The story of Count Móric Benyovszky's life is stranger than fiction, according to György G. Németh, President of the Hungarian-Madagascar Friendship Association.
IN THIS AGE when myths and legends are nothing but small boxes in history books, the story of a Hungarian count who travelled the world, conquered and became ‘King’ of Madagascar, and was an explorer, colonizer, writer, chess player, French colonel, Polish military commander, and an Austrian soldier is often thought to be mere fiction. But according to György G. Németh, President of the Hungarian-Madagascar Friendship Association (MMBT), Count Móric (Maurice) Benyovszky was as real as historical figures can ever be. He said the MMBT is committed to preserving the memory of and spread the word on the glorious deeds and endeavors of the legendary count.
“There are a few fictional elements to his story, but even without these we are left with an incredibly colorful life that every Hungarian should be proud of,” he told Diplomacy and Trade. Based on MMBT’s expeditions to Madagascar, Németh has reconstructed the ‘Benyovszky epic’. "He arrived in France in late 1772 and sought permission from the French ministry and king Louis XV, for a diplomatic visit to Madagascar, to prepare ground for a French conquest," Németh said. "Instead, Benyovszky established an independent, almost state-like colony, where he was proclaimed by the assembled chieftains, Emperor of Madagascar."Besides conquering the fourth largest island in the world, Benyovsky also unified the previsously warring tribes of the island. He was described as a just ruler, in office for three years, and introduced a Latin script with Hungarian spelling to the illiterate tribesemen. "The islanders use his script to this day," Németh noted.
An island opposite ‘Cape East’ was named after Benyovsky as well as one of the main streets in the capital. “His grave was never found, but lies most likely in the north-eastern coastal region, a few kilometers south of Cape East, on the hill beside the former settlement of Sere-nana or Mauritanie,” Németh explained. The count is described as a ‘great risk-taker’, according to Nemeth, and had an exceptional ability to make friends and influence people. At the same time, he was stringent and longed to rule, he adds. “He was bold, tireless, and had great endurance, able to withstand even the infamous climate of Madagascar. He was boastful and was not afraid to seek the limits of his ability. These characteristics brought him world fame that continues to be recognized to this day.”
The MMBT President, with help from the National Széchenyi Library of Budapest, has reproduced the original manuscript of the diary of Benyovszky in English and Hungarian. “For this, in 2003, we requested the British Library to provide a photocopy of the original manuscript, known originally as ‘Protocolle du Regiment des volontaire de Benyowszky cree en 1772’,” he remembers.
“The reproduced manuscript was published in 1,000 copies, including detailed maps from the original.” Németh says it made a successful debut at the Frankfurt International Book Show. In 2005 the volume also won the ‘Best Presented Book of the Year Award’ in Hungary. “The first English version held its international premiere at the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York.”
Németh stressed that the MMBT’s headquarters, located in Budapest’s District 8, at Benyovszky Móric utca 10, boasts a Benyovszky museum, including the count’s coat of arms, a statue of a bird in flight seeking freedom. A facsimilie of this statue was taken to Madagascar and erected on the spot where Benyovszky allegedly died. “We are also planning to inaugurate a memory placket at the harbor of Baltimore, which should be erected by 2010, with the help of Benyovszky’s living descendants in the US,” Németh notes. “Fortunately for us, Benyovszky’s 25 descendants lived up to the spirit of freedom and can be found all across Europe and the US. One of them, Móric Benyovszky, is our Honorary President. Thanks to him and those fans of the count who have fallen in love with his romantic story, our association continues its efforts to cherish Benyovszky’s reputation worldwide."
Count Móric Ágoston Benyovszky was born on Sep 20, 1746 in Verbó, Nyitra County, Hungary (now Vrbove in Slovakia) to a noble family. He began his career as an officer in the Seven Years’ War. Seeking further adventures, he traveled to Poland and joined the Polish freedom fighters against Russia. Benyovszky fell into Russian captivity after the Polish uprising was crushed and was deported to Kamchatka, East Siberia. There, he rallied fellow prisoners and managed to capture the fort of the governor and the heart of his daughter. He then commandeered a Russian battleship and embarked on a discovery trip probably to reach the Mexican port of Acapulco.
But circumstances changed on the way. After a long and adventurous journey at sea, touching on the Aleutian and Japanese islands, then Formosa and Macao, he arrived in September 1771 in Canton, China, seeking asylum which was refused. He sailed to the island of Madagascar off the African coast, a then still independent state, ruled by warring tribes. He eventually arrived in France in 1772 and sought permission from the French ministry and king Louis XV for the navy to visit Madagascar, to prepare a French conquest. The king appointed him a general, and gave him the title of count and a few promises, sending him off to Madagascar, where he was proclaimed by the assembled chieftains, the Emperor of Madagascar. Besides building posts and exploring the interior of the fourth largest island in the world, Benyovsky also unified its tribes. He ruled the island justly for three years, introduced Latin script – with Hungarian spelling – for the Madagascar language.
The islanders still use his script and spelling. Then he returned to France seeking closer trade and political ties, trying to organize a new, even bigger, second expedition to Madagascar. However, at a time of social and ideological crisis in France, which was on the eve of revolution, overspending and caught in a mesh of increasingly opaque personal connections, Benyovszky, who had returned from the colonization trip, became an increasingly unwelcome client for France’s policy on Africa. Because the French ignored him, he returned to his native Hungary, and prepared a project to develop trade and an imperial fleet in the Mediterranean with the help of Empress Maria Theresa. But she was not interested. In the following year Benyovszky tried to persuade the British sovereign to conquer Madagascar, but having no success he finally turned to the new Republic of the United States, armed with letters of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, whom he met back in France, and who regarded Benyovszky as a friend and an honest man. In Baltimore, finally, he loaded his ship and sailed back to Madagascar. The French Maritime Ministry, outraged by Benyovszky’s cooperation with the US, sent an unexpected expedition to stop him. The expedition managed a surprise attack on May 23, 1786. Benyovszky fought bravely, but died from a bullet wound to his chest.