"The island of Formosa." Pp. 250-52 in Illustrated travels: A record of discovery, geography, and adventure. Edited by H.W. Bates. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1869.


The Island of Formosa


[P. 250] It is surprising that so little is yet known of the large, and from its position and products important, island of Formosa, situated as it is on the margin of the northern tropic, on the great highway of vessels to Japan, either from Europe or the southern part of China, and producing large quantities of rice, camphor, sulphur, sugar, tobacco, cotton, hemp, coal, petroleum, and a great variety of spices, fruits, and medicinal herbs. Its dense forests teem with tigers, leopards, monkeys; large herds of deer wander over the island; and its rivers abound with fish.

There can be no doubt that the paucity of good harbours and the national jealousy of the Chinese, who possess the northern and western parts of the island, tend to this ignorance, and prevent the proper development of a country teeming with such natural riches. Although 200 miles long by from fifty to seventy broad -- not more than the northern [p. 251] quarter and the fringe of the west coast can be said to be known, and that but partially.

The island is called by the Chinese Tai-Wan, but it is better known as Formosa ("beautiful") to Europeans, so named by the Portuguese from the beauty of the scenery. Although professedly a Chinese Foo, or district, of Fokien, in China proper, the interior and east coast are still in the possession of numerous distinct tribes of aborigines, who live in a state of chronic war amongst themselves and with all mankind; and this state of things is rather encouraged than otherwise by the Chinese, in order to keep the Europeans out.

The most magnificent scenery is on the extreme eastern coast, where mountains, 5,000 to 7,000 feet in height, rise abruptly from the water's edge, wooded to the summit with trees presenting the most gorgeous foliage, and forming deep gorges of great beauty, which, from the contrasts of their dark shadows, form a most attractive picture.

The range which runs north and south, through the centre of the island, can be seen from a vessel off either side, but the outlines are most picturesque and the effect most beautiful when viewed from the west at sunrise. The deep and varying neutral-tinted shades of the peaks (Mount Morrison, nearly 13,000 feet, being the highest), which stand out in sharp relief against a chrome and crimson sky, then form a scene which, once beheld, is not easily forgotten.

The middle portion of the west coast is very sandy, and so flat that the high and low tide in some places causes a difference of five or six miles in the breadth of the beach. The Chinese who inhabit this coast occupy themselves chiefly with agriculture and fishing, and are described as dirty in the extreme. The mode of tilling the ground is the same as in China, as well as the fishing, by means of catamarans, or rafts, composed of about twenty bamboos lashed together, and tapering at the end. The catamarans are propelled by oars, the rowers standing behind or abaft them. Fishermen, too, may be often seen working with a long shrimp net at low water, generally standing up to the waist in water, and raising or depressing the net by means of a long bamboo pole.

The Chinese settled on the island come principally from the province of Fokien. The mode of dealing with the emigrants as they arrive is novel and ingenious, and may be commended to the notice of some of our own colonies. The settlers, on arrival, are located by the principal mandarin of the district beyond the last interior settlement, and are there permitted to acquire the particular portion allotted to them by fighting for it against the wild aborigines; this generally takes three or four months to accomplish, by which time their numbers have been considerably thinned, and those who do survive receive, therefore, a larger portion of land, so that the more that are killed the better for those who are not. Many of the officials are degraded mandarins from the mainland, condemned to exile for a period, which they serve out in a capacity similar to that which they filled in their own country.

To Europeans the produce of the greatest importance is coal, which is found on the northern coast, near Keelung, (the only harbour suitable for large ships), and but twenty miles from the bar harbour of Tamsui. Although coal was known to exist here, it did not attract much notice until lately. The American, Commodore Perry, caused the seams to be examined, by extending the working deeper into them, and at present an English company has obtained permission to work these mines. If the quality of the coal is found suitable for furnaces, there can be little doubt that by the introduction of machinery, and a systematic mode of working, this port would be of vast importance to navigation, as a coaling station for vessels proceeding to or coming from Japan. Sandstone is generally indicative of the presence of coal, and some curious efforts of the action of water are to be seen, in pillars of sandstone supporting erratic boulders, the columns having been washed out of the continuous rock.

In the interior of the island camphor is produced in large quantities from trees (the Laurus camphora), and until lately was a Chinese monopoly -- a mandarin paying a large sum for this exclusive right; but now English merchants have broken ground, and have already sent several ship-loads off. Sulphur springs are numerous, but the usual jealousy of the Chinese Government prevents their being worked. The natives are forbidden to collect sulphur crystals -- some fine specimens are seen near Tamsui, where in one place there are about ten jets, the largest having an aperture of nearly a foot in diameter, from which the fluid issues with a noise like the roar of a bull. Notwithstanding the official prohibition, traces of very recent bakings were found by a recent English visitor in the shape of broken pans. The usual mode of extracting the sulphur is by crushing the stones, placing them in stone pans with a little water, over a fierce fire, when the sulphur rises to the surface, and as it cools forms a cake, which is broken and removed.

On the north-west coast, near the village of Teukcham, petroleum has been found; but the Chinese keep the locality of the springs a secret.

Another natural production is the cactus-like plant (Aralia papyrifera) from which the misnamed rice-paper is made. It grows in large quantities at the northern end of the island, and, when cut, and the outer covering removed, a white pith is found, which is dried, and from which the well-known article called rice-paper is cut. The process of manufacturing it involves considerable manual dexterity, the pith being rolled over the edge of a large flat knife and cut, then flattened and packed for exportation. The larger pieces of pith are exported uncut to Amoy, but the smaller pieces are cut on the island.

The aborigines in the north are of the Malay type of feature -- short, stoutly-built, with a clear olive complexion, and altogether a finer race than the Chinese. They are not of a hostile disposition, and those Europeans who have visited them have been permitted to return in safety. Indeed, about Kaleewan and Sawo, where the extensive plain is richly cultivated, many of these aborigines are domesticated, and live in perfect harmony with the Chinese, and intermarry with them, and both have the same dread of the savages of the mountains, who are known as the "Chinkwau." These Chinkwau are very different, and a finer race of men. One of the idiosyncrasies of these southern savages is a strong taste for collecting skulls of human beings, a taste that may be a very pleasant one for the collectors, but, as others have to supply the skulls, it cannot be so agreeable to them. Fortunately they carry their taste to such a degree of refinement as to show a preference for a peculiar skull, that of a Chinaman being preferable; and it is considered even necessary that a man should at least possess one such skull to be eligible for marriage; and, with a young woman in his eye and Chinamen in the vicinity, the result is readily imagined. The bride won, ambition fires the [p. 252] noble savage, who then collects heads, not for love but for glory, importance in his tribe being measured by the number he possesses.

The dress of these interesting natives is very simple. A coat made of native flax well spun, ornamented with wool evidently culled from Chinese blankets, covers the shoulders, and at times a kind of jockey-cap, made of wicker-work, to protect the head from the sun, completes the costume. Their natural weapons are the bow and arrow and javelin, with which they are very expert, while civilisation furnishes them with the Chinese knife, and in the south with ginjals, which are supplied by outcast Chinamen, who exist in a kind of no man's land between the limits of the Chinese settlements and the savage tribes, with the latter of whom they are ready to join in a murderous onslaught on any boat that dares approach their shores. Of late years such attacks have become very frequent, from the increase of navigation along the shores. The massacre of the whole crew of the wrecked American vessel Rover caused the American admiral (Bell) to repair to the neighbourhood of the wreck to punish the murderers, and after an indecisive action, in which he lost a lieutenant, he withdrew his forces to await a more favourable opportunity for punishing them. But the American consul at Amoy took the matter up, and, by dint of great perseverance, induced the Chinese Government to despatch a military expedition, and, to make sure of its action, resolved -- much to the chagrin of the Chinese -- to accompany it himself. For this determination all Europeans, as well as Americans, are deeply indebted to General Le Gendre. By his instrumentality a road was cut for a distance of fifty-five miles across mountains hitherto deemed inaccessible. This road connected the coast and capital with Leang-kiow, the last town which in any way acknowledges the Chinese authority, and enabled the force, by a sudden march, to reach the very stronghold of the Coalut tribe, to which the murderers belonged. The exhibition of such a force spread terror and consternation among the tribe, and they sent a deputation to express their repentance for the past, and promises of better behaviour in future. It is due to the wise forbearance of the American consul to relate that he listened to the overtures; but he demanded that the supreme chief, Toketok by name, and also the chiefs of the eighteen tribes, should present themselves in person, and an interview was arranged, to which the consul repaired without an escort.

At the appointed time Toketok put in an appearance, surrounded by chiefs, and some savages of both sexes. Nothing daunted, Toketok told the consul that if it was intended to fight with him, he would also fight and bind himself to nothing; but that if, on the other hand, leniency was shown with regard to the past, he promised that in future no stranger should be murdered, and also that if any came on the coast in want, they should be permitted to land and procure water and other necessaries in a friendly manner, and, if any harm came to the visitors, they themselves would find out and punish the offender. A signal was arranged upon by which it could be known if a vessel required anything, or had any intention of landing. Thus, by the firmness and humanity of the American consul, the southern end of Formosa, which has never been thought of by mariners without a shudder, is rendered safe to those who may be driven by distress on its coast.

It is gently to be regretted that no ardent traveller was at hand to take advantage of the rare opportunity thus offered to obtain a safe conduct through this terra incognita, and enlighten us on all its beauties and riches; but probably, had such an one been present, he might have felt a curious sensation in the neck at the thought of trusting himself amongst a race in which such a peculiar collecting mania raged; and, much as he felt himself inclined to enlighten the general public, he might prefer not doing so at the risk of his head becoming a marriage jointure for a lady savage, however beautiful and interesting she might be.