Formosa – The Beauty and the Beast

Uncrowded, untouched and uncivilised, Ilha Formosa was somewhat hurriedly entitled the ‘Beautiful Island’ by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century, yet aboriginally named Taiwan by its Asian neighbours. The island may have seemed beautiful to seafarers accustomed to the Canton River, but historians document Formosa’s fertile landscape, native medicinal plants and abundant sulphur supplies with less vigour than their descriptions of its unwelcoming, grotesquely tattooed aborigines with no written language or civilised culture. Formosa’s history is steeped in tales of pirate-infested waters and widespread malaria, making it a No-Man’s Land rarely frequented by marauders, and this fearful image of Formosa only intensified as its Asian neighbours assumed their colonial powers over the island.

Formosa has swapped hands numerous times in its past, leaving its native tribes with a void of identity and in constant fear of attack and upheaval. The earliest known settlers on the island, the Longkius tribe, present since before Christ, were ousted in the sixth century by Malay invaders, the descendants of whom reside in the mountainous regions of the island to this day. The island remained unrecognised by its Asian neighbours for a thousand years following the Malays’ refusal to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in the seventh century. During this time, Formosa’s relations with China were fraught with sieges and tentative conflict, and the island consequently became a formidable pirate lair, a hive of underhand trade between the conflicted empires of Japan and China, until its eventual recognition by China in 1682.

In an attempt to prize the Pescadores isles from the Chinese grasp, the Dutch invasion of Asia began with the cession of Formosa in 1623. However this takeover was short-lived as a new generation of Chinese Ming loyalists reinstated their interest in the island and consequently gained control forty years later. Formosa’s largely ineffective and neglectful subjugation at China’s hands in the following two centuries robbed the island of its native peace, leaving the weaker native tribe Pepo-whan ‘barbarians of the plains’ to reside in the south and merge with their conquerors, while the wild Che-whan ‘savages’ evacuated north for the mountains. Law and order were lost, seemingly irretrievably, on the island as the Chinese invaders frequently fought amongst themselves and the natives, provoking the Chinese statement that on Formosa there was “every three years disorder, and every five years a rebellion”. The unrelenting social degradation left sailors in the surrounding waters fearful of becoming stranded on the island and facing certain death at the hands of the natives, as the period of 1840 to 1895 saw the losses of eighty ships and two thousand lives to the clutches of Formosa. The deaths of fifty-four Ryukyuan fishermen on Formosan waters in 1871 were blamed by the Japanese on the vicious aborigines in a move to gain the Ryukyu islands as a colony, and this consequently sparked an international drive to quell Formosa’s unrest. British, German and American efforts combined to calm the island, but it was a gentle yet firm Japanese expedition to the southern tribes in 1874 that began the process of re-civilisation, and consequently set Japanese colonial desires on Formosa.

Following the defeat of China in the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, Formosa was signed over to Japanese imperialism with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, and as a result the island became an important component of the Japanese colonial machine in the years before the Second World War as Japan’s ‘first outright possession’. For a brief period, the island was declared independent as the Republic of Formosa and at first offered to Great Britain, but within six months the island was occupied by Japanese troops by October 1895. Once Japan gained the Formosan people’s trust, however, the assimilation of the Japanese colony began with the installation of the Japanese general Gentaro as Formosan governor. While Japan seemed contented with the occupation and order of the civilised areas of Formosa within six years of its takeover, its unrelenting desire for the mountains inhabited by the natives was meant only to harvest the landscape’s resources unopposed by the aborigines. Occupying troops took a military stance against the ‘savages’ at a high cost of lives on both sides, using wire fencing and Guard Lines to section off occupied territories, although this move largely failed due to the ingenuity of the tribesmen to overcome such restraints. Invading militia would frequently use technology such as aeroplanes and, on one recorded occasion, bombs to intimidate the aborigines into obedience.

With a restored infrastructure and a boosted economy through the improvement of tea, rice and sugar production, Japan brought the civilised areas of Formosa an element of prosperity eventually, but the benefits offered to the natives were purely incidental, as Japan utilised Formosa for the advancement of the Japanese mainland security. Kominka movements were introduced on the island to advance the island’s assimilation by effectively eradicating traces of the native culture and identity to be replaced by Japanese equivalents, the most notable being the official use of the Japanese language. As a consequence, Japanese rule largely restored law and order to the island by 1920 following the island’s turbulent piratical history, making Formosa its most prosperous colony by 1927, yet despite its successful transformation, it remained a distinctly remote island from the mainland as most of the island’s economic trade took place in Japan, and as such, the island lacked tourist appeal both for Japanese and European visitors.

At the point of Formosa’s return to Chinese hands due to Japan’s Second World War defeat in 1945, 8 million Han Chinese nationals had migrated to the independent provincial island, a figure which would later include the population of the Chinese nationalist party who had been forced to retreat to the island after communist victory in 1949. Manned by Chiang Kai-shek, Formosa remained a largely contented single-party state under the Kuomintang for forty years, making a defiant stand as a symbol of Chinese freedom in the twentieth century aside from the strictly governed mainland, taking its rightful place in the free world orbit.

Formosa’s turbulent history of piracy and subjugation transformed the once ‘beautiful island’ into a No-Man’s Land, becoming home to millions of Chinese immigrants from the mainland and consequently outnumbering the inhospitable natives. While at first glance Taiwan would seem an inconsequential addition to her Asian neighbours’ colonial collections, it was Taiwan’s bountiful resources and unindustrialised landscape, complete with the challenge of overcoming the savages in the mountains, that kept them coming back for more.


‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 2 (1893) 441-443.
De Bunsen, E. H., ‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 70 (1927) 266-285.
Hornbeck, Stanley K., ‘Formosa’, World Affairs, 118 (1955) 2.
Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989).
Steere, J. B., ‘Formosa’, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 6 (1874) 302-334.

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