Hancock, A. "A visit to the savages of Formosa." Good Words for 1885. Pp. 373-379.

A visit to the savages of Formosa

By A. Hancock, of the Chinese Customs Service


[P. 373] When public attention is so much directed to the operations of the French in Formosa, the following account of a visit paid to the remarkable tribes inhabiting the forests of that island may be of interest.

Often when walking over the Tamsui mountains I looked in the direction of the lofty forest-clad ranges of the aborigines, a mysterious and unknown region. From various sources I learned the following facts: first, that some of the savages come out to the border to barter with the Chinese; secondly, that in consequence of the encroachments of the latter on the edges of the forest, seeking camphor-wood, &c., encounters frequently take place, or rather that the Chinese, when engaged in cutting down the trees, are surprised by their wary antagonists and killed, their heads being cut off and carried away as trophies; thirdly, that these acts are not always done by the savages of the particular place where they occur, but by others brought from a distance for the purpose; and, fourthly, that anyone entering the forests and coming upon the savages without previous warning would almost certainly be killed. These particulars were not specially encouraging to one desirous of exploring their fastnesses; however, I decided to endeavour to get a look at them at some bartering place, and thus perhaps gain additional information regarding their habits and customs.

On the 10th of February, 1882, I started from Tamsui, steaming ten miles up the river to Banka, where I proceeded to purchase such articles as I thought might find most favour as presents. From Banka I went south and crossed the plain till I entered the mountains at Sintiam. The situation of this place is very pretty; the river a few hundred yards up is a brawling mountain stream, which, after passing over a rapid, flows smoothly in front of the village under the base of rocks projecting, like the buttresses of a cathedral, into clear green water fifty feet deep, whilst, reaching far up behind, the hillside forms a canopy of hanging wood interspersed with miniature bamboo dells.

Ferrying over the rapids, I traversed a stony tract of waste land, which is submerged in heavy floods, and then crossed the [p. 374] river again, and, ascending a hill five hundred feet high, devoted entirely to tea, dropped down into a small semicircular shut-in valley, and put up at the village of Kochu.

A few years ago the river at this place was the boundary between the savage and Chinese territories, and although a few tea plots are now established on the other side, it was only last September that a Chinaman, while at work, was surprised and killed by savages who crept over the hill from the back and shot and beheaded him within half a mile of Kochu; whilst at another spot, rather more than a mile off, five days before I arrived, three Chinese had been pounced upon, and their heads cut off and carried away. By the side of the river is a curious little hamlet perched on the summit of a mound-like hill; this place was attacked a few years ago by fifty or sixty savages, but the inhabitants were able to defend themselves and beat them off.

My object now was to find a Chinese go-between, and induce him to bring out some of the natives for me to see. Hearing that such a man was to be met with farther up the river, I started for his cottage. The path lay by the side of the water, which was fast becoming hemmed in by mountains descending in perpendicular precipices, so that the only footing to be had was cut out of the rock, in the style of paths in the Andes; a little farther on and the river had to be crossed, and then the walking was along the face of a smooth rock -- the base of a mountain which shot down at a steep angle to the water's edge. Along this was a crack which served as a path, allowing in some places almost as much as the width of one's foot; but hat, coat, and boots had to be dispensed with, and it became necessary to claw the rock with both hands and to edge along, picking one's steps with care, as the river below was swift and strong. At length, after a good deal of scrambling, I reached fair ground, and, mounting a very steep hill, came to the cottage of the go-between, and set to work negotiating.

It was arranged that he should bring out some savages and I would give them a feast of pig and samshu (their special fancy) at the bartering-house by the river. My friend forthwith changed his clothes and put on a striped tunic of savage cloth, tied on a huge knife, and threw round his neck a gay arrangement of coloured beads, from which hung shot and powder pouches and all the necessary paraphernalia for the long-barreled matchlock which he had taken down from its rest on the wall. He was now transformed into a typical "Hawk-eye," and having lit his fuse, he sallied forth, passed over the mountain by a winding path, and disappeared. This was in the morning.

At about half-past five in the afternoon there was a cry from the door of the cottage, where I had remained, "They are coming!" and on going out I beheld three men and a girl slowly ascending the path from the river, "Hawk-eye" having preceded them and laid aside his gun. Five of the savages had originally started to come out, but hearing the roaring or howling of a bear in the mountains as they journeyed, the fifth considered it a bad omen and had returned home. As the party came up, carrying their spears -- long bamboos with iron heads -- the Chinese shouted to them in an overbearing manner to leave these weapons outside, and they were stuck into the ground before the door. As they entered I bade them sit down. Two of the men were old -- one was a chief; the girl might have been about twenty. As to their dress, it was pretty much the same. The men wore a long piece of cloth like bed-ticking, which was suspended from the shoulders and simply tied in a knot and left open in front. Round the waist was a girdle of blue material, also tied in a knot in front. Their legs were entirely bare. On the head was a curious close-fitting bowl of wicker-work of dark colour, resembling an inverted slop-basin. Their hair was quite black, and hung in copious locks round the neck; their complexion was light olive, and in the case of these three the profile was not specially pronounced. Their expression was by no means unpleasant. The girl was on a somewhat large scale and rather Egyptian in face, putting me in mind of the bas-relief on a mummy coffin. Her dress resembled that of the men, but there was more of it; she wore, in addition to the hanging toga, a sort of sarong in picturesque colours, extending from the waist almost to the knee, and a pair of regular moccasins. Her hair, which was quite black, was not long, and was tied up with a string behind in one place; her earrings were very curious -- a couple of pieces of carved bamboo, thicker than a pencil and about an inch long, thrust through the ears, and holding suspended little strings of blue glass beads and flat bits of white ivory. As the sun was going down and the river had to be crossed once more, I took my departure, having arranged that the savages were to be brought in next day to the bartering-house by the river.

[P. 375] Early in the morning the first thing to be done was to purchase a pig; and having accomplished this, I moved on to the samshu shop, where a big crock was placed on the floor, and the shopman began to ladle out the stuff at a rate which rather astonished me, as though the savages wanted to wash in it. "Oh," said the Chinese, "that's nothing; they drink it like water." The article was not very deadly, so that I paid my dollar and completed the purchase, despite my qualms about giving 29 catties weight of samshu to four savages. Arrived at the rendezvous, I found not only my four friends of the previous evening, but eight more, to whose savage ears the rumour of roast pork had penetrated far in their mountain fastnesses, so that now I had a goodly show of twelve for inspection and comparison. Having set myself by the door, as the house was rather dark, I ranged them all in a row in front on benches, so as to obtain a good view. The first thing that struck me was the great variety of type. One girl of about twenty-two was not only good-looking, but of dignified and graceful mien, and for dress and style the personification of Miss Bateman in Leah; olive-complexion, large and beautiful eyes, long eye-lashes, and a remarkably well-formed nose. On her head she wore a picturesque dark turban embroidered round the edge in red; her earrings were the same as the other girl's, but her general style was superior. The tattooing, strange to say, seems not to disfigure these natives -- in fact, it rather adds piquancy than otherwise. The pattern is the same in all, and may be compared to a pale blue gauze band or ribbon, starting in front of the ears and passing down in a slope to the corners of the mouth, where it divides, half going over the top and meeting under the nose, and half passing under the lower lip and meeting on the chin. The tint is pale blue. The men do not have anything at the sides, but merely a narrow band down the centre of the forehead about half an inch wide, and consisting of horizontal lines close together. This is not worn until the individual has accompanied a party on a raid against the Chinese; and when he has himself killed a Chinaman and brought home his first head, a similar band is added to the chin. Excepting the youths, all the gentlemen present had this badge.

After a number of questions, I ordered the samshu to be brought in and placed in the centre of the floor. There were two chiefs present, and when they drank they put their heads close together and their arms round each other's necks and drank simultaneously out of the same bowl. After we had spent some time in conversation and samshu-drinking, I noticed that the eyes of one of the chiefs kept wandering restlessly to the door, where the unfortunate pig was biding his time. Suddenly the savage arose, and, stalking out of the house, seized the pig, which was bound, and, hoisting him along, swung him on to a couple of logs which were lying over a slight depression in the ground. The whole conclave of savages rushed out in a body and crowded round. Drawing the blade from his girdle (the savages all carry hideous long knives), the chief delivered the fatal blow, coolly holding the pig by the nose the while. A fire was kindled in the hollow below, and after a few minutes, and without using any hot water, but merely rolling the carcase round and round, the chief proceeded with the next act of the drama. Cutting off the ears, he presented one to his brother chief and pocketed the other himself. Then the beautiful "Leah," with three other damsels, each stooping down, held a pig's foot, and as the chief with four dexterous strokes separated them from the shins, each young lady placed the treasure in her bosom! Over the subsequent dissection let us draw a veil.

The carcase having been duly divided, a big copper, into which the disjecta membra were dropped, was set going with a roaring fire underneath, and sundry old savage hags stirred the mess. Meantime, waiting for the finale, the old men were seated in a circle by the fire, smoking their short bamboo pipes and conversing in their rich guttural tones, which somewhat resemble Spanish. At last the contents were turned out and piled in a steaming pyramid on a table. Round this the savages thronged, helping themselves with their hands; and what they could not just then eat, the men put into their hats, and the women into their bosoms. When the feast was all over, I beheld, on going to the door, a boatload of savages slowly coming down the river. The sight was an interesting one, and a vivid picture from "The Last of the Mohicans" -- the wild forms and varied attitudes, all in true savage costume, passing along under the shadow of the dark rocks. I at once went down to the water's edge to receive them, and undisguised indeed was their astonishment at being helped ashore by me. If there had been variety amongst the first batch, there was still more in this one. One young fellow in particular attracted my attention; he might have been twenty-six years of age, and was of singularly sinister and forbidding [p. 376] mien. His head was ornamented by a crimson cincture, and he wore, besides, other gaudy articles, and was evidently the head of the party. As I learned later on, he was the brother of the chief of the tribe. His displeasure on discovering that the pig was already devoured was ill concealed, and his manner was correspondingly haughty and abrupt, till a happy thought occurred to me, and I lost no time in investing him with the Order of the Antimacassar, the only present I had at my disposal after having given the chief a pair of bathing drawers. Then I sent out and bought a dollar's worth of brown sugar; this I had made up into little bags, and presented each of the new-comers with a parcel, so that everyone was mollified, and all went merry as a marriage feast. Before taking my leave of the assembly, I told "Hawk-eye" to ask the chiefs whether they would allow me to visit them in their forests, and to this they nodded assent. I now considered that, thanks to the instrumentality of the pig and an antimacassar, I had accomplished the first step, and was in a position to take the second. Being unable, however, to remain at this particular time, I put off the proposed visit for the present, and returned to Tamsui.

The 26th of February, early in the morning, found me once more in "Hawk-eye's" cottage preparing for the expedition. Four savages had been brought out the day before, two (the chief and another) to conduct me into the forest, and two to be retained as hostages.

"Hawk-eye" and the savages having loaded their matchlocks and lighted their fuses, I buckled on my trusty steel (a savage knife, nineteen inches long), shouldered my gun, and off we started from the midst of an admiring throng. First went the chief, I came next, then "Hawk-eye," then my servant, and the other savage brought up the rear. The path at once began a steep ascent, winding along some very awkward places; at one spot the recent heavy rains had washed away one half, and I had once more to claw the rocks. At length, after a tough climb, we gained the top of the ridge, and there beheld mountains all round in every direction, those in front one dense mass of forest. The day was gloomy; heavy banks of dark clouds brooded over the ridges, forming a kind of pall, and the forest looked perfectly black. We were standing on the outskirts of civilisation, had passed the last patches of indigo, had seen the last sod of virgin soil that had been turned, and now we had to descend and enter the wilderness. By degrees the path, which hitherto had been little to boast of, became small and beautifully less. At last jungle appeared -- masses of reeds, grass, and other plants ten to fifteen feet high, and as dense as a wall. When approaching this place the chief blew a small reed whistle, and then raised a peculiar and melancholy wail, which resounded through the forest. The object of this was to let the other savages know who it was that was coming. The path got worse and worse; for me, with boots, it was a round of slipping, sliding, and scrambling, and nothing to lay hold of except the stalks of reeds, which cut like knives. Moreover, the chief walked at such a rate that it was as much as I could do to keep my eye upon him; it was a springy bounding step, with the body bent forward and eyes constantly on the trail. Presently the jungle ended, and after an unusually steep and tough descent, we came to the bottom -- a vast deep mountain glen -- where

  • "Broken by stones and o'er a stony bed

    Rolled the loud mountain stream."

  • I now for the first time stood in the forest primeval -- a sight never to be forgotten. Wherever the eye wandered, trees of various forms and sizes, all in full foliage, seemed banked up against the mountain sides. In some places, such was the angle of the escarpment that it was evidently a precipice; yet not a trace of rock was visible. Conspicuous before all, magnificent camphor-trees reared their shapely branches, clothed with glistening green leaves. I saw clean-stemmed liquidambars and a host of other trees unknown to me; and under their shadow, in dark interstices, rose, like feathery palms, tree-ferns twenty to thirty feet high, whilst close beside were dense clumps of smooth-bladed bananas. The ground below, reeking with steamy moisture, was one mass of luxuriant semi-tropical vegetation. Except for the sound of the mountain river, all was silent; no birds visible; no signs of life except some white and speckled butterflies dancing over the surface of the water in the dark glades. Here we sat down, and "Hawk-eye" changed his garb entirely, and donned complete savage costume -- the toga, girdle, and skull-cap -- so that but for the tattooing he was a savage.

    It was up this mountain river that our course now lay, and it had to be crossed and re-crossed repeatedly. At first I was carried over, but at last, like the rest, I simply walked through. Sometimes we passed under overhanging banks of dripping moss, then over huge boulders, and again, leaving the river, through tracks of jungle, which the savages slashed with their knives, whilst occasionally [p. 378] I would come upon some exquisite botanical treasure, which I had just time to snatch and throw into the basket. Sheets of ferns (pellucid green Trichomanes and Hymenophyllum) encased the trunks of trees like wreaths of emerald lace, whilst far aloft depended orchidaceous and other epiphytic plants; in the forks of branches, huge shuttlecocks, six feet high, of Asplenium nidus, or the birds'-nest fern of the tropics; and reaching across from tree to tree were cords and cables of rattans and various other creepers hanging in long festoons. At last we came suddenly to the foot of a steep buttress, up which we had to pass in zigzag, holding on to the trees, which I noticed were now getting thinner; more light was visible, and something resembling signs of a path. We were now close to our goal, and the savages told us to sit down till the chief should go on ahead and give notice to the rest. As he left I observed that his peculiar call changed. Whilst waiting for his return I watched a flock of most exquisite birds (the Pericrocotus brevirostris, of Hindustan) playing on a tree close by; they resembled wagtails in form, but are much larger, the plumage of the male being vermilion, with black head, and that of the female, canary yellow and olive green. I should have shot specimens, but considered that my mere arrival would be a sufficient source of excitement without the firing of guns.

    Just before leaving the last trace of cultivation, a young Chinese, an inmate of "Hawk-eye's" own house, and personally known to both these savages, was allowed to join the expedition; but when we had reached this particular spot and were sitting down, he wandered slowly on ahead of his own accord and was suddenly missed by us. At once the savage who was remaining with us jumped up, ran after him, and called him back in haste, because, as "Hawk-eye" told me, if he should happen to come across any other of the savages who were not aware of our arrival, he would almost certainly be killed. This incident shows the wild and wary nature of this people.

    At length there was a distant call from the chief, and the other savage led me on. A little more winding about, and I emerged on the top of a narrow ridge, crowned by the savage huts. The two first on whom my eyes should fall were my old acquaintance and the beautiful Egyptian.

    After the long morning's race over stock and stone I was not sorry to sit down. The hut in which I found myself, and it was a fair sample of the rest, was of the rudest possible description. The doorway was so small that it was a task to get in; the walls were composed of the branches of trees stuck into the ground a few inches apart, the interstices being filled with bits of chopped wood; the roof was thatched with grass. Three sides were occupied by raised bamboo sleeping platforms, some fifteen inches above the ground; there were no windows. At one side was a slight depression in the ground, which served as a fireplace, logs of trees being laid over it, end to end, and constantly pushed farther in as they gradually consumed away. All the village crowded in -- women, young girls, and children of all sizes; but the male savages, with the exception of those referred to, were all absent on a hunting expedition, having been gone several days. From the roof were suspended various requisites of the chase -- bows, arrows, and deer skins -- besides sundry articles of domestic use, all of the rudest kind.

    Having had something to eat, I strolled out amongst the other huts, and everywhere was well received. What particularly struck me was the fearlessness of the women and girls and the frankness of the children, who were most interesting. They came close up to me, examined my clothes with their large dark eyes, pulled my whiskers, and were never tired of looking at my watch. They are bright, and I should say intelligent, and incomparably more interesting than Chinese children -- so simple, natural, and unsophisticated. All smoke, from the youngest to the oldest of both sexes, and it was truly ludicrous to see tiny mites of certainly not three summers -- stark naked -- with pipes in their mouths; in which respect, however, they are surpassed by the natives of the Matabello Islands (Malay Archipelago), who smoke cigars before they are weaned. The women and girls carry their pipes of bamboo stuck in their hair, somewhat in the style of the liangpat'ou head-dress of the Pekingese ladies, and keep the tobacco-bags hung round their necks. They at once offered me a smoke. Some of them were playing upon a curious kind of jew's-harp, made out of a slip of bamboo with threads at each end, whilst one girl, of about sixteen, danced. The dance was neither a fandango nor a bolero, nor yet a minuet, but bore some resemblance to all three; it was so intensely grotesque that I laughed uncontrollably. No sooner had she finished than the girls came up to me and, offering me a jew's-harp, made signs to me to dance. The harp alone was a sufficient [p. 379] mystery to me, but when the minuet was added, the tableau was complete; my audience threw themselves down and screamed with laughing. From this performance I passed to a scene of somewhat different character: a few yards along a path, a step to one side, and I stood before a scaffold of camphor-branches on which reposed a grinning row of human skulls, the heads of Chinese slain in raids. But the day wore on, and the preparations for journeying back were made.

    We returned by a different route, and if there was no mountain river to be forded there was something worse -- the crossing of ravines and gullies on slimy trunks of fallen trees. Then, again, we wound through watercourses, where the vegetation was loaded with moisture, and the glen -- a vast fernery -- was dark through the interlacing of the trees above. We had gradually ascended so high that we were in the clouds, which made the forest doubly dark. The chief, as before, went first, and his wailing call once more echoed around. Presently the rest joined in it, and I was told that we were approaching a stockade of the savages, close by which we passed. At length we gained a ridge and changed our direction, plunging down steep and dark declivities. The scene was often highly interesting and romantic. Sometimes at a projecting buttress I would pause and look back at the line of savages winding single file round the precipices, and beguiling the way with a sweet and musical chant, which I was told was a sort of ditty addressed to lover or husband hunting far off in the forest. I have crossed Formosa thirty miles, with the thermometer 92° in the shade; I have topped the Wut'ai-shan, ten thousand feet; and I have tramped the sands and lava-fields of Hainan under a tropical sun, thirty-five miles in a day; but let no one talk of walking till he has been through the forests of Formosa with the savages.

    I had been rather annoyed at the way in which the old chief persisted in going ahead, but I afterwards learned that he did this by way of precaution against surprise. The choice of a different route for the return journey, also, had been made because the wary savages did not propose to make me familiar with the approach to their forest home. At about six P.M. we reached the cottage, after a day of great and varied interest; and as the poor creatures preferred taking their pig and samshu home with them, I consented, and after distributing a few presents, took my departure.

    The impression left on my mind was a mixed and rather sad one. I had been amongst a people whose days are numbered -- a people who showed various kind and amiable traits of character, but whose natural temperament, even were they disposed to work, seems unfitted for the systematic toils of civilised nations; whose ignorance and simplicity permit them to barter away their noble forests for a mess of pottage; who are steeped in poverty and ignorance -- the constant dupes of unscrupulous and mercenary neighbors; the victims of strong passions; without friends, without help, without sympathy -- children of the present hour.