remembering the March Affair, 1947.


A Frontier Tradition

FROM AN AMERICAN point of view on December 6, 1941, Formosa was a mere island-dot on the Western Pacific rim, lost against the vast backdrop of continental Asia. December 7 brought the rude awakening; the Japanese attack upon the Philippines was mounted from Formosan airfields and soon Japanese forces were pouring through and past Formosa into the Indies and Southeast Asia. Formosa had resumed its traditional role as a trouble spot in Asian waters.

It has been many times an international trouble spot because it lies in a maritime world, but always under the shadow of the continent nearby. Here two frontiers meet and overlap. In the days before air power the situation was well defined by the wide channel lying between the continent and the island much wider, it should be noticed, than the channel which isolates Britain from the continent of Europe. But from a contemporary continental point of view Formosa represents the easternmost thrust of a vast complex of continental interests, of Chinese interests pressing out toward the maritime world. From an oceanic point of view the island represents the westernmost point on the Western Pacific rim, a maritime frontier which embraces Japan, the Ryukyus and the Philippines, a world of seaborne trade and international politics.

A seesaw conflict between this island world and the continent has been in evidence for at least two thousand years. The earliest Chinese notices of Formosa indicate that it was sparsely settled by fierce non-Chinese barbarians long before the Chinese themselves pushed southward from their homeland in the Yellow River basin to settle along the Fukien coast. These savages of a southern origin crossed the channel from time to time to plunder coastal villages or to seek a barter trade. The Chinese in turn sent out expeditions to punish them or to explore the distant island shores. In time a small settlement of Chinese fishermen appeared in the Pescadores but there were no significant attempts to displace the Formosan aborigines or to found permanent Chinese settlements on Formosa until the way had been prepared by others.

Japanese merchants and pirates appear to have been the first to establish small immigrant villages. For centuries they were sailing past Formosa to the China ports, to Southeast Asia and the Indies. In times of storm or when in need of supply or ship's repair they took shelter in the lagoons and inlets along Formosa's western shore. At last a considerable Japanese settlement (which they named Takasago) came into being at a point not far distant from present-day Tainan.

Then came the Spanish and the Dutch. When Japan's great dictator Hideyoshi menaced Luzon, late in the 1500's, Spain's Viceroy at Manila proposed to occupy Formosa. In 1626 Spanish forts and missions were established at Keelung and Tamsui on the island's northern tip. Meanwhile the Dutch had reached the Pescadores, seeking a naval base from which to harass Portuguese trade at Macao and to interfere with the Spanish shipping near the Philippines. In 1623 they abandoned Makung and moved to Formosa proper, founding Anping and the present-day city of Tainan. They sometimes quarreled with the Japanese nearby, but Takasago village faded rapidly after the home government adopted its Seclusion policies forbidding Japanese to travel overseas. In 1642 the Dutch Protestants drove the Spanish Catholics from their narrow foothold at the north, and for twenty years thereafter held the island without serious challenge.

This might well be called Formosa's "European half-century," for the colony prospered as the Dutch created Formosa's first government, established schools and missions for the aborigines, opened up the countryside for agriculture and sent missionaries far back into the mountains. Thus in the second quarter of the 17th century European arms and administration opened the way for Chinese immigration. At that time Ming China was torn by civil rebellion and pressed hard by enemies from beyond the Great Wall. Everywhere local warlords and imperial agents extorted unreasonable taxes and tribute from the common people in an effort to support a tottering central government. Ignoring strict official edicts banning emigration, villagers, farmers and fishermen began to leave the country. The government considered them traitors, renegades and outlaws. Thousands went overseas to Java and Malaya, Borneo, Siam and the Philippines. Tens of thousands made their way across the water barrier to Formosa, so conveniently near - too near, as they were soon to learn.

These "outlaws" were the ancestors of the majority of people living on Formosa today. They were hardy pioneers, bold and adventurous. Those who sought new land beyond the limits of Dutch administration were on a true frontier; their contemporaries in faraway America provide a close parallel if one is needed to illustrate the situation. Going into their new fields they had to carry weapons as well as farm-tools, and they dwelt within stockades. The aborigines contested every advance into the hills, and the Chinese newcomers, on their part, considered the savages to be subhuman, or "non-people" who should be driven back into the highest mountains if they could not be exterminated in the foothills.

Soon enough within the borders of Dutch settlement both the aborigines and the immigrants grew restive, for the Europeans proved to be hard masters who demanded licenses for hunting and fishing and imposed heavy taxes on trade and produce. When at last a merchant-adventurer named Cheng Cheng-kung boldly assembled a fleet in the Pescadores and moved against the Dutch the Chinese immigrant settlers were ready to help him.

Cheng (known in Europe as Koxinga) was the son of a Japanese mother by a Chinese father who called himself and his family "Ming patriots," but when he had driven the Dutch from the island (in 1662) he set himself up in the European forts and mansions as "King of Tung-tu." From this island base he proposed to conquer the mainland, vowing to liberate the Chinese people from Manchu rule. The story here takes on a familiar note, for foreign (British) merchant-adventurers opened an agency through which they proposed to supply these "Ming patriots" with arms in return for substantial commercial concessions once the mainland liberation had been accomplished. This was the first military aid mission on Formosa but not the last.

After twenty years of independence, however, the island kingdom was threatened by an overwhelming mainland Chinese force, assembled in the Pescadores. A truce was negotiated by the men who controlled the little government at Tainan, and a deal was made with Peking. In reward for a peaceful surrender Koxinga's young grandson the third King of Tung-tu was granted a safe-conduct to Peking, given a resounding title and a pension, and retired to an easy life.

Peking sent a garrison force, magistrates, and a swarm of civil officers into the island. Two centuries of ineffective and abusive rule thereafter generated a local Formosan tradition of resentment and underlying hostility toward representatives of mainland authority. Riots and abortive independence movements took place so often that it became common in China to say of Formosa, "Every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion." There were more than thirty violent outbursts in the 19th century.

Inland, at a distance from the walled garrison towns, there was chronic disorder. The outlying frontier villages, often at war with one another, were governed by family patriarchs and clan councils who were a law unto themselves within their own territories.

Such were conditions on Formosa when the Western world returned seeking trade in Asian waters after 1800. All nations with shipping in adjacent seas became deeply concerned. The island was considered to be one of the most dangerous and unhealthy spots in the Orient. The coasts were unlighted and unpatrolled; mariners shipwrecked on the eastern shores were at the mercy of headhunters and on the west they were victimized by so-called "wreckers" who plundered stranded vessels and gave no quarter to castaways. It was known that the local Chinese authorities frequently collaborated in these activities.

As international maritime traffic increased the number of shipwrecks and violent incidents multiplied until the situation became intolerable. But when foreign governments demanded corrective action Peking smoothly evaded responsibility. England and the United States in turn attempted to force the issue. In 1853-1854 Commodore Perry wanted to annex Formosa, but knowing that Washington would not approve, suggested a joint Sino-American economic and administrative program, indicating that he thought a well-established American community would in due course petition for union with the United States as the Americans in Hawaii were then proposing to do. He envisioned Formosa as an American outpost guaranteeing peace and order along the Western Pacific rim. England sent in gunboats and became embroiled in a local "Camphor War" in 1868. In 1874 Japan sent an expeditionary force into South Formosa which compelled Peking to admit responsibility and to pay a large indemnity for damages. In 1884 France occupied the Pescadores and Keelung and blockaded Formosa for a year during the Franco-Chinese war in Annam.

At last in 1887 the Chinese Government raised Formosa from the status of a Fukien dependency to the rank of a province although nearly two-thirds of the island still lay beyond the frontiers of local Chinese control.

The changed status and a reform program came too late. In a distant quarrel concerning Korea, Japan defeated China in 1895. As part of the settlement Formosa and the Pescadores were ceded to Japan "in perpetuity." A touch of irony enters here, for China had hired an American lawyer named John Foster, a former Secretary of State, to guide Peking's representatives through the humiliating treaty conference. To lend moral support to his employers, Colonel Foster then proceeded to Keelung to assist in the formal territorial transfer. This was one more adventurous tale he had to tell to his little grandson, John Foster Dulles, then eight years old.

Japanese rule thereafter ensured a prompt suppression of piracy in Formosan waters, produced an efficient coastguard and well-lighted coasts. Soon the island ports were in good order and trade began to flourish. Formosa ceased to be an irritating international problem when it entered upon its "Japanese half century"; no foreign power challenged Japan's sovereign position in Formosa until the days of the Cairo meeting beside the Nile in 1943. Beyond regularizing a modest trade in tea and camphor and developing a modest market for American products, the United States showed little further interest.

contents of Formosa Betrayed