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