Robert Swinhoe

1 September 1836 - 28 October 1877

By Samuel Stephenson

(Edited by Douglas Fix)


Robert Swinhoe was born in Calcutta, India on 1 September 1836 to a family with a history of several generations of serving British interests in India.(1) His father was a solicitor in India, and at least two of his siblings lived in India: a brother became a colonel in India, and a sister married W. H. Pedder, an officer in the British foreign service.(2)

Swinhoe's parents sent him to England for his education, where he enrolled in King's College School, London in 1852, and subsequently registered at the University of London in 1853. In 1854, Swinhoe demonstrated the first signs of his interest in zoology by presenting a small collection of British birds, nests, and eggs to the British Museum.

In 1854, as a student at the University of London, Swinhoe took and passed the entrance examination for the British consular service. He then withdrew from university and took up the post of supernumerary interpreter for one year in Hong Kong, where he arrived on 13 April 1854.(3) While in Hong Kong, Swinhoe studied the Chinese language, but also veered from the standard curriculum in his rigorous study of Chinese natural history.(4)

Swinhoe was subsequently transferred to Amoy in 1855 and promoted to 2nd assistant.(5) While in Amoy, Swinhoe learned the local dialect and kept a civet cat, a pangolin, a great owl, and young falcons at his residence.(6)

In March of 1856, Swinhoe made his first, and at that time rather dangerous, trip to Formosa aboard a Chinese junk.(7) He stayed in and around Hsinchu and Keelung for about two weeks, cataloging at least 93 new birds and 17 mammals which stand as legitimate species to date.(8)

After returning to Amoy, Swinhoe, along with a few other foreign friends, founded The Literary and Scientific Society of Amoy. At their inaugural meeting on 17 November 1856, Swinhoe read his first published paper: "A Few Remarks on the Fauna of Amoy."(9)

From June to July of 1858, Swinhoe acted as interpreter on board the British steamer the H.M.S. Inflexible under the leadership of Commander Brooker. Over the course of three weeks, the mission circumnavigated Formosa in search of information regarding the rumor that aborigines were holding Messrs. Smith and Nye, two sailors said to have survived a 1847 wreck in northern Formosa. Their searches, which involved taking several overland treks and working in cooperation with the intendant of the Circuit of Formosa, were not successful. During this trip, Swinhoe took the opportunity to record and capture a number of new specimens. After his return to China, he was invited to give a talk at the 20 July meeting of the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society regarding the journey.(10)

After serving briefly as interpreter for the 2nd Division of the allied forces in northern China under Major Garnet Wolseley and (later) Commander-In-Chief Sir Hope Grant in 1860,(11) Swinhoe was appointed the first British consular official in Formosa in 1860.(12) He traveled to Formosa aboard the gunboat Cockchafer and arrived in Takao with an assistant, George Braun, and a retinue of Chinese servants in early 1861. They then trekked overland to Taiwanfoo, where he set up an acting consulate in Funshin temple outside the city walls.(13) Although Swinhoe was only a vice-consul, he conferred upon himself the title of "brevet rank of acting consul" in order to gain the respect of the local intendant,(14) and eventually managed to secure a house inside the city walls in which he officially opened the consulate on 10 July 1861.(15) Shortly after moving the consulate to Tamsui in order to encourage trade in late 1861, Swinhoe fell ill and returned to England on sick leave on 10 May 1862.(16)

Swinhoe was extremely active while in England, visiting numerous naturalists, setting up an award-winning "Formosan Booth" at the London Exhibition, and giving a series of lectures for groups such as the Ethnological Society of London, the British Association, and the Royal Geographical Society. While on leave, Swinhoe also approached the Foreign Office directly to suggest the use of eastern Formosa as a British convict station.(17)

Although it is unclear exactly when, Swinhoe was married (most likely before his first trip to Formosa) and had two daughters, one of which was born before his return to Formosa in February 1864.(18)

Swinhoe was originally stationed in Taiwanfoo, but was quickly moved to Takao, where he was promoted to consul on 4 February 1865 and served until the spring of 1866. During that time, Swinhoe acted concurrently as the consul for Britain, Prussia, Denmark, and Portugal.(19) In 1866, Swinhoe moved to Amoy to fill a temporarily vacated post while maintaining authority over British consular affairs in Formosa. Swinhoe remained at this post until 1868, when he made a tour of Hainan island in April and traveled briefly to Formosa -- only to return almost immediately to attend a murder trial in Amoy from 21 to 24 December 1868. Swinhoe proved instrumental in getting the Chinese suspects, who were accused of murder based on anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiments, put to death.(20)

After a subsequent tour up the Yangtze river and to Szechuan in early 1869, Swinhoe again returned to England on sick leave, this time via Japan, San Francisco, and the Trans-American Railroad. He reached London at the end of September 1869, where he published a great deal in the course of his 18 month leave.(21)

Upon return to China, he was appointed acting-consul of Ningpo in May 1871. He was forced to leave Ningpo in early 1873, owing to an unspecified paralytic ailment and was assigned to Chefoo on the Gulf of Pechili in April of the same year. He subsequently suffered his third stroke, was forced to return to England, and retired from the foreign service in 1875. Swinhoe's condition did not, however, improve, and he finally died on 28 October 1877 at the age of 41.(22)

Selected Publications:(23)

Narrative of the North China campaign of 1860. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1861.

"The ornithology of Formosa, or Taiwan." The Ibis 5 (1863): 198-219, 250-311, 377-435.

Notes on the island of Formosa. London: Frederic Bell, 1863.

"Catalogue of the birds of China, with remarks principally on their geographical distribution." Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1863): 259-339.

Reports by Consul Swinhoe of his special mission up the river Yang-tsze-kiang, etc. London: Harrison and sons, 1870.

"A revised catalogue of the birds of China and its islands, with descriptions of new species, references to former notes, and occasional remarks." Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (May 1871): 337-423.

"The aborigines of Hainan, and narrative of an exploring visit to Hainan." Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1872): 25-91.

Published over 120 articles of zoological and geographical interest.

Honors and Memberships:

Fellow of the Asiatic Society of China (1860); corresponding member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1861); corresponding member of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1861); Life Fellow of the Zoological Society of London (1862); received medal and 250 worth of mathematical instruments for his "Formosan Booth" at the London Exhibition (1862); fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (1863); fellow of the Ethnological Society of London (1863-64); Royal Society (1876).(24)


1. Hall, Philip B., "Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877), FRS, FZS, FRGS: A Victorian naturalist in treaty port China," The Geographical Journal 153, i (March 1987): 37; Otness, Harold M., One thousand westerners in Taiwan, to 1945: A biographical and bibliographical dictionary ([Taipei]: Institute of Taiwan History, Preparatory Office, Academia Sinica, 1999), p. 151.

2. Coates, P. D, The China consuls: British consular officers, 1843-1943 (Hong Kong, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 498, 500.

3. Hall 1987, p. 37; Boase, Frederic, Modern English biography, containing many thousand concise memoirs of persons who have died between the years of 1851-1900 with an index of the most interesting matter (Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1965), Vol 3, p. 850.

4. Hall 1987, p. 39; Coates 1988, p. 98.

5. Hall 1987, p. 39.

6. Coates 1988, pp. 82, 98.

7. Hall 1987, p. 39; Otness 1999, pp. 151-152. In contrast, George Carrington, in Foreigners in Formosa 1841-1874 (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1978), pp. 63-64, 108, maintains that Swinhoe made his first trip to Formosa in 1857 aboard the H.M.S Inflexible. This proposition is less likely due to the correspondence and quality of the Otness and the Hall articles. Presumably, Carrington mistook the vessel of this earlier trip for Swinhoe's subsequent 1858 trip to Formosa aboard the Inflexible.

8. Hall 1987, p. 39; Carrington 1978, pp. 63-64, 108. For an exhaustive listing of the species catalogued by Swinhoe, see the following excellent web site:

9. Hall 1987, p. 41.

10. Carrington 1978, pp. 108, 110, 146; Hall 1987, p. 41; Otness 1999, p. 151; Yen, Sophia Su-fei, Taiwan in China's foreign relations, 1836-1874 (Hamden, CN: Shoe String Press, Inc., 1965), p. 96.

11. Boase 1965, p. 850; Hall 1987, p. 41.

12. Carrington 1978, pp. 108-110; Otness 1999, pp. 151-152; Yen 1965, pp. 96-97; Hall 1987, p. 42; Otness, Harold M., "Climbing Yu-Shan: Some early accounts of ascents by foreigners," Asian Culture Quarterly 19, iii (Autumn 1991): 73.

13. Hall 1987, pp. 42; Coates 1988, p. 319; Yen 1965, pp. 97-98; Carrington 1978, pp. 109, 178.

14. Coates 1988, p. 319.

15. Yen 1965, p. 98.

16. Carrington 1978, pp. 108-110, 178; Hall 1987, p. 42; Coates 1988, pp. 319-20; Otness 1999, p. 152; Yen 1965, pp. 100-101.

17. Yen 1965, pp. 100-101; Hall 1987, p. 42; Coates 1988, p. 320.

18. Coates 1988, pp. 320-21, 342.

19. Yen 1965, p. 102; Otness 1999, p. 152; Carrington 1978, p. 179; Coates 1988, pp. 320-21; Boase 1965, p. 850; Hall 1987 p. 43;

20. Hall 1987, pp. 43, 45; Coates 1988, pp. 322, 326-27; Otness 1999, p. 152; Carrington 1978, pp. 108, 110, 235-36, 239-41.

21. Hall 1987, p. 45; Michie, Alexander, Englishman in China during the Victorian era as illustrated in the career of Sir Rutherford Alcock, K.C.B., D.C.L. many years consul and minister in China and Japan (Edinburg and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1966), p. 181.

22. Coates 1988, pp. 324, 328, 342, 498, 500; Boase 1965, p. 850; Hall 1987, pp. 45-46; Otness 1999, p. 153. Coates attributes his untimely demise to syphilis. [Editor's note: Philip Hall (private communication, 15 November 2001) notes that Swinhoe published an article on a Taiwanese bird in the final days of his life.]

23. Hall 1987, p. 37; Gittings, John, A Chinese view of China (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), pp. 156-69, 214. For an exhaustive listing of Swinhoe's publications, see:

24. Boase 1965, p. 850; Hall 1987, pp. 42-43, 46; Yen 1965, pp. 100-101; Otness 1999, pp. 152-53.