mary Washington. Although initially well received, the plan failed to materialise. Back in Europe, he approached the British government to give support for an expedition to Madagascar, which was not forthcoming. With the help of Franklin and Hyacinth de Magellan, he founded an American-British company for trading with Madagascar. In 1785, he arrived once again on the island, where he developed a trade settlement (Mauritania, named after himself). The French, though, were outraged by his alliance with the Americans; and during one attack, in May 1786, Benyovszky was killed. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Slovakopedia, Polish History, or a website managed by the Benyovszky family.

In the early 1780s, Benyovszky gave his friend Magellan four volumes of memoirs written in French. Magellan had them translated into English and they were published for the first time in 1789. A century later, at the end of the 19th century, they were published again by T. Fisher Unwin as Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus Count de Benyowsky Magnate of the Kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, one of the Chiefs of the Confederation of Poland etc. etc. with an introduction, notes and bibliography by Captain S. Pasfield Oliver. This, and earlier editions, are freely available at Internet Archive. The memoir starts with a biographical account of Benyovszky’s early life, written in the third person but nonetheless inspired by Benyovszky himself. Benyovszky’s journal/memoir commences in January 1770 and finishes in late 1776. Some of the narrative does read like a journal, with dated entries, but more often it reads like a memoir written in retrospect (e.g. ‘On the 6th, in the Straits, we joined a Spanish armed frigate, named the Pallas; and on the 16th of March, we arrived safely in France.’) The following extracts come from the Oliver edition.

15 October 1771
‘On the 15th, the associates met by my order. I informed them, that I was assured that a number among them were discontented with me; for which reason 1 thought proper to declare to them, that all those who were desirous of seeking their fortune elsewhere, were at liberty to quit me; and that as they had all received a retribution at my hands at the island of Formosa, I thought myself acquitted from them. I had scarcely made an end, before Mr. Stephanow loaded me with invectives, and charged me with an intention of depriving the company of their share of the advantages I was about to receive, from the knowledge I had acquired during the voyage; and that the moderation I had shewn at Formosa, in delivering my share of the presents of Prince Huapo, was merely a scheme to deprive them of greater advantages. He then excited the companions to throw off my authority, by assuring them that he would secure them a large fortune the instant they should determine to put my papers in his hands, and follow his party. The infamous plot of this wretch was nothing extraordinary; hut when I understood that he was supported by Sir. Wynbladth, my ancient Major, the companion of my exile, and my friend, I was incapable of setting bounds to my indignation, and could not avoid declaring, that their proceedings were highly disgraceful; and to confound them, I displayed their secret projects to the company, and justified my words by shewing Mr. Jackson’s letter, which convinced them that Messrs. Stephanow and Wynbladth, under pretence of serving the company, were desirous of securing the five thousand pounds to their own use. They were highly irritated, and threatened them; but Stephanow preserved a party of eleven, with whom he went to my lodgings; and while I remained in conversation with my friends, he seized my box, in which he supposed my papers were deposited. As soon as I heard of this outrage, I went to his chamber, followed by twenty associates; and as he refused to open the door, I broke it down. On my entrance he fired a pistol at me, which missed. In consequence of this attempt, I gave orders for seizing and keeping him in strict confinement; and as it was necessary likewise to secure Mr. Wynbladth, I went to his chamber; but he had retired into the garden, armed with a pair of pistols and a sabre. I determined to shut him in, being convinced that he could not get over the walls on account of their great height. This whole affair passed without the least alarm without, as the doors of the house were shut.’

16 October 1771
‘On the 16th, Mr. Wynbladth, fatigued by a continual rain, and perhaps urged by hunger, requested forgiveness, and surrendered himself to two companions I had appointed to watch him. Having thus made sure of these two turbulent men, I thought it proper they should be separated from the company; and they were therefore conducted to the castle by permission of the Governor: the officers of our company, being desirous of avenging themselves on the English emissaries, played them a trick, the whole effect of which fell upon a Jewish agent, who was severely flogged. Upon this wretch there were found minutes of proposals which he made to the companions, as follow:
1. That the English would pay to each associate one thousand piastres, in case they would serve the company, and put my papers in his hands.
2. That in case the associates refused to take the English party, the company would arrest them by force, in the name of the Empress of Russia, to deliver them up.
3. That the company would answer for obtaining the Empress’s pardon for them, if they would determine to make a voyage to Japan, and the Aleuthes Islands.

Such proceedings cannot attributed to men of sense. It was in my opinion a forgery, concerted between Mr. Stephanow and the Jew, to excite the associates against me.’

2 January 1772
‘On the 2d, I sold my vessel to a Portugueze merchant, for the sum of four thousand five hundred piastres, ready money, and as much on credit: the Governor reserved to himself the whole of the stores.’

14 January 1772
‘On the 14th, we quitted Macao, where the Governor saluted me with twenty-one guns, from the principal fortress; and, after a tedious passage, we arrived at last at the mouth of the Tigu; where we were very civilly received by a Mandarin, though he at first refused to permit us to go on shore: the sight of a purse of piastres, however, abated his severity; which was so much altered by this circumstance, that he offered permission for us to take lodgings in the fort.’

12 April 1772
‘On the 12th, we anchored at the Island of Madagascar, where I went on shore at Fort Dauphin. Some particulars of information I had received from the Governor of the isle of France, induced me to wish for more ample information, respecting this fine and extensive island; but unfortunately for this purpose, I could not prolong my stay.’

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