Backpackers are a strange lot, with their lofty ideals and flighty minds. Words such as explorer and venture get thrown around frequently, from the comfort of hostel common rooms behind tablets and smart phones. Times gone by were a little different for those travelling, and in the 18th century internet signals were so bad that if one wanted to explore, one had to explore. A man who was born in Slovakia, was imprisoned and escaped from deepest Siberia and went on to become the King of Madagascar probably deserves to be referred to as an ‘explorer’. His name was Móric Benyovszky, well Mauritius Augustus Count de Benyowsky to a degree, and this is his story.
Born in Vrbove near Trnava in 1746, Móric was the son of cavalry general Count Samuel Benyovszky, who had the misfortune of dying before Móric escaped his teens. Just as he got into his teens actually, and Benyovsky was the guardian of his siblings from the age of 14. There was a considerable inheritance waiting for Móric, but being the 18th century his relatives managed to wangle him out of it. Somewhat slighted, Móric decided to head off on his travels and see the world, and subsequently headed to the Netherlands and England to learn about ship building and navigation. This is somewhat grander than ‘riding elephants in Cambodia’, for sure. The incredible journey of Móric Benyovszky would begin with the beginning of the Seven Years War, the conflict that took in all major powers of the world towards the end of the 18th century. He was a Hapsburg officer at this point, but was eventually kicked out of the army because of his natural rebelliousness and his lack of religious beliefs. Anti-authority attitudes weren’t readily put up with back in the days of the great empires, and Benyovsky was particularly spiky. His attitude towards religion was more one of apathy than any outward disdain, but apathy was the equivalent of being against in these days. Out the army he went, and thus was born Moric Benyovsky the explorer extraordinaire.
His first jaunt was planned for India, but the lure of fighting Russians in Poland was too strong. 1768 saw him join the national movement in Poland aimed at hindering, well, preferably stopping the Russian advances on the country. Benyovszky’s nationality has been up for debate on a number of occasions, and he has added much to the debate himself. He was born in Slovakia, spoke Slovakian, and was Slovakian. It was during his time fighting the Russians that his Polish sentiments grew, to the point where he would often refer to himself as Polish. His efforts in Poland were unsuccessful though, and Benyovsky would find himself a Russian captive.
Móric was sent to Kazan, but his imprisonment here wasn’t the harshest. Reading material was plenty, and the relatively cozy environment allowed for Benyovszky to begin plotting against the governor of the jail. His plan was unearthed though, and our little explorer was sent slightly further afield. 12 miserable months of travel later, Móric Benyovszky found himself imprisoned in deepest, darkest Siberia, or Kamchatka to be exact.
This wasn’t the end for ol’ Maurice though, not by a long shot. Put yourself in the following situation and ask the question; you are imprisoned in Siberia, what are you to do? Most would serve their sentence and either put up with it or perish doing so. Benyovsky? Well, he only had one option. He rallied together his fellow prisoners and escaped, then captured the fort of a local governor as well as the heart of the governor’s daughter. Nice. The prisoners at Kamchatka were allowed to carry arms, ostensibly to defend themselves against the bears and wolves of the Russian Far East, but the whole ‘we already have guns’ thing surely assisted the eventual escape of Móric and his fellow prisoners. He commandeered a Russian battleship, as you do, and set out on quite possibly the ultimate trip of discovery.
Free to voyage as he pleased, Móric Benyovszky became the very first European to sail the North Pacific seas. His travels took him everywhere, including Japan, Alaska, Macau and Mexico (where he was arrested again) before ending in Madagascar. Well, Móric had to spend some time in France first, where King Louis XV gave him permission to establish trading posts on the island. He fell deeply in love with the island, which was still independent at the time under tribal rule. Benyovsky put forward to Louis that he head back to Madagascar and attempt to establish a French colony there. Why not I guess. It was an ambitious idea, but Benyovsky could never be accused of lacking the stuff.
Before he knew it, Móric Benyovszky was the King of Madagascar. I don’t think the ridiculousness of that will ever really settle in my brain, the fact that a Slovak explorer somehow became king of an island off the coast of Africa. It’s legitimately insane. How Móric got into that position is equally ridiculous, and in truth it all seems a little implausible. Madagascar was home to many tribes, and one of the biggest (the Sambarivas) were in a little pickle. You see, the king’s daughter had been captured and sold to another tribe. Móric sensed an opportunity, and using the testimony of a women he had brought with him from Mauritius (don’t ask) he claimed to be the son of the kidnapped daughter. At this point, I feel that the people of Madagascar simply shrugged their shoulder and said ‘sure, you be king then’. Otherwise, how does that make sense?
Even so, Móric became quite popular on the island, and he had a very real love for Madagascar. He even began forming an army of sorts, a home guard, although this could very well have been to protect himself against the more miffed Malagasy. His peculiar ambition would grow and grow, to the point where he started planning the formation of an independent state. This went against France’s original ideas for Madagascar, so any help that they had previously provided was cut abruptly short. They began to see Benyovszky as more of a hindrance than help. Benyovszky himself would leave the island not long after, as the tropical diseases were ravaging his crew and he needed some backing.
To France he went, but his increasing ambitions had seen him fall out of favour. Undeterred he headed to his homeland in Slovakia, but only found war with Prussia. He tried England, the land where he had learned about shipbuilding and navigation, but the English weren’t interested in his crazy plans.
His travels continued and he found himself in the United States in 1779. He befriended Benjamin Franklin, because he was quite obviously one of the most engaging characters the world has ever seen. He fought in the American Revolution. His new idea was that the Americans could use Madagascar as a base for fighting the English, and he sought their support in continuing to build his colony. Madagascar was his great love, and it is almost fitting that it would be on the island that his story in life came to an end. The Malagasy weren’t so fond of him at this point however, and upon returning to Madagascar Benyovszy had some pretty angry native people to deal with. The French also attempted to retake Madagascar, and battles would break out on the island. At one such scuffle in 1786, Benyovsky was fatally shot, cutting his life tragically short.
Even today, Móric Benyovzsky is considered a national hero in both Slovakia and Madagascar. He has been the inspiration for writers, poets and composers with countless works based on his life. Books, operas, TV series and poems have been written about his adventures, and why wouldn’t there be? Benyovszky managed to achieve in 40 years more than most people would in multiple lifetimes. His was a true cosmopolitan spirit. Benyovszky was a citizen of the world in the most literal sense, a globetrotter with an insatiable curiosity. He was the first best selling Slovakia author, and in 1996 a silver coin was issued commemorating his 250th birthday. His name is one of the few to survive the post-colonial age in Africa, proving as popular today as he was at any time during his own life. Móric Benyovszky was in fact fairly typical of his time; equal parts explorer and imposter, hero and fraud. Regardless, he had one heck of a life.
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