Historical Oddities: Maurice Benyovszky

Throughout history, there have global travelers and explorers whose adventures are remembered to this day. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta are only the most famous and remembered of these pre-modern globetrotters. In the 1700s, the Hungarian Maurice Benyovszky led an adventurous life that took him through Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America in a lifelong journey that would befit a historical epic.

Maurice Benyovszky was born in the town of Vrbove in what is now western Slovakia to parents of Austrian and Hungarian nobility in 1746. Both Maurice’s parents died when he was 14, and he joined the Austrian army to provide for his siblings. Maurice served briefly as an Austrian officer in the Seven Years War, but soon deserted the army. He lived on his mother’s property that had been legally inherited by his brother-in-law after her death until 1765. When his mother’s family filed a complaint against him, he was brought before a tribunal for both this charge and for desertion of the Austrian army. Before the trial was over, however, Maurice fled to neighboring Poland where he joined the Confederation of Bar. The Bar Confederation was an uprising by Polish nobles against king Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who had been installed as king by the Russian Empire. Benyovszky fought with the Confederation between 1768 and 1770, during which he was briefly imprisoned in Stara Lubovna castle and fought with Casimir Pulaski in the Ukraine. In 1770 Maurice Benyovszky was captured again by Russia who sent him to a prison camp in Kazan, then after an escape attempt across to Kamchatka on the Siberian Pacific coast.

Benyovscky remained in exile in Kamchatka for two years. In May of 1771, he organized a rebellion of Polish prisoners that managed to overwhelm the Russians and capture weapons, money, and a Russian warship. Benyovszky commandeered the ship and set sail. In the next months, the ship went past the Aleutian Islands, a small part of the Alaskan coast, Japan, and after a two week expedition landing on Taiwan, arrived at the Portuguese port of Macao on the southern Chinese coast. At Macao the Polish rebels sold the captured ship and contacted French diplomats who had been sympathetic to the Bar Confederation. From there, Benyovszky and his companions boarded another ship and sailed to France, stopping briefly in Madagascar.

After arriving in France, Benyovszky arranged an audience with King Louis XV. Taking advantage of this, Benyovszky proposed the establishment of a French colony in Taiwan or Madagascar and gained the king’s support for an expedition. Louis XV declared Benyovszky a count and made him Governor of Madagascar, coordinating an expedition to the island. Benyovszky’s expedition arrived on the north coast of Madagascar in 1774 with 250 men and established a settlement named Louisbourg. During the next two years, Benyovszky established relations with the natives, some of which declared him their ruler, and introduced the Latin script into the Malagasy language. In 1776, Benyovszky was recalled to Paris where he was made a general and king Louis XVI awarded him with the Order of Saint Louis and a life pension. While in Paris, Benyovszky met Casimir Pulaski again and struck up a friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and Benyovszky often played chess during Franklin’s time in Paris. Through Franklin, Benyovszky sent a proposal to the Continental Congress to establish an American colony on Madagascar as a base to fight the British. The proposal was rejected due to not wanting to antagonize France.

During this time, Benyovszky also gained an audience with the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa through his French diplomatic contacts. He was granted a pardon for his crimes as a young man and traveled to Vienna. Maria Theresa made him a count in Austria and he joined the Austrian army to fight in the War of the Bavarian Succession for two years until 1779. While in Austria, Benyvoszky also proposed improvements to maritime trade in Hungary, but these proposals were rejected by the Austrian court.

In 1779, Benyovszky followed Casimir Pulaski to the American colonies when Pulaski joined the war effort there. Benyovszky offered his services to the Continental Congress and fought in the Siege of Savannah. However, Pulaski died at the siege and Benyovszky lost his benefactor in the colonies, and so returned to Austria. In 1782, Benyovszky traveled back to the United States where he met with General Washington and Baron von Steuben and discussed with them the raising of troops in Germany to fight for the United States. While Washington and von Steuben approved the plan, the Continental Congress rejected it after a favorable change in policy in Great Britain. With another failure of his efforts in the United States, Benyovszky returned to Austria. On the way, he stopped in Haiti to visit his brother who was serving with the French army there.

Back in Austria, Benyovszky sought the favor of the new emperor, Joseph II. The Emperor granted Benyovszky special privilege and authorized an expedition to Madagascar, this time to establish an Austrian colony there. Once again, Benyovszky would be the governor of the island. However, the project was never funded. Benyovszky next went to London and Baltimore where he yet again attempted to gather support for an expedition to Madagascar. This time, he was more successful. With assistance from Benjamin Franklin and London publisher J. H. Magellan, Benyovszky established an American-British trading company to establish trade with Madagascar. Benyovszky sailed out of Baltimore in 1784, but was delayed when the ship blew off course and had to repair off the coast of Brazil. The expedition did not arrive until the next year. Benyovszky captured the French settlement of Foulpointe, and established the settlement of Mauritania in northeastern Madagascar from where he planned to create his own kingdom. In 1786, the French sent an expedition from Pondicherry in India to take back Foulpointe. Benyovszky took a bullet in the chest and died during the skirmish as the French landed. He was buried in Mauritania.

So if Maurice Benyovszky did all this, why is he not better known? Surely a tale of adventure would be popular enough to gain some recognition. In fact, it did. While in London, Benyovszky published his memoirs with J. H. Magellan, and by 1800 they were a best seller and had been translated and published in several European countries. Around this time an opera and a play were written about his adventures. The performance of the five act play in Baltimore in October of 1814 is supposedly the first time the Star Spangled Banner was performed after it was written. Today, Benyovszky is also considered a national hero in his native Slovakia, as well as in Poland and Hungary. His name has also lasted in Madagascar. Several cities including Antananarivo, the capital, have streets named Rue Benyovski after him.

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