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Beňovský on Madagascar: The Self-fashioning, Career and Knowledge Production of a Central European Actor in the French Colonial Empire

  • Damien Tricoire (a1)


In the eighteenth century, the French administration usually did not appoint foreigners to leading functions. The Upper Hungarian nobleman Móric Beňovský, who was commissioned by the French king to build a colony on Madagascar, was an exception. Soon, Beňovský developed fanciful accounts of his experience on Madagascar and eventually he became famous across Europe. His case raises the question about the conditions that foreigners had to fulfil in order to make a career in the French empire. This article seeks to answer the question of whether Beňovský’s Upper Hungarian origins contributed to shaping his career, self-fashioning, policy and knowledge production, that is, orientated these in a way that differed from the French colonisers. It claims that Beňovský chose to fictionalise his life and to conjure lies about his experiences on Madagascar because it was the only way to make a career in a system otherwise dominated by established networks of patronage. Furthermore, Beňovský’s fanciful information policy gives some insight into the way information was produced in the French empire: it shows that Versailles was very much dependent on a few informants, and that the logic of court patronage played a great role in knowledge production. Beyond that, the fact that Beňovský’s fantastic stories were considered trustworthy by the elite across the continent says a lot about European colonial imagination in the Enlightenment period.



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1.See the documents on the early phase of the Compagnie des Indes: Archives nationales d’Outre-mer (thereafter ANOM), C 5A 1; see also E. de Flacourt (2007) Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar (Paris: Karthala), pp. 305, 365, 404.
2. Cultru, P. (1906) Un Empereur de Madagascar au XVIIIe siècle. Benyowszky (Paris: Challamel); L. Orłowski (1961) Beniowski (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna).
3. Charles, L. and Cheney, P. (2013) The colonial machine dismantled: Knowledge and empire in the French Atlantic. Past and Present, 219, pp. 127163, 128–130.
4. Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday).
5. Raj, K. (2007) Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave); A. Bala (2006) The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science (Basingstoke: Palgrave).
6. Foury, B. (1955) Maudave et la colonisation de Madagascar (1ère partie). Revue d’histoire des colonies, 41, pp. 343404.
7. Tricoire, D. (2017) Enlightened colonialism? French assimilationism, silencing, and colonial fantasy on Madagascar. In: Damien Tricoire (Ed.), Enlightened Colonialism (Basingstoke: Palgrave), pp. 4770.
8. de Flacourt, E. (2007) Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar (Paris: Karthala), pp. 103104, 420–437.
9.Archives nationales d’outre-mer (thereafter ANOM), Dépôt des fortifications des colonies (thereafter DFC), 88, no. 40 (fol. 1), no. 26 (fol. 5).
10.Musée d’histoire naturelle (thereafter MHN), Ms. 888, p. 27; See also MHN, Ms. 888, pp. 14, 56.
11. Belmessous, S. (2005) Assimilation and racialism in seventeenth and eighteenth-century French colonial policy. American Historical Review, 110, pp. 322349.
12. Michel, P. (1988) Barbarie, civilisation, vandalisme. In: R. Reichardt and E. Schmitt (Eds), Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich, 1680–1820 (München: Oldenbourg), pp. 749.
13. Löwith, K. (1953) Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschehen. Die theologischen Voraussetzungen der Geschichtsphilosophie (Stuttgart), pp. 9598 R. Mortier (1969) ‘Lumière’ et ‘Lumières’. Histoire d’une image et d’une idée. In: R. Mortier (Ed.), Clartés et ombres du siècle des Lumières. Etudes sur le XVIIIe siècle littéraire (Genève:), pp. 13–59, p. 35–6.
14. Baudeau, N. (1766) Des colonies françaises aux Indes occidentales, Éphémérides du citoyen ou Chroniques de l’esprit national, 5, pp. 17–78, 60; N. Baudeau (1763) Idées d’un Citoyen sur la puissance du Roi et le commerce de la Nation dans l’Orient (Amsterdam), pp. 16–28.
15.Voltaire, Correspondence and Related Documents (Œuvres complètes vols. 85-135), edited by T. Besterman (1968–1977) (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation), vol. 43 (August-September 1760), pp. 126, 167–168; Voltaire, Correspondence and Related Documents (Œuvres complètes vols. 85-135), edited by T. Besterman (1968–1977) (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation), vol. 44 (October-December 1760), pp. 17–19, 27–28, 254.
16.The best source for understanding what happened is Maudave’s diary, held at the Musée d’histoire naturelle (MHN), Ms. 888. See also Foury, Maudave (première partie) and Foury, Maudave (deuxième partie). On the reaction of the Minister of the Navy to Maudave’s failure see Boynes’ letter to Ternay and Maillart, 19 March 1773: ANOM, DFC, XVII/mémoires/88, nr. 42, fol. 1.
17.Archives du Ministère des Affaires étrangères (thereafter MAE), Asie 4, no. 50, fols. 110–115.
18.Quite contradictory to his own story of a peaceful expansion, Beňovský also told stories of glorious wars in which he allegedly demonstrated incredible courage. See for example ANOM, DFC, 88, no. 59.
19. Philipps, R. (1997) Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure (London: Routledge).
20. Fougère, E. (1995) Les Voyages et l’Ancrage. Représentation de l’espace insulaire à l’âge classique et aux Lumières (1615-1797) (Paris: L’Harmattan).
21. Green, M. (1990) The Robinson Crusoe Story (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press), R. Philipps (1997) Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure (London: Routledge).
22.On the image of patriotic heroes in the eighteenth century: R.G. Asch (2016) Herbst des Helden. Modelle des Heroischen und heroische Lebensentwürfe in England und Frankreich von den Religionskriegen bis zum Zeitalter der Aufklärung. Ein Essay (Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag), pp. 20, 126–133.
23.BnF, MF, NAF no. 9413, fol. 346.
24.‘Mémoire sur l’expédition de Madagascar’ authored by Beňovský.
25. Orłowski, L. (1961) Beniowski (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna), pp. 108113.
26.Untitled (except ‘Carton no. 10, no. 41’: ANOM, Séries géographiques, MAD 150 207, fol. 3.
27.For example, it was not the expert Valgny who was tasked with the creation of a colony on Madagascar, but Maudave, who had never seen this island before. The reason was that Maudave had known the minister Choiseul-Praslin since he was a young man, as Choiseul-Praslin himself writes: ANOM, DFC, XVII/mémoires/88, no. 31, fol. 1.
28. Beňovský, M. (1791) Voyages et mémoires de Maurice-Auguste, Comte de Benyowsky, vol. 2 (Paris: Buisson), pp. 440441.
29. Ms, MHN 3001, Journal de Maudave, p. 51.
30. Leduc-Fayette, D. (1974) Jean-Jacques Rousseau et le mythe de l’antiquité (Paris: Vrin), pp. 71101.
31. Beňovský, M. (1790) Des Grafen Moritz August von Beniowski Reisen durch Sibirien und Kamtschatka über Japan und China nach Europa. Nebst einem Auszuge seiner übrigen Lebensgeschichte. Aus dem Englischen übersetzt, mit Anmerkungen von Johann Reinhold Forster, Professor der Naturgeschichte und Mineralogie in Halle, Mitglied der königlichen preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, mit Kupfern (Berlin: Voß), (introduction); G. Forster (1985) Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe. Kleine Schriften zur Völker- und Länderkunde (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 29–44.


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