How Beniowski became the ruler of Madagascar
Not many discoverers or world travellers have made a name for themselves on the pages of Polish history. But one man that did was undoubtedly Beniowski – a valiant soldier, sailor, commander and even... king.
Maurycy August Beniowski was awakened by three successive cannon shots, but that did not surprise him. He knew that this artillery salute signalled the arrival of great day, 10 October 1776. For the first time since first arriving on Madagascar, where he had already spent three long years, he donned the local garb, the white flowing robe worn by local rulers known as rohandrians.
At six in the morning his tent was entered by Raffangour, the chief of the Sambariv tribe, and several other prominent rulers of the Malagasy.
“I was then led to a broad, beautiful plain, surrounded on all sides by natives, at least 30,000 in number. (…) The chiefs stood at the head with the womenfolk in the centre. When I entered the throng, I was greeted by a joyous outcry,” Beniowski wrote in his famous Journal.
The eldest chief, Raffangour, was the first to speak and presided over the ceremony. In florid language, he recalled the history of the Malagasy, the battles they had fought amongst themselves after their sole ruler ceased to be, and the oppression they had suffered at the hands of the French. Then they asked Beniowski to accept the title of ampansakaba or supreme ruler, reigning over all the Malagasy rohandrians. Beniowski of course accepted, fulfilling the conditions jointly agreed with the rohandrians over several preceding days. He also had to perform a few rituals.
The society of Madagascar was divided into castes. The new king of kings successively paid visits to them all, personally butchering oxen, and his new subjects dipped their swords in the animal blood and licked off the droplets dripping from their blades, whilst swearing their oath of loyalty. Beniowski and the principal Malagasy leaders were thereupon joined by their bonds of blood, when they slashed their arms and sucked the blood from the wounds “violently cursing anyone who would dare violate their oaths and blessing those who uphold their vows.”
Finally, an act of election was drafted in the Malagasy language in Latin script and read out three times to those gathered in the plain and then signed on behalf of the natives by Hiawi, the rohandrian of the East, Lamboin – rohandrian of the North, and Raffangour – the rohandrian of the Sambarivians. The white Bourbon flag flying over the fort was then immediately removed and a sky-blue one symbolising Madagascar's independence was hoisted up the mast.
And that is how Maurycy Beniowski, a Polish member of the Bar Confederation, an exile and later a fugitive who escaped from captivity in Kamchatka, became an ampansakaba – the rule of all of Madagascar. How did that come about?
A rebel by choice
Maurycy Beniowski was born on 20 September 1746 in the town of Vrbové, which was then in Hungary and is now in Slovakia. He was the son of Colonel Samuel Beniowski and Baroness Rose Révay. The family had Hungarian roots but from the 14th century had been closely tied to Poland. Maurycy himself, who came to the Polish Commonwealth at the age of 17, always stressed that he felt Polish. He had expressed such sentiments many times in the pages of his Journal. These memoirs were published for the first time in London in 1790, four years after Beniowski's death, and to this day remain the main source of information about this unique character.
Many researchers, above all from France and Russia, had questioned the credibility of the adventures and discoveries it described. However, there are many indications (as credibly presented in Edward Kajdański's book for example that attempts to portray Beniowski as a run-of-the-mill swashbuckler and confabulist were politically motivated. Whatever the case, Beniowski's Journal in the late 18th and early 19th century enjoyed huge popularity in Europe. By 1808, 18 editions of the book had been published in six different languages. Beniowski became the hero of many other works and a source of inspiration for other authors. This comes as no surprise, since Beniowski had led such a fascinating, colourful and adventure-filled life.
From his youngest days, he had a temperament bursting with energy. He left home at the age of 16 after his father had died (his mother had orphaned him two years earlier). He wandered all over Hungary and Poland and married Zuzanna Hönsch, a Polish girl from Spisz. But after a time, he returned to his native parts, where, while handling matters pertaining to his inheritance, he raided the manor in Hruszów. Pursued by officials of Maria Theresa, he fled to Poland. In the meantime, in February 1768, the Bar Confederation was set up – an armed revolt of the Polish nobility in defence of their Golden Freedom (privileges) and against Polish King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski and the Russians supporting him. Beniowski joined the Confederation.
His innate soldiering and leadership talents became apparent. He valiantly fought Russians troops in many battles and was wounded seven times. But in May 1769, at the Battle of Nadvirna he was taken prisoner and landed in tsarist captivity. He was exiled to Kazan, where he immediately joined a conspiracy to free the leaders of the Confederation incarcerated in Kaluga. When Beniowski learnt that the conspiracy had been discovered, he and his friend Wynblath flee to St Petersburg, from where they had hoped to make their way to Holland. But they fell into a trap after the Dutch skipper informed on them. This time the verdict was more severe. Tsarina Catherine II personally sentenced Beniowski to exile in Kamchatka, at the empire's easternmost extreme.
The great escape
At the time, the most important Russian settlement in Kamchatka was Bolsheretsk. The tsarist authorities regarded that frigid peninsula, all but cut off from the civilised world, as a prison for those who dared rebel against tsarist despotism. Beniowski soon assured himself of better conditions than those of other exiles. The enterprising Pole. full of ambitious ideas, won the friendship of Kamchatka's administrator Nilov and the heart of his beautiful daughter Afanasia who fell hopelessly in love with him. Nor did she abandon her lover even after learning of his conspiracy. On the contrary, she promised Beniowski she would warn him of any impending danger.
When Nilov ultimately found out about the plot, he ordered Beniowski's arrest. But before then, Beniowski received a red ribbon from his beloved, the agreed signal. The rebels incapacitated a Cossack patrol and moved on the administrator's headquarters. In desperation, Nilov lunged at Beniowski but perished by the sword of one of the Pole's fellow-conspirators. After routing another Cossack patrol, Beniowski became the master of all Kamchatka. But he did not intend to stay there.
Instead, he equipped the galley of SS Peter & Paul and loaded it with valuable furs taken from the Bolsheretsk warehouse and meant for export to China. He also took aboard secret tsarist archives pertaining to Russian expansion in the Far East. He sent a letter to St Petersburg in which he accused Tsarina Catherine of unlawfully depriving her son Paul of the throne and meddling in Poland's internal affairs.
Finally, on 11 May 1771, Beniowski sailed off on a voyage that would bring him fame and the freedom he so greatly yearned. On board were nearly a hundred exiles including nine women, among them Afanasia Nilovna who thought the world of him.
The SS Peter & Paul, flying the flag of the Bar Confederation, did not immediately head south, but began by exploring the virgin areas of the Bering Sea. Possibly, Beniowski's original plan had been to get to Europe via an unexplored northern route, but ice fields made that impossible. The ship stopped for a spell along the southern shore of St Lawrence Island and later sailed along the little-known shores of Alaska.
When a storm pushed the ship to the west, they accidentally discovered the islands of St George and St Paul and a few days later reached Unimak, the last Aleutian island. In effect, several years ahead of Captain James Cook's famous expedition, Beniowski explored the hitherto uncharted expanses of the northern seas. For that reason alone, he deserves the title of one of the greatest discoverers in the history of Poland.
The next stage of his voyage took him to Japan. By Beniowski's time, the country had been completely closed to Europeans for a hundred years (and had maintained commercial contacts solely with the Dutch), but Beniowski set his foot on the soil of that mysterious land. He experienced a varied welcome, but the first stage of his trip was decidedly unlucky. The warm sea current known as Kuro Siwo brought with it a murderous heat wave. The crew lacked food and water. When his ship accidentally arrived at the paradise-like Aogashima island, the crew mutinied, refused to sail any farther and intended to set up a settlement there. But Beniowski was determined to make his way to Europe and thought up a ruse.
“We've got too few women to settle down here. Let's first sail to the Japanese coast, get some women and then we can set about building a town,” he told his shipmates. He was able to persuade them. The Japanese feted them so well, that on the return voyage the satisfied crew forgot about Aogashima.
The SS Peter & Paul continued its voyage in a southerly direction and at one point got grounded on a sandbar. Off the coast of Amami Ōshima island, called Usmay Ligon by the locals. The hospitality of its inhabitants, particularity its women, prompted eight crew members to stay there for good. Beniowski and his crew had already welcomed in such a friendly fashion on one of the Aleutian Islands. Totally uncoerced, the local women flocked to the ship to engage in carnal pleasures with the Kamchatka fugitives.
When they approached Formosa (Taiwan), Beniowski noticed two Dutch ships sailing in the opposite direction. When he refused to obey the orders of the Dutch captain, a brief skirmish ensued. Beniowski fired upon the Dutch ships with the four cannons on board. The Dutch withdrew, but after that incident Beniowski ordered the flag of the Polish Commonwealth hoisted up the mast. It was surely the first ship sailing the Pacific under the Polish flag.
Finally, after 134 days at sea since leaving Kamchatka, the SS Peter & Paul called at port in Portuguese Macao. There he sold his ship and the valuable furs from Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. He also sold important information. The East Indies companies of the major Western powers paid cash for information on Russia's commercial and political plans on the northern seas. It was also in Macao that Afanasia died of a serious disease.
Beniowski boarded the ship named Dauphin and sailed to France. Along the way he briefly visited Île de France (Mauritius) and Port Dauphin in Madagascar. The latter island greatly piqued his interest. Little did he know that he would soon return there in a completely different role.
Ruler of Madagascar
In Paris, Beniowski wasted no time. Although suffocating in the congested metropolis, the ambitious Pole sought to interest the French government in colonising Formosa, some other Pacific island or the distant north. The French were not interested in such remote expeditions, but they were looking for someone who could help them extend Bourbon rule to Madagascar.
Beniowski did not need much time to consider the offer. He drew up a plan of conquest and equipped the expedition which set out in September 1773. He was accompanied by his wife, whom he had brought over from Spisz, and a group of French volunteers. In February the following year, he landed in the Bay of Antongil and energetically began building Fort Louisbourg which some years later would develop into one of Madagascar's larger cities – Maroantsetra. He drained swampland, set up cotton and sugar-cane plantations and through incentives and threats subjugated the local tribal chiefs.
In the island's interior, in what he called the Valley of Health, he built additional forts and roads leading to them. Beniowski's rule in Madagascar was strict but just. He punished all offences, whether committed by natives or foreign merchants, mainly from France. He vigorously opposed the slave trade. This made him popular amongst the Malagasy but incited hatred on the part of the French administrators of the Île de France and Bourbon (La Réunion) colonies, situated not far from Madagascar's east coast.
They regarded the economic development of Beniowski's colonies as a mortal threat, hence from Île de France there flowed a steady stream of complaints to the king of France, discrediting Beniowski and his policies. After a new ruler, Louis XVI, assumed power at Versailles, the atmosphere at the royal court became even less propitious for Beniowski. The French government ultimately resolved to send commissioners to the island to verity how many of the circulating rumours were true.
Beniowski felt threatened and decided to go for broke. After three years of his rule, his position amongst the natives had grown immeasurably. He was increasingly appreciated for combating the slave trade. Unlike other foreigners, he never displayed contempt for the natives.
In fact, many chiefs saw in him the only chance for protection against the possessiveness of the Europeans (although paradoxically he also represented them). In spring 1776, he acquired a powerful ally, the Sambariv tribe which he defended against an attack by the warlike Seclavians.
Already for some time, tales of an old Malagasy woman and former slave from Île de France had been circulating around the island. She claimed that Beniowski was the son of a certain foreigner and the daughter of Laryzon Ramini, the last king of all Madagascar. Most likely, Beniowski himself was the author of that tale.
With his power in peril, he began proclaiming far and wide that the old woman's story was true. When the Malagasy chiefs learnt the royal commissioners could dismiss Beniowski, they resolved well in advance to proclaim him the Ampansacaba, the king of kings. Beniowski quickly agreed and, after the Great Cabar (Grand Council) gave its approval, he became Maurycy August I. Following the ceremonies mentioned above, the new ruler of Madagascar plunged into the thick of activity. Interestingly, he enjoyed strong support from the French garrison of Louisbourg who had generally sworn their loyalty to him.
Beniowski decided to shape Madagascar's political system in the image of the model he knew best – that of the gentry democracy of the Polish Commonwealth. He retained the prerogatives of the Great Kabar, set up a Supreme Council and a Perpetual Council, something reminiscent of the executive authority. He also pledged to create provincial councils, similar to Poland's local assemblies (sejmiki ziemskie). He reorganised the army and decided on the location for a new capital.
He realised, however, that he was at loggerheads with a major world power. That is why already in late 1776 he decided to sail to France and clarify the situation and propose an alliance between two independent states. The Great Kabar agreed to allow their ruler leave the island for no longer than 18 months. No-one, Beniowski included, knew that his absence would stretch to nearly nine years.
Return of the King
In France, both awards and rejection awaited Beniowski. In recognition of his contribution to the colonisation of Madagascar, Louis XVI decorated him with the Cross of St Louis, promoted him to brigadier general and bestowed on him the title of count. At the same time, the king refused to even hear about the concept of building an independent state in Madagascar and forbade Beniowski from returning to the island. Discouraged, Count Beniowski travelled to Hungary, where he purchased a landed estate known as Wieska, situated not far from Nowe Miasto on the Vah.
But the quiet life of a country squire was not to the liking of an ambitious and dynamic individual such as Beniowski. He yearned for adventure, and that could be found either on the battlefield or while travelling. He therefore took part in the Austro-Prussian War and later again set out in an attempt to win the world's powers that be to his concept of an independent Madagascar. He constantly travelled back and forth between France, England and the United States. In America, his spokesman was Kazimierz Pułaski, a friend from his Bar Confederation days.
Pułaski presented Beniowski's Project of an Expedition to Madagascar to the US congress. Beniowski even won the support of Benjamin Franklin during a chess match (both men were avid chess players), but Congress did not agree to an expedition, fearing it might damage the young country's relations with its ally France.
His proposal did pique the interest of the British; however, they did not wish to become officially involved in an undertaking whose outcome was far from certain. Regardless, they did help Beniowski set up a private company that would enable the count to regain power on the island and subsequently sign an alliance with Great Britain.
The shareholders' capital enabled him to purchase a large ship, the Intrepid, whose holds were full of arms, gunpowder and commercial merchandise, from the American Port of Baltimore. A certain Captain Davis became the ship's commander. Beniowski, however, failed to realise that Davis was a French agent and that France was closely observing the activities of the “Polish adventurer,” as he had been known for some time in Paris, striving at all costs to sabotage them.
In July 1785, Beniowski sailed into the bay near Madagascar's Cape of St Sebastian. As soon as he had landed, the Malagasy appeared. They had remembered him and continued to regard him as their ampansakaba. Beniowski divided up his forces and, together with the native army and the volunteers who had come with him from the United States, set out by land to the Valley of Health near Louisbourg in Antongil Bay. The Intrepid, with its remaining supplies, was to sail around the island from the north and ensure the caravan's safe entry into the fort itself. Davis made his move and unexpectedly deserted, taking the ship along with its cargo of arms and equipment with him.
Regardless, Beniowski was a stout-hearted soul who never backed down once his mind was made up and, despite these vicissitudes, he made his way to the east coast and set about building the new capital, Mauritania. The well-governed settlement developed quickly. Beniowski also raised an army comprised mainly of Malagasy, but the French were by no means standing idly by during this time.
At the start of May 1786, Captain Larcher and 60 battle-seasoned soldiers sailed out of Port Louis on Île de France. Beniowski engaged them in open battle. The conflict might have ended differently had it not been for one unfortunate stray bullet.
In his memoirs, Captain Larcher described the final phase of the battle fought on 23 May 1786: “At one moment I noticed Mr Beniowski ordering one of the cannons to fire, but it failed to do so. We were so close to the fort that such a shot would have killed or wounded most of my troops. I felt that was the decisive moment and ordered my men to storm the fort. I was still several steps from the palisades when I again saw Beniowski, shooting at us with a rifle before immediately dropping it to the ground, raising his left hand to his heart and extending his right hand in our direction. He took a few more steps to get down from the embankment but fell between the stakes reinforcing it. We crossed the palisades and stormed the fort. (…) The bullet had penetrated his chest from right to left.”
Before the count's body was placed in a grave, his pockets were searched. One of them contained the act of election signed in Louisbourg ten years earlier.
Mieczysław Lepecki, Count Maurycy Beniowski's biographer, summed up the former’s achievements as follows: “Without anyone's assistance and without financial resources, equipped only with his intelligence and innate leadership skills, he was able to flee from so remote a place as the shores of the Okhotsk Sea and a few years later managed to acquire a crown. His courage, imagination and endurance ought to be admired. It was to such people that England, France, Spain and Portugal owed their vast empires – to some extent to adventurers and dreamers but always to the courageous, enterprising and uncontrollable.”
Beniowski is without a doubt one of the most interesting and colourful personalities in Polish history. The Polish King of Madagascar left behind a fascinating Journal, the legend of Poland's greatest 18th-century explorer and traveller as well as an impressive chess manoeuvre that involved sacrificing the queen and allowing the knight to single-handedly checkmate the opponent's king.
Throughout his lifetime, Maurycy Beniowski could have been likened to a chess piece in constant motion, criss-crossing the world's chessboard and able to overcome every adversity. However, after he became king, it was twisted fate that finally checkmated him.
Author: Krzysztof Jóźwiak