His Life (not the real one...)

Moric Benyovszky (the 18th century view) - click to view full-size Benyovszky's autobiographical Memoirs begin as follows: "The Count Mauritius Augustus de Benyowsky, Magnate of the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, was born in the year 1741 at Verbowa, the hereditary lordship of his family, situated in the county of Nittria, in Hungary." He was the son of a count and a baroness. He entered military service, as a lieutenant at the age of fourteen, in the Seven Years War, acquitting himself well. Subsequently he received training in marine navigation, before being summoned by the leaders of the Polish Confederation of Bar who solicited his services in the war against Russia. In 1769 Benyovszky was captured in battle and was exiled to the furthest outpost of the Russian Empire: Kamchatka, a journey across Siberia that lasted a year.
No sooner did he arrive in that desolate place, than he immediately set about organising a escape-plan, breathtaking in its vision. He easily won the trust of the existing company of fellow-exiles, not to mention the Governor, whose 16-year old daughter fell in love with him. As his plans developed, he defied several attempts on his life. By his innate brilliance and persuasiveness, he brought this plan to fruition within six months of his arrival. The exiles, along with a sizeable number of disaffected local residents, seized the supply-ship, the St Peter and St Paul, and set sail for California - or perhaps the South Pacific - in search of freedom, social justice and sunshine.

Map of Benyovszky`s voyage - click to view full-size In the weeks between May and September 1771, the adventurous band of 96 men and women sailed north to the Bering Strait, east towards America, south again to the Aleutian Islands, then ever south and west through the islands of Japan, Formosa and - ultimately - to China. Frequently, captain, commander and crew had no idea where they were. (Consult the map, right). Notwithstanding which, Baron Benyovszky met gentlemen pirates, he established contact with the natives of several islands and set up trade agreements with them, sometimes leaving behind a member of his company to nurture the relationship until Benyovszky could return in triumph with a European trading fleet. On Formosa, the company went one step further and assisted a local warlord in conquering his rival in open battle, thus earning his undying allegiance.
This extraordinary journey brought the companions up against extremes of cold and heat, of starvation and thirst, against pirates and mutineers, and threw them into contact with islanders who had never seen Europeans in their lives before. The result of these encounters varied from open war to friendly ceremonies of betrothal.
Arriving at last in the Chinese port of Macao, numbers of the surviving sixty-odd voyagers promptly expired. The remainder fought amongst themselves until, feeling insulted, Benyovszky sailed off to France. He never returned to the East. Instead, the French King asked him to colonise Madagascar and develop trade there. He succeeded so well in this that the natives elected him 'King of Madagascar'.

His Life (the real one...)

Birth, Family and Youth

Maurice Benyovszky was born on 20 September 1746 in the town of Verbó (present-day Vrbové near Trnava, Slovakia). He was baptised under the Latin names Mattheus Mauritius Michal Franciscus Seraphinus. The additional name Augustus may also have been given, but this is not clear on the baptismal record.
Maurice was the son of Samuel Benyovszky, who came from Turóc County in the Kingdom of Hungary, in present-day Slovakia and is said to have served as a colonel in the Hussars of the Austrian army. His mother, Rozália Révay, was the daughter of a baron from the noble Hungarian Révay family. When she married Samuel Benyovszky, she was the widow of an army general (Josef Pestvarmegyey, d.1743).
Maurice was the eldest of four children born to Samuel and Rozália: he had one sister, Marta, and two brothers, Ferenc and Emanuel. Both brothers followed military careers. In addition, there were three step-sisters and one step-brother, born to Rozália from her previous marriage.
Maurice spent his childhood in the Benyovszky mansion in Vrbové. When both his parents died in 1760, the family home and estate was the subject of litigation between the two sets of siblings.
20 September 1746   Born in Vrbové, at that time in Hungary.
1760   His parents die.
1768   Marries Zuzana Hönsch.
1768-1769   Fighting on behalf of the Bar Confederation in Poland.
April 1769   Captured by Russians.
September 1770   Arrives in Bolsheretsk, Kamchatka.
May 1791   Escape from Kamchatka aboard the St Peter & St Paul.
September 1771  Arrival in Macao.
November 1773   Arrival in Madagascar to set up colony.
December 1776   Leaves Madagascar for France.
1778-1780   In Austria and Hungary.
1780-1781   In Rijeka.
1782-1783   In United States.
1783-1784   In Britain and Europe, then back to USA.
October 1784   Departs United States.
June 1785   Arrival in Madagascar.
24 May 1786   Killed in Madagascar.
1790   Publication of the Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus Count de Benyowsky in London.

Marriage and Military Service

In 1765 Benyovszky occupied his mother's property in Hrusóvé, near Vrbové, which had been legally inherited by one of his step-brothers-in-law. This action led his mother's family to file a criminal complaint against him, and he was called to stand trial in Nyitra. Before the conclusion of the trial, Benyovszky fled to Poland. His flight violated a legal edict forbidding him to leave the country. Between 1767 and 1768, the young Maurice moved between small towns in the Szepes region of Poland.
He was arrested in July 1768 in Spišská Sobota, a suburb of Poprád. At around this time, he married Anna Zuzana Hönsch (1750-1826). A child, Samuel, was born in December 1768
Three other children later came from this marriage: Charles, Roza and Zsofia.
In July of 1768, Benyovszky travelled to Poland to join the patriotic forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who had organised themselves in the Confederation of Bar, a movement in rebellion against Polish king Stanislaw Poniatowski, lately installed by Russia. In April 1769, he was captured by the Russian forces near Ternopil in the Ukraine, imprisoned in the town of Polonne, before being transferred to Kiev in July, and finally to Kazan in September.

Captivity in Kamchatka

An escape attempt from Kazan brought him to St Petersburg in November, where he was recaptured and sent to the far east of Siberia as a prisoner. In the company of several other exiles and prisoners - most notably the Swede August Winbladh, and the Russian army-officers Vasilii Panov, Asaf Baturin and Ippolit Stepanov, all of whom played a major role in Benyovszky's life in the next two years - he reached Bolsheretsk, at that time the administrative capital of Kamchatka, in September 1770.

Escape from Kamchatka

Over the next few months, Benyovszky and Stepanov, along with other exiles and disaffected residents of Kamchatka, organised an escape. From the list of those who participated in the escape (70 men, women and children), it is evident that the majority were not prisoners or exiles of any sort, but just ordinary working people of Kamchatka. At the start of May, an armed uprising by the group overcame the garrison of Bolsheretsk, during which the commander, Grigorii Nilov, was killed. The supply ship St Peter and St Paul, which had been over-wintering in Kamchatka, was seized and loaded with furs and provisions. On 23 May, the ship set sail from the mouth of the Bolsha River, and headed southwards.
The ship landed at the island of Simushir in the Kuril Islands chain, and stayed there between 29 May and 9 June to bake bread and take stock of their supplies and cargo. During this time, the sailor Gerasim Izmailov was judged to be organising a mutiny; he and two other Kamchatkans were left on the island when the ship finally sailed southwards. Izmailov subsequently carved out a career as an explorer and trader in the Aleutians and the Alaskan coast.
Their next known port of call was at Sakinohama on the island of Shikoku in Japan, where they rested in the third week of July, and in the following days at Oshima island in Awa Province. Here the voyagers managed to trade with villagers, despite this being expressly forbidden by the Japanese authorities. At the end of July, they landed on Amami-Oshima in the Ryükyü islands, where they also traded successfully. At the end of August they arrived on the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan), where three of the voyagers were killed during a fight with native islanders.
Finally they sailed to the Chinese mainland, touching at Dongshan Island. Following the coast down from there, they finally arrived at Macao on 22 September 1771. Shortly after their arrival, 15 of the voyagers died, most likely from the effects of malnutrition. Benyovszky took responsibility for selling the ship and all the furs they had loaded at Kamchatka, and then negotiated with the French traders for passage back to Europe. In late January 1772, two French ships took the survivors away from Macao. Some of them stopped on the island of Mauritius, others died en route, and the remainding 26 landed at the French port of Lorient in July.

In France

Benyovszky managed to get a passport to enter the mainland of France and he departed almost immediately for Paris, leaving his companions behind. Over the next months, he toured the ministries and salons of Paris, hoping to persuade someone to fund a trading expedition to one of the several places he claimed to have visited.. Eventually, he managed to convince the French Foreign Minister d'Aiguillon and the Navy Secretary de Boynes to fund an expedition of Benyovszky and a large group of Benyovszky Volunteers, to set up a French colony on Madagascar.


This expedition arrived in Madagascar in November 1773 and were fully established there by the end of March 1774. They set up a trading-post at Antongil on the east coast and began to negotiate with the islanders for cattle and other supplies. It does not appear to have gone well, since the explorer Kerguelen arrived there shortly afterwards to discover that the Madagascans claimed Benyovszky was at war with them: supplies were therefore hard to come by. A ship which called in at Antongil in July of 1774 reported that 180 of the original 237 ordinary 'Volunteers' had died, and 12 of their 22 officers, all taken by sickness. A year later, despite reinforcements, personnel numbers were still dwindling. In December 1776, just after a visit from two French government inspectors, Benyovszky left Madagascar. Following the arrival of the inspectors' report in Paris, the few surviving 'Benyovszky Volunteers' were disbanded in May 1778 and the trading post was eventually dismantled by order of the French government in June 1779.

In Europe and America

After leaving Madagascar, Benyovszky arrived back in France in April 1777. He managed to obtain various medals and large sums of money from the government, before leaving for Austria. In April 1778, he was finally awarded the title of "Count" by Maria Teresa of Austria. In July 1778 he joined the Austrian forces fighting in the War of the Bavarian Succession - in which his brother Emanuel was also fighting - and then in early 1780 he formed a plan to develop the port of Fiume (present-day Rijeka) as a major trading-port for Hungary. He was here until the end of 1781, when he abandoned the project, leaving behind several large debts. He then made his way to the United States and, with a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin whom he had met in Paris, attempted to persuade George Washington to fund a militia under Benyovszky's leadership, to fight in the American War of Independence. Washington remained unconvinced, so Benyovszky returned to Europe, arriving in Britain in late 1783. Here he submitted a proposal to the British government for a colony on Madagascar, but was again turned down. But he managed to persuade the Royal Society of London luminary Jean Hyacinthe de Magellan to fund an independent expedition. In September 1783, Benyovszky also acquired a document signed by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, which gave him Austrian protection for the exploitation and government of Madagascar.

In Madagascar (again)

In April 1784, Benyovszky and several trading partners sailed to America, where a contract was agreed with two Baltimore traders. The deal was for monetary investment in return for a regular supply of slaves. In October of that year, the ship Intrepid sailed for Madagascar, arriving near Cap St Sebastien in the north-west of the island, June 1785. Here the expedition was met with aggression from the Sakalava people; Benyovszky and a number of others were captured and disappeared, presumed dead. The surviving members of the company sailed for Mozambique, sold the ship, then dispersed.
In January of 1786, however, Benyovszky was reported to be alive and operating at Angonsty (near modern-day Ambohitralanana). Anxious about another disruption to trade, the French governor of Mauritius sent a small military force over to Madagascar to deal with Benyovszky. On 24 May 1786, Benyovszky was ambushed and killed by these troops, and was buried on the site of his encampment.

Alive (again) ?

In December 1787, the Warsaw news-sheet, the Gazeta Warszawski, carried a small notice which had been sent from Vienna. According to this, on 7 November, 'the Hungarian Baron Beniowski, who has already been declared dead so many times. has arrived here from Constantinople'. No further details were provided, and we later hear no more news of the man risen from the grave. Had it really been Benyovszky promenading the streets of Vienna, we would almost certainly have heard much more about - and from - him. We must sadly assume that the report was a misunderstanding.