Guillemard, F.H.H. "Formosa." Chapter I in The Cruise of the Marchesa to Kamschatka & New Guineaa, with notices of Formosa, Liu-Kiu, and various islands of the Malay Archipelago. London: John Murray. 1886. Pp 1-25.
[P. 1] Bad reputation of the coast -- Treaty with the natives -- Island of Samasana -- Origin of its inhabitants -- Cervus pseudaxis -- A national school -- East coast of Formosa -- Gigantic precipices -- Ascent of a gorge -- Steep Island -- Keelung -- Filthiness of the town -- Formosan coal -- Overland to Tamsui -- Peculiarities of the avifauna -- Chui-teng-ka -- Tamsui -- Old Spanish fort -- Importance of Formosa -- Its harbours -- Geographical peculiarities -- Products -- Climate.
However blasé or dis-illusioned a traveller may have become, there must surely be something in the first glimpse of a new land to arouse in him a more than ordinary interest. His last expedition has been, perhaps, a failure. He has projected a book on the religions of West Africa, and has discovered that the gods he has intended for illustration have been constructed in Birmingham; or he has been hunting in the far interior of the Dark Continent, and has found a billiard table and a Good Templars' Lodge where he had hoped for elephants.1 If he be a naturalist he has possibly experienced more instances than he could wish of the destructive powers of the white ant, or, worse fate still, he has reached his journey's end with no collections to destroy. But, with a new country lying before him, all these recollections vanish, and, even if its exploration be impracticable, he none the less conjures up the images of its infinite possibilities.
[P. 2] It was with some such thoughts as these in my mind, that I found myself gazing one morning in June, 1882, at the southern point of the island of Formosa, regretting that we had but a few days to devote to it. Day was just breaking, and our new acquaintance seemed to wish to show herself under her most attractive aspect. A calm sea, brushed into crisp ripples by the early morning breeze, led the eye up to a wide stretch of bay lying right ahead of us. Range after range of thickly-wooded hills, which in England would have done duty for mountains, rose behind, and, tinged with the flush of a tropic sunrise, seemed to belie the evil reputation attaching to this coast. "You must know," says old Candidius in his "Account of the Island Formosa,"2 "that these natives are very wild and barbarous, and that a certain ship call'd the Golden Lion being driven upon the coast by tempest, they kill'd the captain and most of his crew." That they did not always confine themselves merely to the murder of any one unlucky enough to escape drowning is a well-known fact, and it is probable that, even at the present day, cannibalism still exists among certain native tribes. To the west the Chinese have held possession for two or three centuries or more, but certain death awaited every one shipwrecked on the eastern and southern shores of the island, for the head-hunting propensities of some of the Formosans are as keen as those of any Dyak. It was not, however, until the massacre of the entire crew of the American ship Rover had occurred that any steps were taken to mend matters. General Le Gendre, the United States Consul at Amoy, at length succeeded, in October 1867, in concluding a treaty with Tok-e-tok, the paramount chief of the tribes of the southern district, by which the latter engaged to protect any stranger who might land, and to permit of the erection of a fort as a refuge for shipwrecked mariners. A still further point was gained in November, 1881, when, after considerable difficulties, a lighthouse was erected at Nan-sha, or Wo-lan-pi, the southern promontory of the island. This part of Formosa may [p. 3] now be considered tolerably safe, but for any one in search of adventure, the east coast still remains open. It is more than doubtful, however, whether the results of the explorer's experiences would ever be given to the world.
We ran in towards the land to reconnoitre the fort to which I have just alluded, and made out the Chinese flag which was hoisted above it. We had, however, no intention of landing, and on rounding the Nan-sha Cape altered course for the little island of Samasana. Aided by the Kurosiwo or Japanese current, which sweeps up the eastern side of Formosa at the rate of from thirty to forty miles a day, we passed the coast rapidly, and finally dropped anchor about noon in a bay on the north-west side of the island.
Samasana was visited by Sir Edward Belcher in the Samarang in 1845, and again by H.M.S. Sylvia in 1867, but we could not discover that any other vessel had been there subsequently. It is a small island, hardly two miles in length, chiefly composed of coralline limestone, which at the western point forms curiously-shaped pinnacles of rock, pierced in places with high arches. We were soon in communication with the natives, who are partly the descendants of Chinese from the Amoy province, intermixed, to judge from the darkness of their skin and other characteristics, with Formosan aborigines, or possibly with natives of the Meiacosima, or Liu-kiu islands. They had brought off some vegetables in their clumsy-looking sampans, which they bartered for tobacco and handkerchiefs, and made signs to us that, if necessary, more could be obtained. We rowed ashore through a curious little channel cut in the coral reef to enable boats to be launched at all states of the tide, and found that the whole village had turned out en masse to inspect us. The people were in many respects unlike the Chinese in appearance, being guiltless of pig-tail, and wearing the hair in a tangled mass behind. The huts were mud-built, and roofed with the leaves of the Pandanus, which grew in abundance throughout the island. Tied up to stakes in close proximity to them were several of the beautiful species of spotted deer peculiar to [p. 4] Formosa (Cervus pseudaxis). Almost all of these were without one or other of the fore feet, most probably the result of having been caught in a trap. They had been brought over to the island as pets, and were exceedingly tame, but, somewhat to our disappointment, the natives were unwilling to part with them. In other respects, however, they were most eager to please us. asking us into their huts to rest, and presenting us with eggs and vegetables. As, however, we had more designs on the fauna than the products of the island, we started at once for the south-east side, hoping to pick up some birds and insects on our way. The crowd that accompanied us unluckily frustrated all our hopes, and we arrived at our destination empty-handed, and somewhat glad of a rest, which the villagers who had come over with us, in their anxiety to show us off to their friends, seemed by no means disposed to allow us. The island appeared to be fairly well cultivated, the chief crops being rice, Indian corn, and sweet potato, but the wilder parts, abounding in pretty valleys clothed with thick underwood, we had unfortunately no time to explore. From the south-east cape a coral reef stretches straight out to sea for a distance of two or three miles, on which a tremendous sea was breaking -- the strong south-easterly wind of the morning having freshened into a gale.
On our return we were for the nonce appointed Inspectors of Schools for the Republic of Samasana. We found the children collected in one of the usual mud huts, in charge of the first true Chinaman we had as yet seen on the island -- an old gentleman of benevolent aspect, who was evidently much pleased with our visit. His pupils were learning their letters, but owing to our own ignorance of them we were unable to obtain a good deal of information which would have been most interesting to us. It speaks well indeed for the character of the islanders that such an institution should exist in so desolate a spot, where communication with China can only be of the rarest occurrence.
The wind still holding from the S.E., though somewhat stronger than we wished, we decided to sail for Formosa, regretting that we [p. 5] had been unable to devote more time to this ultimate of Ultima Thules, and wondering for how many years the remembrance of our visit would remain an epoch in the Samasanan calendar.
When that most prosaic, but useful publication, the "China Sea Directory" ventures upon superlatives, there is generally some tolerably good reason for it. "The coast from Chock-e-day to the northward," it informs us, "is the boldest and most precipitous that can be conceived, the mountains rising 7000 feet almost perpendicularly from the water's edge." Attracted by this, which may be safely termed a very respectable height for a sea-cliff, we decided to explore the coast and see if a tolerable anchorage and landing could be obtained, undeterred by the further information that "the aborigines were nearly naked, and used threatening gestures, brandishing their long knives and spears" when Commander Brooker attempted to communicate with them. We set our course northward at reduced speed during the night, and at dawn the mountains, shrouded in an impenetrable gloom of heavy clouds, loomed dimly through the mist on our port hand. We altered course, and crept in slowly towards them. Slowly the sun rose, and flushed the highest peak into a crimson glow. Beneath, the dark pall of clouds still hung, revealing here and there in its rents a region of still deeper gloom behind, and pouring its masses of sombre vapour across the face of the mighty cliffs. The sun, as yet invisible to us, had flecked the dull gray of the sky above us with scattered lines of pink, and as our little ship heaved lazily to the long easterly swell we gazed spell-bound across an inky sea at a sight which, even to the most phlegmatic among us, seemed beyond expression magnificent. Higher and higher the misty curtain lifted, now hiding, now disclosing peak and pinnacle and gorge. Broader and broader grew the line of rosy light, thinner and brighter the veil of cloud. Day had conquered night, and, at last, distinct and clear, save where, half way up its face, a thin long line of snow-white could hung motionless, the highest sea precipice in the known world lay unveiled before our eyes. It was superb.
[P. 6] There are few more stupendous cliffs than those of the Yosemite Valley in California, and if any one wishes for a sensation of height, combined with others, to a novice, of a less pleasing nature, he has only to
"Hang half-way down,
As one that gathers samphire -- dreadful trade,"
in search of birds' eggs over the grand sea-wall of Hoy in the Orkneys. I have dropped my pebble over the edge of the 2000 feet of perpendicularity which the Penha D'aguia in Madeira opposes to the Atlantic surges, and have admired the glories of the iron-bound coast of Norway. But all these fade into nothingness beside the giant precipices of Formosa. Surely the Portuguese must have sighted the island from the north or south. Had they made their first acquaintance with the low flat shores of the western side, the name would never have occurred to them. Had they seen it first from the east they could not have stopped short of a superlative.
We passed the village of Chock-e-day, or rather its supposed position, for neither it, nor the river marked in the chart in this latitude, were to be seen. The short, sharp gale of the previous day had dropped before sundown, but had left a somewhat heavy swell behind it, which caused the Marchesa to roll steadily. We kept close in to the land, the appearance of which, if anything, increased in grandeur. The gigantic wall of rock is cleft every few miles by huge gorges, which in the rainy season must pour immense volumes of water into the sea, as is evident from the size of the boulders in their beds. Now, however, they were dry, or nearly so, and looked tempting enough, forming as they did a practicable highway into the interior, which is otherwise well-nigh inaccessible, owing to the denseness of the vegetation. Off the mouth of one of these, in a position that noon observations gave us as 24û 14' N., we ran closer in-shore, with the intention, if possible, of anchoring, but, getting no soundings with 100 fathoms, we decided that it would be better to keep the ship standing off and on rather than to [p. 7] risk a nearer approach to a country where, in the event of anything occurring, we were far more likely to provide food for others than to obtain it for ourselves. The lifeboat was accordingly lowered, and the crew having been armed with Martinis and revolvers in case of need, two of us proceeded ashore. The landing was very successful, in spite of the heavy surf, but, considering that, in case of an attack, the boat would [p. 8] be better lying off a little distance from the shore, she was relaunched, an operation which took some little time, and which resulted in her becoming more than half filled with water.
The valley was grand in the extreme. The entrance was guarded by magnificent cliffs, which rose to a height of over five thousand feet, the lower third being almost perpendicular. Excepting on the sea face, these mountains were clothed from base to summit with the densest vegetation, of which the rattan and innumerable ferns formed a conspicuous feature. The river bed, composed of large, water-worn quartz pebbles, was dry, save for the presence of a small stream of clear and ice-cold water. It was barely 500 yards in width, and narrowed rapidly as we advanced, the mountains rising almost straight up on either side for some thousands of feet, and effectually precluding any attempt to penetrate the jungle. Continuing onwards for a couple of miles, and rounding an abrupt bend in the valley, the river bed widened out into a sort of circular basin, and a view of unsurpassed magnificence lay before us. At the farther end the river was seen to debouch by a narrow gorge into the pebbly amphitheatre at our feet. The mountains had closed in, and towered above it to a yet greater height than those we had left behind us, ridge crossing ridge in glorious confusion; a chaotic jumble of Nature on a Titanic scale, over which the densest tangle of tropic vegetation ran riot.
"A valley terrible
As that dim gulf, where sense and being swoon
When the soul parts; a giant chasm strewn
With giant rocks -- asleep, and vast, and still."
It was hard, indeed, at this juncture, to have to turn back. But, alas! [T]he commonest prudence dictated a retreat without loss of time. For an hour or more the strong breeze blowing up the valley had warned us that, before long, all communication with the ship might be cut off, a contingency that we hardly cared to contemplate, so, reluctantly enough, we set our faces seaward. [P. 9] On our return we crossed our old track by the side of the little stream, and, to our astonishment, came upon the fresh footprint of a native who had evidently been reconnoitring our movements. Possibly he had foreseen that there might be some difficulty in adding the four white heads to his collection; possibly he was not unwilling that his friends should share in the amusement. At any rate he had disappeared, no very difficult matter in the thick bush around us, and we saw no further trace of any human being, although, some little distance beyond, we came upon the ruins of an evidently long-deserted hut. On getting to the beach we found the surf too high to admit of bringing in the boat, and accordingly had to swim out to it; an operation that, with our guns and other gear, was a somewhat protracted one, though greatly facilitated by a life-belt and line, which had been brought in case of need. The wind and sea had increased considerably since the morning, and our prolonged absence caused no little anxiety to those on board. The signal guns that had been fired for the recall of the party had been inaudible, a contingency that had never been suspected, and it was feared that the delay in our appearance might be due to a collision with the natives.
From a naturalist's point of view the excursion had been a failure. One solitary bird only had been seen, and, but for a large snake3 which had been caught napping among the hot stones in the bed of the valley, our game bag would have been empty. As it was, however, it was most uncomfortably full, for the creature measured nearly nine feet in length and was of very respectable thickness. Other game there was none to be seen, although spoor both of deer and wild cat appeared tolerably abundant, and to judge by the numbers we had seen captive in Samasana, the former must be in some parts extremely common. We had hoped to obtain it, and possibly also Swinhoe's deer, another species peculiar to the island, but the absence of anchorages and the [p. 10] exposed nature of the coast rendered a further stay inadvisable, and we accordingly shaped our course for the port of Keelung at the northern end of the island, passing Steep Island, singularly bold and picturesque in outline, on our way.
Keelung is Chinese; markedly so, indeed, as far as regards the dirt and odours of the place. That it is beautiful goes, of course, without saying, for it is on an island which, save for its western coast, deserves an even more flattering name than that bestowed upon it by its discoverers. Its beauty is the beauty of a labyrinthine mingling of sea and land, of the light green foliage of the feathery bamboos, of quaintly situated huts, and of the still quainter pinnacles and cliffs so characteristic of the limestone formation. But its enchantment, as is the case in most places where the Celestial has had anything to do with the landscape, is a loan from distance, and a nearer acquaintance introduces one to a million unsavourinesses to which the occidental barbarian is happily a stranger. Fortunately, however, even the "most ancient and fish-like smell" can in no way affect the utility of a harbour, and the town owes its prosperity not only to the proximity of the coal-beds, but also to the fact that the port is one of the very few worthy of the name throughout the whole island. The two hundred miles of [p. 11] cliffs and precipices that face the surges of the North Pacific afford no shelter whatever save the solitary bay of Sau-o. The very difference of the coast on the western side produces the same result, and the shallow ports of Takau and Taiwan are of but little use to European shipping. So Tamsui and Keelung to the north alone remain to dispute the palm, and, although the former can claim a considerably larger interior trade, Keelung can safely rely upon her coal-fields for supremacy until electricity shall have supplanted steam.
We found our Acting Consul the only Englishman in the port, and, thanks to his kindness, our visit was a most pleasant one. The country round is charming in its rich green dress of bamboo groves and paddy, and in the enjoyment of it one momentarily forgets the far from Arabian odours that have to be encountered on one's return to the town. Japan in summer is unpleasant; China more than occasionally oversteps the limits of one's powers of endurance. But for breadth and expression, for solidity, tone, and execution, the perfumes of Keelung must rank far above those of either. Here the Sanitary Inspector existeth not, and carbolic is a thing unknown. No respectable disease can complain of not having a fair field. By all the laws that modern science has taught us, by all our researches in micro-organisms, by every sacred axiom of Medicine, we can confidently predict the certain death of every inhabitant in the course of the next two or three days, although, with the habitual caution of a physician, we may admit the possibility of one or two of the strongest lingering until the end of the week. But next day everything is as usual, and the fat old gentleman who constructs the queer little boats that in China do duty for coffins does not seem to be suffering from any particular press of business. It is a hard matter to have to rid oneself of long cherished beliefs, but a prolonged residence in a Chinese city would, I feel sure, result in shaking the convictions of the fiercest sanitarian, and in time convert him to the advantages of the union of the main drain and the King's highway.
[P. 12] There is, of course, a waterfall at Keelung. So charming a place would be incomplete without one, and our visit equally so had we omitted to see it. So, packing ourselves away with some difficulty in the Chinese chairs provided for us, and commending ourselves to Kwan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, during our passage through the town, we started on our journey. It was a Dragon Feast, and the streets were crowded with people. In the notion that enjoyment and noise are inseparably connected, the Chinese do not differ from other more western nations, and the processions carrying the emblems were surrounded by a yelling, tom-tom-beating mass of humanity. In the harbour below us, boat processions of a similar nature were taking place. We struggled on through the narrow streets, past pigs wallowing in pink mud, past half-naked men devouring the unknown horrors of a Chinese dinner, past pools of filth and garbage indescribable, till on the outskirts of the town we were once more able to breathe freely. The heat was intense, and the cramped position necessitated by the native chairs rendered it so oppressive that we were only too glad to get out and pick our way on foot along the narrow paths between the rice-fields. Our way led up a little valley, the sides of which were luxuriantly clothed with bamboo. There are said to be no less than thirteen varieties of this plant in Formosa, and it is certainly one of the leading characteristics of the scenery at the northern part of the island. In no other part of the world have I seen the plumy foliage of so bright a green, or the sprays so light and feathery. Here it was of no great size, but on the western coast it is said to attain a height of nearly a hundred feet. We were not sorry to find ourselves at our journey's end, and, buried in masses of fern and moss, to lie and watch the little stream plunging into the cool, dark basin below. The island has, doubtless, many a mighty fall as yet unviewed by European eyes, deep in the heart of those magnificent mountains that have for so long remained a sealed book to us. But at that moment we would not have exchanged them for the quiet little cascade tinkling at our feet, and the feeling of placid [p. 13] enjoyment, unknown to those whom the lands of coral and of coconut are a dead letter, was broken only by the thoughts of our return, and a dim vision of the horrors of Keelung.
We returned to the realities of life on getting aboard, for we discovered that the operation of coaling, which we had hoped to avoid, was only half completed. The Formosan coal, which was first discovered in 1847, is supposed to underlie a considerable portion of the island, though as yet very little has been done to determine the extent of the beds. The Keelung district is the only locality where it is at present worked, and at no great distance from the town there are surface outcrops at several points. It is of a bituminous nature, and the quality, though good for domestic and such-like purposes is not very suitable for shipping, as it burns too rapidly and produces much smoke, while a still further objection lies in its liability to cake the furnaces. The Chinese for a long time worked the mines in the most primitive fashion, and many shafts were abandoned, owing to their having become flooded. But in 1876 English miners were imported, and at the present time there are several engaged in superintendence of the collieries, and the output has been steadily increasing. Thus the export, which in 1871 amounted to 18,671 tons only, had risen in 1881 to 46,178 tons, and it has been estimated that as much as 500 tons per diem could be turned out without much difficulty.
We had contemplated going overland to Tamsui if possible, sending the yacht round to meet us at that port, and we were pleased to find that the journey was feasible. Starting at 4 a.m. on the morning of the 25th June we passed through the town, and ascending the hills behind it, reached a bare ridge which commanded a magnificent view of the harbour and islands below us. Dawn was giving place to daybreak, and the eastern sky and sea were flooded with streaks of blue and rosy light. The lake-like calm of the harbour was only broken here and there where a faint line of rippling on its mirror-like surface showed the track of some [p. 14] lazily-moving junk. A faint blue mist hung over the town, and away seawards the sharp pinnacles at the harbour's entrance stood out ink-black against the burnished surface of the water. We watched the scene as long as we dared, for our time was limited, and then once more continued the ascent. Before long, we reached the ridge which forms the boundary of the amphitheatre of Keelung, and for the first time we were enabled to get a view of the country inland. A succession of hills of peculiar formation lay before us, sloping gradually to the eastward, but with their western sides almost perpendicular. They bore a singular resemblance to lines of waves breaking on a lee shore. Behind, the dark blue masses of the Mount Sylvia range, 12,000 feet in height, were visible in the distance, and appeared everywhere to be clothed in thick vegetation. Our path led us down through a little valley deep in azaleas and ferns, and after another mile or two we came upon a small creek, in which we found two boats awaiting us, for our land journey ended here, and the rest of the distance was to be performed by river. For this we were not sorry, as the large flat-bottomed sampans of light draught, which are specially built for passing the shallow rapids with which the river abounds, are very comfortable, and a great improvement on the native chairs which we had just left. We soon got clear of the creek and into the main stream, which is here, without any apparent reason, called the Keelung River. At first shallow, and beset with numerous rapids, it afforded us a certain amount of excitement of a mild kind which passed off as we got farther down stream. A large amount of traffic appears to be carried on here, the river being crowded with boats of all sizes, many of them deeply laden with produce of various kinds. The river wound round the bases of picturesque hills, covered, as usual, with bamboo, but cleared and under cultivation in many places. The soil, it appears, is especially suitable for some kinds of tea, and lately some has been grown which has brought as much as a dollar per pound in the Chinese markets. That usually produced is, however, of a much inferior [p. 15] quality, but a considerable quantity is annually exported, the amount increasing from year to year. In 1881 ninety-six thousand piculs of 133 pounds passed through the Customs.
Birds appeared to be numerous in the jungle by the river side, the black Drongo-shrike (Chaptia brauniana) especially so, while the clear note of a Barbet (Megaloema nuchalis) was audible in all directions. Both these birds are peculiar to Formosa. They have no representatives on the mainland of China, and their closest allies are to be found in North India and Sumatra. A closer study of the Formosan avifauna shows that this tendency to Indian and Malayan, rather than to Chinese forms is most striking. The island boasts of no less than forty-three species peculiar to it -- an enormous number when we consider the fact that the Chinese coast is barely sixty miles distant -- and, of these, twenty are representatives of regions other than the adjacent mainland. The same tendency is noticeable, perhaps to an even greater degree, among the mammals.
The above facts, our knowledge of which is almost entirely due to the late Mr. Swinhoe, teach us firstly that, as Mr. Wallace has shown,4 Formosa should be classed among the recent continental islands, and also that, at the time of its connection with the mainland the ancestors of the Formosan, Indian, and Malayan forms were equally dispersed throughout the intervening and at that time undivided continent. After the separation of Formosa and the Malayan islands the altered geological and climatological conditions were such as to cause the disappearance of many forms of animal life except in localities where the required conditions, such as dense forests or high mountain ranges, still remained. The immense number of peculiar species, however, tend to show that Formosa must have become detached from the mainland at some tolerably remote period, for we know, from a consideration of our own, as well as of other islands, that the process of formation of a species is one of a by no means rapid character.
[P. 16] We padded lazily down stream, glad to be protected from the sun by the large arched bamboo awning of the boat, and landed in the afternoon at Chui-teng-ka, a large Chinese town built along the river side, and surrounded by trees and quaintly-shaped low hills, which gave it a decidedly picturesque appearance. Here we found a rather interesting temple; the gateway of which was formed by two large monolithic stone pillars fifteen feet in height, and admirably carved. On the right hand was represented a dragon in very high relief, ascending the pillar with a round fruit or ball in his mouth, while, on the other side, the animal was descending, with the same object in his claw. Both execution and design were exceedingly good, and must have cost a considerable amount of labour, fully two-thirds of the stone having been cut away in the carving. The town was tolerably clean, or at any rate appeared so after [p. 17] Keelung, which Mr. Taintor5 has stigmatised as "the filthiest town in the universe," and we wandered about it attended by a small crowd to whom European manners and customs were doubtless a novelty. However well one may know China, there is always abundant matter for interest in the thousand and one objects and incidents of daily life that are to be met with in its great towns. Here is a stall surrounded by little children, who are hardly tall enough to place their money upon it. Yet they are not buying but gambling for the sweet-stuff that is to be had from the blear-eyed old rascal that attends it. That small boy who has just lost, and thereby escaped the almost certain pains and penalties that the ingestion of the horrible-looking concoction on which he had set his heart would have caused him, goes away muttering words of which I am sure that his papa ought to be informed. He is young yet. In a year or two, should we remain on Chui-teng-ka, -- which may Heaven forbid, -- we should find him gambling still, but with a face as well-bred and impassive as that of the oldest hand round the board of green cloth at Monte Carlo. Farther on we come upon a hat shop, where the enormously broad, conical head-coverings that they affect in Formosa are being made. How deftly the half-naked, greasy operator plaits the leaves of which they are constructed! They are truly Malayan, these hats; of a genus that is found from Malacca eastwards to Ceram, through sweltering Borneo and Celebes, and the smiling Moluccas. Time and locality, just as in the case of the animal kingdom, have altered them somewhat in shape and material -- have differentiated them into a new species, as a naturalist would put it, but the article itself is just as certainly of Malay origin as are many of the so-called aboriginal tribes of the island.
Below the town the river widens. Rice-fields appear, and the scenery becomes tamer, though the graceful tree-ferns and arrowy betel-palms redeem it from absolute dulness. Smooth, stolid Chinamen sat fishing by the river side, some wielding a rod of [p. 18] bamboo, some guarding a square frame net much like that used in England for catching sprats and other small fish. While passing one of these, the phlegmatic owner became suddenly galvanised into what, in a Celestial, might almost be termed a state of excitement. He had caught a fish; but it was no sprat. Whether he ever landed it or not I cannot say, but its splashing was distinctly audible full half a mile away, and, if success attended his efforts, the fisherman must have provided himself and his family with dinner for a good week or more. A mile or two more brought us to the junction with the already united To-ka-ham and San-quai rivers, two large streams which convey all the produce of the interior to Tamsui. Some five miles up stream is the large town of Bang-ka or Meng-ka, a place of considerable trade, where [p. 19] two or three representatives of English firms reside. In the neighborhood, rice, sugar, indigo, and tea are grown, and camphor is obtained from those districts where the virgin forest has not as yet given place to cultivation. The export of the last-named article has of late years been decreasing, possibly owing to the amount of risk which attends its acquisition. The savages are ever on the alert near the edge of the jungle. A Chinaman's head is to them a sort of patent of nobility, for without one they are excluded from the council of their tribe. Poor Johnny collects his camphor in fear and trembling, and never knows but that the setting sun may find his pigtail dangling at the knife-sheath of an exultant savage, who is busying himself at the fire hard by in the cooking and proper preparation of his cranium.
Tamsui is an uninteresting port, in spite of the spur of the high northern range of Formosa which rises above it to the height of a couple of thousand feet or more. We were relieved to find that the Marchesa was safely at anchor in the harbour, for we had been somewhat anxious as to the possibility of her entrance. The bar is a very shallow one, having only eight feet of water at low tide. At high water, however, a further rise of a little over seven feet had just enabled her to cross it, though she could not have had more than three or four inches to spare beneath her keel. The great draught of the Marchesa was, in the following year, a constant source of anxiety to us in the navigation of the little known waters of New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago, for which a vessel of the type of an ordinary coasting steamer would have been far better suited.
The old Spanish fort, built nearly three centuries ago, is a conspicuous object, perched half-way up a hill on the eastern side of the harbour. It is now turned into our Consul's office. The red brick walls are of prodigious thickness, and, entrenched behind them, one could defy the grilling heat to better purpose than, in days gone by, the Hollanders had resisted the attacks of that fine old freebooter Koksinga, the Chinese pirate, who eventually swept them off the island. Pleasant enough it was to rest here, lazily [p. 20] enjoying a cheroot, and to hear of old friends of undergraduate days, from whom a wanderer's life had separated us for many years; pleasanter still to think that there was a chance of meeting them again before long in China. But our time was limited, and a strong sense of duty being implanted in some of us, we were duly escorted to the sights of Tamsui. The most interesting was the consular prison. The two rooms, of the same date as the old fort, looked charmingly cool and quiet, and one wondered at their being unoccupied. When one learnt further that the far niente was the only occupation, and that tobacco was not forbidden, one felt indeed that the morality of the place must be something superhuman. It was a pity to spoil the thought by a further reflection that there were barely twenty Europeans from whom to select a tenant.
We had enjoyed our visit to Formosa even more than we had expected, and our regret at our departure was not lessened at having to leave behind us one of our crew, who had been seriously ill for some time. It must, doubtless, have seemed hard for him to be left practically alone in such a far-off land. But we had no alternative, as the voyage might very probably have proved fatal to him. Happily, the result was a favourable one, for, some months afterwards, on our return from Kamschatka, we heard of his recovery and safe arrival in England.
In these latter days of bad trade and land-grabbing, the eyes of Europe have been turned with ever-increasing interest to the far East. Russia has acquired Saghalien and its coal-fields. Japan, anxious for the well-being of the Liu-kiu Islands, has invited the King to Tokio, and replaced him by a Governor of their own. The English, regardless of malaria and a poor soil, have established themselves in northern Borneo. But it is in Formosa, "the eye of the Empire of China," that the interest has of late been centred, and there are few of us who did not watch with curiosity for the dénoûment of the Franco-Chinese comedy, where the one country, at peace with the other, was nevertheless bombarding its towns and blockading its ports. For the time the danger seems to have [p. 21] passed, as it did in 1874, when the Japanese invaded the island. But how long the unoccupied portion of Formosa will remain so is another question, and, bearing in mind the great resources and important position of the island, its leading characteristics are worthy of a moment's consideration.
The island of Formosa, one-third only of which lies within the tropic, is some two hundred and ten miles in length, and about seventy in breadth. It is separated from the mainland of China by the Formosa Strait, which is barely seventy miles in width opposite Foochow, but nearly two hundred at the southern entrance. This channel is, however, somewhat narrowed by the Pescadores Islands, a group lying about twenty miles westward of Formosa, and possessed of good harbours. The soundings in this channel show the island to be connected with the mainland by a submarine bank submerged to a depth of from twenty to forty fathoms only. The eastern face of the island, however, abuts immediately upon the deep sea, and soundings of a thousand fathoms or more are found within a very short distance of its shores. It thus formed the eastern limit of the vast continent with which, at no very remote geological period, the islands of Borneo and Sumatra were also united.
Apart from the fertility of its soil, and its supposed richness in minerals, the geographical position of Formosa is such as to render it a possession of extreme importance with regard to Eastern trade. Swatow, Amoy, and Foochow lie actually within the Formosa Channel, while every vessel bound to and from the northern Chinese ports and Japan is obliged to pass through it. The total foreign trade of the latter country is valued at over twelve million pounds sterling, and of this Great Britain absorbs more than two-thirds. The foreign trade of China is, of course, considerably greater. In 1881 it amounted to over forty million pounds, of which nearly thirty-two million was credited to England and her colonies. The occupation of Formosa by a nation possessing a fleet of any strength, would therefore prove a most serious affair for England in the event of war. The island has often been described as without harbours of [p. 22] any value, but this is hardly correct. It is true that Tamsui and Keelung are the best; that they are both exposed to the violence of the north-east monsoon; and that the former is not available for vessels of a greater draught than sixteen feet. But the extensive harbour of Ponghou in the Pescadores Islands is complemental to them, and affords excellent shelter from northerly gales, while the smaller anchorage of Makung within it is perfectly safe during typhoons. In both monsoons there are thus good ports available, while from December to March good anchorage can be obtained off Tai-wan and other places on the south-west coast.
The orographical characteristics of Formosa are very peculiar. The gigantic precipices of the east coast have already been alluded to. The entire eastern half of the island is composed of lofty mountains covered with dense jungle, which, towards the centre of the island, rise to a height of nearly thirteen thousand feet. At its northern and southern parts the country is also mountainous. The western side, however, is extraordinarily low and flat, and runs back as a vast plain almost to the foot of the central range, which here rises with extreme abruptness. The results of these peculiarities in the physical features of the country are most marked. From various causes the rainfall of the central and northern parts of the island is excessively heavy. The gradients are so steep that erosion takes place to a very great extent, while the soil is, for the most part, of such a nature as to disintegrate with great rapidity. We find, therefore, that the amount of detritus brought down is enormous, that the mouths of the rivers are blocked with sand-banks, and that the land is gaining on the sea to a considerable extent. The old Dutch fort Zealandia, built on an island in 1630, is now two-thirds of a mile from the sea, and the city of Tai-wan, under whose walls vessels could at that time lie at anchor, is now only accessible to cargo boats by means of a narrow creek. Nature is striving once more to unite the island with the mainland from which it has so long been separated.
Although there are no active volcanoes in Formosa, there are [p. 23] constant evidences of volcanic agency throughout the island, which show that it forms a link in the great chain which runs from Kamschatka southward to the Philippines. Hot springs and solfaterras are found in the neighborhood of Tamsui, and, in spite of the working of the sulphur being forbidden by the Chinese Government, a large quantity is produced and exported to Hong-kong. Mineral oil has also been discovered, but, as yet, it has not developed into an article of export. The Chinese are not a mining people, and the three or four million of them that people Formosa are content to gain their living, for the most part, as cultivators of the varied vegetable products that the rich soil so readily affords them. They divide the island pretty equally with the aboriginal savage tribes, but a mere glance at the physical features of the country, as exemplifies by the map, is sufficient to show broadly the distribution of the two races. The aborigines, or rather the natives sprung from Malayan stock (for there is a doubt as to whether they are not the successors of a race now extinct), are now confined to the rugged mountain country of the eastern and southern districts, while the Chinese are limited to the plains of the western part, and to a small extent of country at the north of the island. Year by year the latter steadily advance in their search for camphor, but the advance is slow, and the ground only gained at the cost of many a Chinaman's head, The trees from which this drug is obtained are of considerable size, and are only found in the primeval forests. They are felled for the timber, which fetches high prices in Hongkong and other Chinese ports, and is chiefly used in the construction of boxes and chests of drawers. The smaller wood is broken up and heated in iron retorts, and the camphor, on subliming, is collected and packed in barrels, and sent down to the northern seaports for exportation. In spite of the almost inexhaustible supply that must still exist in the dense forests of those parts of the island inhabited by the savage tribes, it is noteworthy that the export has of late years steadily diminished, and in 1881, 9316 piculs only passed the [p. 24] Customs at Tamsui. But there are other far more important articles of export than either camphor or tea. Enormous quantities of rice are grown in the plain country, and sugar is produced in abundance in the same district. Jute, indigo, tobacco, grasscloth fibre, rattans, and rice paper are other products in which a considerable trade is carried on. The last named, with which we are all familiar as the substance used by the Chinese for painting on, is the pith of Aralia papyrifera, a plant particular to Formosa, growing wild in many parts of the island. It is pared concentrically by hand, and the thin sheets produced are moistened and joined at the edges, and finally pressed and dried, when it is ready for the Chinese artist to depict upon it the discords in red and green he so generally affects.
Formosa, without being in the strictest sense of the word a tropical island, is nevertheless extremely hot, and although during the winter months wheat is grown in considerable quantities in the Tamsui district, and is of better quality than that of the mainland, the average temperature is high as compared with that of the same latitude on the coast of China. The rainfall in the northern and eastern parts of the island is very heavy during the prevalence of the North-east monsoon. Thus from November to the end of April, over one hundred inches fall at Tamsui. This is, without doubt, due to the eastern homologue of the Gulf Stream -- the Kurosiwo or Japanese current. The monsoon blowing over its heated waters, and coming in contact with the great mountain ranges in the north and centre of the island at once precipitates its surcharge of moisture.6 Formosa thus acts as a sort of umbrella for the eastern coasts of China, and the winter and spring are, consequently, a period of almost uninterrupted sunshine in the latter region.
During our visit to Formosa, the "typhoon season" had not fairly set in, and the Marchesa, though destined later to come in for the full strength of one of those extremely unpleasant natural [p. 25] phenomena off the coast of Japan, experienced no heavy weather of any kind. Storms are, however, of no unfrequent occurrence between June and November, and the typhoons met with in the neighborhood of the island are not less severe than those of the Philippines. And, although no such tidal waves and earthquakes as have on more than one occasion devastated Manila, have ever been recorded, Formosa is no stranger to either phenomenon, and it is probable that, taking these and other climatic eccentricities into consideration, the visitor, unless he be a naturalist, will subscribe to the opinion once expressed before the Geographical Society by a distinguished traveller, that Formosa, like Ireland, is a very good country to live out of.
1. These two evidences of civilisation are -- or rather were in 1877, actually in existence at Molipolele, the capital of Sechele's country, more than a thousand miles north of Cape Town by road.
2. Churchill's "Collection of Voyages and Travels," vol. i. p. 529.
3. A very handsome species, which I have failed to identify, the under surface golden yellow, and the back dark, shot with bright opalescent reflections.
4. "Island Life" A.R. Wallace, p.371.
5. "Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society." New series. No. IX. "The Aborigines of Northern Formosa," by E.C. Taintor, M.A., F.R.G.S.
6. "China Sea Directory," vol. iii. p. 250.