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Mar 4, 2024

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Maurice of Madagascar

As it so often happens, there are many facets of Polish-American history that remain hidden in the darkest of shadows. Many of them are fragments of events long past but as they’re usually discovered, they make it clear that the Polonians involved in early America had a great love of liberty.

Maurice August Beniowski was one of those people. He was born in Hungary of a family connected with Poland by blood and history. He emigrated to Poland at an early age and took part in the first Polish war for freedom.

Captured by the Russians in 1769, he was exiled to Kamchatka with many other prisoners of war. While there, he gained the confidence of the governor and the affection of his daughter. With her help he and his companions captured a large and well-provisioned ship and escaped. They reached France in 1772.

He later induced the French government to send him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he won the confidence of the natives to such a degree that they made him their king. Disagreeing later with the French administration, he left the island and returned to France, took part in the war for Bavarian succession as Colonel of Austrian Hussars and resided for some time in Hungary. He interested the Austrian government in a scheme for developing the trade of an island called Fiume, but when the plan collapsed, he decided to go to America.

Beniowski was always thinking. Prior to his trip, he conceived a grandiose scheme to raise a Legionary Corps of Germans consisting of 3,483 officers and men for the service of the United States. If Congress would agree to pay the men in his corps monthly stipends and provide them with grants of land, Beniowski would do the arming and transport the legion to the United States for the sum of 518,000 lives.

General George Washington promptly replied to the proposition. On April 12, 1782, he wrote to General von Steuben from Newburgh:

“The proposition of Count Beniowski which you put into my hands for consideration, I have read, and beg leave to observe thereupon that the utility of his plan for introducing a ‘Legionary Corps of Germans into the service of the United States of America’ depends, in my opinion, upon the political State of Affairs in Europe – the probability of the wars continuing, and the mode of conducting it – as also on the time which will be required to bring the Corps in action.

“Of the first, I have not the means of judging, but I think the second is not so problematical as to induce Congress to reject a Contract which, with some alterations and a surety of receiving the men in twelve months from this date, may be attended with considerable advantages.”

Congress referred the plan to a committee headed by James Madison which reported back to the legislature:

“The zeal for the American plan, which the author of it professes, and which the generous terms of the plan evince, have not failed to inspire a just esteem for his character and a disposition to favour his wishes. Consideration, however, which in no respect derogate from this esteem on this disposition, render it expedient to Congress to decline the offer which has been made,” wrote James Madison.

On June 1, 1782, Congress decided to decline the proposal made by Count Beniowski. The hopes for peace were stronger and the probability of renewed action on land diminished day after day, and this influenced Congress to reject the offer.

Having failed to persuade the American government to set up an army, Count Beniowski headed  another expedition to Madagascar. Two Baltimore merchants, Meisonmer and Zolihoffer, placed a 500-fan boat, The Intriped, at his disposal. He reached the island safely. In his attempt to overthrow the French authorities on the island, he was killed in an encounter with French troops on May 23, 1783.

Just before his departure for Madagascar, Beniowski wrote to General von Steuben from Philadelphia on June 15, 1782.

“I will write to General Washington to wish him everything good from all my heart. I am much attached to him out of gratitude just as I am to you my dear friend.”

Beniowski was also acquainted personally with Mrs. Washington since in one of his letters to the General he asked him to “express his respects to his Lady.”

Though not a Pole by birth, Beniowski considered himself a Pole rather than a Hungarian. During his exile in Siberia, he adopted the characteristic name “August the Pole.” He became the popular hero of Polish literature. Julius Slowacki immortalized his name in one of his poems. A. Potocki, his Polish biographer, stated, “His temperament, the course of his whole life, his service for the Polish national cause make Beniowski the true son of his epoch and of the Polish nation, which adopted him as his own.”

Note: The above information can be found in greater detail in Joseph Wytrwal’s “Poles in American History and Tradition.”