An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: The King of Madagascar and His Peculiar Ambition

Posted on October 19, 2014

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I may not have travelled the world, but I’ve travelled enough to meet a lot of people. They are a strange bunch, backpackers, all lofty ideals and flighty minds. Words such as explorer and venture get thrown around frequently, and whilst I wouldn’t venture as far to scoff at the idea every now and then you come across people throughout history that truly deserve the title. A man who was born in Slovakia, was imprisoned and escaped from deepest Siberia and went on to become the King of Madagascar probably deserves such a title. His name was Moric Benyovsky. This is his story.

Born in Vrbove near Trnava in 1746, Benyovsky was the guardian of his siblings from the age of 14, but his incredible journey would begin with the beginning of the Seven Years War, the conflict that took in all major powers of the world towards the end of the 18th century. He was a Hapsburg officer at this point, but was eventually kicked out of the army because of his natural rebelliousness and his lack of religious beliefs. Anti-authority attitudes weren’t readily put up with back in the days of the great empires, and Benyovsky was particularly spiky. His attitude towards religion was more one of apathy than any outward disdain, but apathy was the equivalent of being against in those days. Out the army he went, and thus was born Moric Benyovsky the explorer extraordinaire.

His first jaunt was to Poland. In 1768 saw him join the national movement there aimed at hindering, well, preferably stopping the Russian advances on the country. Benyovsky’s nationality has been up for debate on a number of occasions, and he has added much to the debate himself. He was born in Slovakia, spoke Slovakian, and was Slovakian. It was during his time fighting the Russians that his Polish sentiments grew, to the point where he would often refer to himself as Polish. His efforts in Poland were unsuccessful though, and Benyovsky would find himself a Russian captive. He was interned in Kazan before being exile to deepest darkest Siberia, namely Kamchatka.

This wasn’t the end for ol’ Maurice though, not by a long shot. Put yourself in the following situation and ask the question; you are imprisoned in Siberia, what are you to do? Most would serve their sentence and either put up with it or perish doing so. Benyovsky? Well, he only had one option. He rallied together his fellow prisoners and escaped, then captured the fort of a local governor as well as the heart of the governor’s daughter. Nice. He commandeered a Russian battleship, as you do, and set out on quite possibly the ultimate trip of discovery.

He became the very first European to sail the North Pacific seas. He went via Alaska, Japan, Taiwan and Macau before getting to Madagascar. He fell deeply in love with the island, which was still independent at the time under tribal rule. He went on to France, and King Louis XV was instantly fond of him. Benyovsky put forward to Louis that he head back to Madagascar and attempt to establish a French colony there. Why not I guess. It was an ambitious idea, but Benyovsky could never be accused of lacking the stuff.

Needless to say, it kind of worked. A French presence was built there, as Benyovsky explored around and managed to unify the tribes. He was so unbelievably popular that the tribes themselves would go on to elect him as King. Moric Benyovsky was the King of Madagascar. I don’t think the ridiculousness of that will ever really settle in my brain, the fact that a Slovak explorer somehow became king of an island off the coast of Africa. It’s legitimately insane. He was hugely popular there, and he had a very real love for Madagascar himself. He even began forming an army of sorts, a home guard. His peculiar ambition would grow and grow, to the point where he started planning the formation of an independent state. This went against France’s original ideas for Madagascar, so any help that they had previously provided was cut abruptly short. They began to see Benyovsky as more of a hindrance than help. Benyovsky himself would leave the island not long after, as the tropical diseases were ravaging his crew. He was still on decent enough footing in France though, and was granted the military Order of Saint Louis as well as a lifetime pension. Not bad.

It wasn’t all over just yet for Maurice though. His travels continued and he found himself in the United States in 1779. He befriended Benjamin Franklin, because he was quite obviously one of the most engaging characters the world has ever seen. He fought in the American Revolution. His new idea was that the Americans could use Madagascar as a base for fighting the English, and he sought their support in continuing to build his colony. Madagascar was his great love, and it is almost fitting that it would be on the island that his story in life came to an end. As the French attempted to retake Madagascar, battles would break out on the island. At one such scuffle in 1786, Benyovsky was fatally shot, cutting his life tragically short.

Even today, Moric Benyovsky is considered a national hero in both Slovakia and Madagascar. He has been the inspiration for writers, poets and composers with countless works based on his life. Books, operas, TV series and poems have been written about his adventures, and why wouldn’t there be? Benyovsky managed to achieve in 40 years more than most people would in multiple lifetimes. His was a true cosmopolitan spirit. Benyovsky was a citizen of the world in the most literal sense, a globetrotter with an insatiable curiosity. He was the first best selling Slovakia author, and in 1996 a silver coin was issued commemorating his 250th birthday. His name is one of the few to survive the post-colonial age in Africa, proving as popular today as he was at any time during his own life. The king of kings, Moric Benyovsky lived one heck of a life.

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