Kopsch, Henry. "Notes on the rivers in northern Formosa. "
Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 14 (1870):79-83.
Reprinted in The Cycle No. 2 (14 May 1870) 23-24.


2. Notes on the Rivers in Northern Formosa.

By Henry Kopsch, F.R.G.S.


[P. 79] Long as the island of Formosa has been known to navigators, and though visited by Europeans centuries ago, our knowledge of its geography at this period is exceedingly meagre. The extreme skirt of the island is all with which we are as yet acquainted, and that but imperfectly. Though the northern and southern ends of the island were settled by the Dutch as early as 1624, who fortified themselves at Tamsui and Taiwan-fu, the only traces of their former occupation of the island are the ruins of their forts -- Fort Zelandid at An-ping, and the Red Fort at Tamsui, with a few cuttings of names found in a cave at Palm Island, Kelung, copies of which I subjoin, deeming them worthy of preservation. The names found were --

Hans Hubener.                                             Hans Henrick Rotenpovg.

1664 A E                                                        Jacob Bosch. B P F

Schelck. 1666.                                               1664.

                                    Nicolus Gros. A C 1667.

A residence in Formosa naturally inspires one with a desire to become better acquainted with the interior of this unknown island; but the explorer is sorely disappointed to find that admission to this secluded spot is almost impossible, owing to the presence of a hostile race of savages throughout the island, who glory in the murder of Chinese, and since in these latitudes it is difficult to travel without such assistance, one is debarred from penetrating the interior.

Knowing that any attempt to make a hasty entry into the savage territory would be fruitless, we determined to commence our peregrinations away from the savage territory, which also offers a large and interesting field. The north end of the island is well interspersed with streams, few of which are marked on any maps, and those that are we found to be placed incorrectly.

We will commence an account of our voyages by giving a description of the native boats employed inland, their construction being somewhat peculiar, but so well adapted for navigating shallow rivers and ascending rapids that a short notice on their properties may be of interest and use to explorers. In the construction of vessels of light draught, combining comfort and capacity, the Chinese are not backward. The dimensions of our large boat were as follows: -- Length 35 feet, beam 7 feet, depth 3 feet, mast 30 feet high, with a bamboo-ribbed sail. They are entirely built of camphor-wood planks one inch thick without a join from stem to stern, and, in addition to the planks being nailed to the ribs, nails are driven in -- perpendicularly (a fashion with Chinese boat-builders) -- to fasten the planks together. The boat has in all 7 ribs, the first from the bow being built up to form a watertight compartment when required, and the whole is decked over with loose planks. The first rib from the stern is also built up into a compartment in which the small clay cooking-furnace is stowed away; the centre of the boat is thus left for passengers or cargo. Chinese naturally sit à la Chinois, and they sleep in their boat athwartship; but the mat-covering may be raised high enough for an ordinary sized man to stand up under. Our boat, with six men in her, and some 300 lbs. of baggage, &c., drew 6 inches of water. Two natives composed the crew when sailing or pulling in open water; but on ascending rapids a third man is engaged, to keep the bow up-stream -- two being required to push at the bow, while a third pushes astern, thus the flat-bottomed craft ascends the rapids.

Light as the draught of these boats may appear, in some parts we had to procure smaller ones, which may be lifted by four men over any obstacle. Being flat-bottomed, they can only sail before the wind, and their tall mast and large spread of canvas enables them to do so with great speed. For travelling in warm latitudes they are very comfortable and commodious.

[P. 80] In December, 1867, we left Tamsui with a view of exploring some of the affluents of the stream known as the Tamsui River, which debouches into the sea at Hu-wei (Tamsui). The first town we reach is Mêng-ka (Banca), the commercial capital of the district, and residence of the chief authority. The voyage took about four hours, an unusually long time, we being unfavoured by wind, and the passage is much prolonged by having to steer a very winding course to avoid sand-banks. Beyond Mêng-ka, which is distant about 12 miles from Hu-wei, navigation for junks ceases, and that city can only be reached by large boats at high water, there being less than 3 feet in some parts of the river at low water; the tide, however, rises from 7 to 9 feet. Opposite Mêng-ka the river branches off to the s.s.w. leading to To-ka-ham; but we followed up the south-east branch, intending to ascend the first affluent we met. Rapids of small size begin to appear soon after leaving Mêng-ka, and become more numerous and shallow on approaching the village of Ku-lun-an, where the river increases to a considerable width, with endless brawling rapids and dry patches dividing its course. Ku-lun-an is a picturesque little village situated on the left bank, and is surrounded by clumps of feathery bamboos.

The neighbourhood was richly cultivated with sugar-cane, hemp, and vegetables, and considerable boat traffic was observed on the river. Fish of an excellent quality were procured here, resembling mountain trout. They are caught by dragging a rope with feathers fastened to it, by means of which the fish are attracted and then netted. Continuing our course over shallow but broad water for a short distance we came to an affluent on the right bank, up which we decided to go, the main river we were about to leave heading to Chin-tam-ki. At the mouth of the new branch we were greeted by a troublesome rapid which debarred our progress, nor could we manage to pass it without getting out and lending a hand to our crew. Going on for about a mile through the most enchanting scenery, we reached a village called Kung-tao-mu, situated at the foot of a pretty green hill about 150 feet high. Here we halted for the night, just far enough from the village to avoid being stared at by inquisitive natives.

The night was perfectly summer-like, and, in fact, the thermometer was standing at "summer heat" during the day. Small flies were troublesome by buzzing round the lights, but no mosquitoes visited us.

The river was as clear as crystal. We did not proceed far the following morning without encountering many rapids, some being too shallow for our large boat to ascend. Luckily, at a small village, we procured two smaller boats, and after transhipping our baggage and servants into one boat, and keeping the other for our own use, we resumed our course. The agriculturists in this vicinity are very well-to-do people: the women and children were clad in gay-coloured garments; the men were strong and healthy-looking fellows. Passing more rapids and shallows we reached Kiang-pih, famous for its aqueduct which crosses the river at this village. This useful structure -- the labour of many years and cause of much bloodshed between the Chinese and aborigines -- was built by a wealthy colonist, named Ban-Keo-tao, for the purpose of supplying the commercial town of Mêng-ka with sweet water (the river water just there being brackish), and to afford easy means of irrigating the land. After going under the aqueduct and through countless rapids we at last reached a good long expanse of clear water free from shallows or rapids, about 50 yards wide, lined with bamboos on each bank. A well-cultivated valley extends for about a mile on each bank of the river, terminating at a high range of wooded hills. This pleasant sailing did not last long, for after passing a tiny village, called Shih-i-ming, where dyeing was going on, the river became an endless string of rapids too numerous to be mapped down. The scenery in this vicinity presents every imaginable feature, well meriting the name of Formosa. On the left bank were lofty hills well wooded with pines, while close to the water's edge are immense beds of ferns, bamboos, and [p. 81] entangled masses of creepers, the tout ensemble forming such an enchanting landscape that we named it "Fairy Knoll." Huge boulders lie scattered in the bed of the river and on the banks, one of which is said to rock with the wind. About here we saw coal cropping out of the hills. Most people would denounce this river at its upper end as unnavigable; but, with admirable boats and perseverance of the Chinese, the ascent is accomplished with comparative ease. Owing to the unusually dry season, there was so little water that in some parts it seemed really impossible to get up such a small but swift stream; still, boats laden with grain were being pushed up by sheer strength.

At about 5 p.m. we reached a small village, called Pung-a-na, situated at the foot of a high range of mountains, where the river ends in a mountain torrent, and all navigation ceases.

Learning from the natives that we were not more than two hours' walk from Liang-Kah, we determined to try and reach it that night, so, procuring a guide, and entrusting our blankets to our coolies with orders to follow, we started off through the mountains on our unknown route. The first part of the road took us along the bed of the river we had just left, after crossing which [sic] we climbed up a steep hill covered on its summit with stunted firs and common tea-plants. Before we reached the top of the mountains it began to grow dark, which at once caused us to entertain doubts as to our blankets, &c., following, the road being terribly bad. After walking through jungle, and paddy-fields in the low land, we had to cross a second range of hills equally high, the darkness of the night making it most difficult to keep the path. Half-way up the mountains the inmates of a hamlet kindly provided our guide with a torch, but it was unable to stand the gusts of wind and rain experienced at the hill-tops. Five hours' most unpleasant walking from Pung-a-na brought us to a large village, which we hoped was Liang-kah, but to our chagrin found it to be Chin-tend-kah, some 15 miles down the river. Having ordered our baggage to go to Liang-kah it was useless to stay here, so we marched on to the former place, arriving there after a walk of nine hours from Pung-a-na. The owner of a rapid-boat most hospitably offered us shelter from the rain, and cooked a meal of rice for us. His kindness did not end here, for he provided us with as much of his bedding as he could spare, upon which the three of us slept. Our baggage was destined never to come by that route, the coolies having refused to cross the hills by night. We returned to Tamsui viâ the Ke-lung River.

A graphic description of this river having already appeared in the Society's 'Journal,' vol. xxxiv. p. 8 [Swinhoe, Robert, "Notes on the island of Formosa," Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 34 (1864): 6-18], it will suffice merely to add a few remarks concerning the places of interest along its banks.

About 8 miles from Tamsui, and 4 miles from the river, are the sulphur springs or pits situated in a small sheltered valley in the high range of hills running towards Ke-lung, at an elevation of 450 feet. At the foot of these hills is a good-sized brook of clear warm water, which in November was 105° F., while the air was 72° F., and so strongly impregnated with sulphur that the stones have been changed into a dark-green colour. For curing cutaneous diseases this water is considered very efficacious. The pits consist of about twenty jets of vapour of various sizes, from not larger than the steam from an over-boiling tea-kettle, to columns rising high in the air with great force and deafening noise. As this sulphurous vapour ascends and comes in contact with the air, it condenses in the form of a fine yellow powder, known as the flowers of sulphur, and which accumulates in large quantities around the mouth of the pits. Some of these jets seem to have blown off their encrustment of earth, and are now left in the shape of a natural caldron of boiling lava, which, on overflowing and cooling, covers the rocks and stones with a crust, under which is found a compact mass of sulphur of a soft granular crystalline texture. Clear springs of boiling water are found in every [p. 82] hole, strongly infused with sulphur. At present the mines are not worked, but formerly many tons were exported.

Opposite Mêng-Ka, as I have before stated, the river branches off to the s.s.w., leading to Sa-ko-y-ing and To-ka-ham. It is not navigable beyond the latter town, owing to numerous rapids and the presence of savages. The entrance to the To-ka-ham river (as we called it) runs through a rich alluvial plain, highly cultivated with rice, peas, sugar, and hemp. Its banks at the mouth are about 1000 yards apart, and from their height one is led to infer that formerly a river of considerable magnitude existed, whereas at present it is only a wide but shallow sheet of water, most tedious and troublesome to navigate, owing to the number of banks and circuitous channel. On the left bank, some 5 miles up, is situated the magisterial town of Sin Ching, where conveyances are generally engaged by travellers to Tuk Cham. After some miles of the most tedious navigation in the shallowest water imaginable, we were introduced to the rapids, the characteristic feature of Formosan rivers, and found them more formidable on this river than on the Ke-lung, or, as we called the other to the southward, "Henries River." As the traveller ascends the stream, the mountains show less and less signs of cultivation, and are more thickly wooded with firs, bamboos, and tropical plants of magnificent verdure. The bottom of this clear river is formed of boulders the size of a 68-pound shot, thousands of tons being scattered on each side of the river, indicating plainly its former breadth. The sandy soil appears to have been washed away from these boulders towards the junction at Sin Ching, where it has accumulated into the form of sand-banks. The river maintains a tolerably equal breadth throughout, that is, above the first rapid. A wooden and stone embankment has been erected to check the encroachment of the water on the cultivated ground, where it is inclined to eat away the banks, to prevent which in many places frames of bamboo filled with bounders are piled along the shores. Many of the rapids on this river are so shallow, but swift, that the boatmen are obliged to erect dams, made by putting large stones into bamboo frames and laying them in the stream to deepen the channel, by narrowing the surface of the water. Towards the head of the river it becomes an unbroken chain of rapids, which appears to defy ascent; yet the industry of the Chinese is sufficient to overcome these impediments of nature, and turbulent streams are made into navigable rivers. The very light draught of the rapid-boats enables them to sail up with a strong breeze, but seldom without the aid of a pole or boat-hook. Not far from To-ka-ham the river runs at the foot of a range of mountains some 1000 feet high, where large herds of water-buffalo were feasting on the rich pasture.

Having reached a hamlet at dusk where several boats had anchored, we also came to a halt, it being too difficult to ascend the rapids by dark. The next day we got our small boat and proceeded to the town of To-ka-ham, which is situated on a high bluff close to the river, and almost obscured from view by trees. This town defines the limits of Chinese occupied territory, beyond which neither Chinese or aborigines venture to cross, except the former when in search of camphor-wood, in which case a picket of rangers generally escort the wood-cutters to protect them from the savages. The To-ka-ham river may be considered as the branch supplying the most water to the Tamsui river. After rain the volume of water is so great and swift that no boats, it is said, can stem the current.

The fall from To-ka-ham to the last rapid we estimated at about 150 feet.

Many of the rapids are on such an incline that, to a person looking from his boat above the rapid at others ascending, all but the latter's sail is lost to view.

The line of demarcation between Chinese and savage territory is most striking in this vicinity. To the westward, richly cultivated table-land, with [p. 83] snug little farms scattered over it, extends to the sea, while on the east, black and impenetrable forests clothe the lofty mountains, affording a good idea of the difficulty, danger, and labour it must have cost to expel the savages from their mountain fastnesses.