A Quest for a New Eden: “Emperor of Madagascar” Maurice Benyovszky and His Russian Companions
This article explores the strategies of the famous 18th-century European adventurer Maurice Benyovszky and the reasons that inspired his Russian companions to follow him on a dangerous journey after the uprising in Kamchatka in 1771. The quest for new colonies by Russian fugitives is connected with the transformation of the archetype of Eden in different topoi and plots of travelogues and fiction. The dream of colonising a distant exotic island was part of the “Eden aspirations” of the 18th century. In his memoirs, Benyovszky repeatedly expressed a dream to establish a European colony on an exotic island and even drafted memoranda of its principles. However, Benyovszky’s memoirs, which contained imaginary descriptions of islands, were heavily influenced by the genres of geographic utopias, robinsonades, and pirate novels, which also included descriptions of “pleasant places”. Benyovszky describes a fictional colony in the Commander and Aleutian Islands, founded by the noble pirate and Russian fugitive Ivan Okhotin. He creates a biography of his imaginary double, a fighter for freedom who controls the uninhabited islands. In his memoirs, he fabricates an idyll of an imaginary desert island of Humidity that nevertheless brings salvation to the travellers and expands the size of the idyll even more for Usma Island, where the travellers get a most cordial welcome. On the island of Formosa, they have to take part in an imaginary war. His projects resulted in the creation of a French colony on the island of Madagascar between 1774 and 1776, which was joined by some of his Russian companions: this was followed by Benyovszky being proclaimed “emperor” of the island. Benyovszky’s return to the island in 1785 and his death in a fight with the French demonstrate that the establishment of a colony based on the principles of reason and mutual benefit of the colonists and aboriginal people was very valuable to him. The author makes an attempt to reconstruct the ideal of a “new Eden” on the basis of the genre conventions and popular travelogues of the mid-18th century.
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