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Taiwan in the Eyes of a Western Traveler--John Thomson’s Footprints in Formosa
John Thomson(1837-1921)is regarded as a pioneering photographer in the 19th century. He traveled to Far East, documenting the portraits, landscapes and eastern cultures profoundly through his lens and these photographs have become precious historical records. Although John Thomson only stayed in Taiwan for a few days, the images and notes he left are valuable historical materials for the research into Taiwan in the 1870s.His story could be comparable to Shen Bao-zhen, one of the figures in 「Traveling in Time」Exhibition. They were the travelers who came to Taiwan in the same time period. Through their stories, we can learn how they interpret Formosa in the 19th century.
I. “Island of the Demon Realm”

Obviously, because of our sins, the Almighty God punishes us with disaster after disaster. Yet, we remain hopeful that He will show His mercy once again.

July 21, 1654
De Dagregisters Van Het Kasteel Zeelandia, Taiwan (1629-1662)

From 1624-1662, Taiwan was under Dutch rule. Representing the Netherlands in overseas military and colonial affairs, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) built Fort Zeelandia in the present-day Anpin, Tainan as a trade and economic center. To monitor the state of affairs, the VOC asked each colony to record day-to-day happenings for submission to the Netherlands via Batavia. Compiled into De Dagregisters Van Het Kasteel Zeelandia, Taiwan (1629─1662), these records in Dutch were important historical materials of Taiwan under Dutch colonial rule. Mentioned in these records were symptoms and outbreaks of communicable diseases including fever, smallpox and diarrhea in different parts of Taiwan and among aboriginal tribes. For example, the record of July 21, 1654 said, “hete koortsen” (fever) was so rampant in Tayouan and Chikan that many died every day. Even from the newly built Fort Provintia, six soldiers got seriously ill and were sent to the hospital here today.”

Local gazetteers of Taiwan under Ming and Qing rule described the island as infested with miasma, a cause of widespread endemic diseases. In 1697, Yu Yonghe came from Fujian to mine sulfur. Traveling north from Tainan, he was warned by officials and friends of the prevalence of communicable diseases in Keelung and Tamsui where many easily got infected and died. With medication given by his friends, Yu continued his journey north. Within a few days upon arriving in Tamsui, he got infected with miasma. In 1874, Japan launched an invasion of Taiwan with 6,000 troops but was met by the outbreak of ‘Taiwan Fever.’ Among the Japanese casualties, only eight were killed in the fight but more than 300 contracted and died of remittent fever, what is now known as malaria. In response to Japan’s aggression, the Qing court adopted the “Opening the mountains and Pacifying the aborigines” policy to develop eastern Taiwan. In the process, many died of “exhaustion and miasma”. In October 1884, following the outbreak of the Sino-French War, around 1900 French troops landed in Keelung. The disease toll was so high that by January 1985, troops capable of combat numbered less than 1,000.

In May 1895, Japan sought to take over Taiwan by force, but “hete koortsen” spread like wildfire among the invading troops, even Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa who led the Imperial Guards to Taiwan got infected and died. By December 1985, more than 31,000 contracted the diseases and the casualties exceeded 4,600. Apart from strengthening disease control among the troops, the Japanese government did not initiate any health governance. In his book A Record of Ruling Taiwan, published in 1905, Japanese historian and politician Takekoshi Yosaburo, besides publicizing colonial achievements, attributed high mortality and maladaptation of Japanese to Taiwan’s poor sanitation conditions. Those who opted to return to their homeland considered Taiwan an “Island of the Demon Realm”.

Figure 1-1: Cenotaph of French Admiral Amédée Courbet in Penghu (Right)
Figure 1-2: Thousand Soldier Mould (Left)
Source: (1-1) Identifier: T0203P0022_01_1527-001, Michael H. Finegan Collections.
(1-2) Identifier: A0166_00_00_0090_a01-0001, Taiwan Photo Albums
During the Sino-French War in 1885, the French Admiral Amédée Courbet of the Far East Squadron launched an attack on Penghu. Shortly after occupying Magong City, he and many soldiers fell ill and died and a cenotaph was erected for Courbet and his subordinates. In April 1895, before the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed, Japan had already captured Penghu. The weather at that time was getting hot and drinking water was lacking, triggering the spread of communicable diseases among the occupying troops. Approximately 900 soldiers died and were buried in a mass grave known as the Thousand Soldier Mould.

Figure 2: Social situation of early Japanese colonial Taiwan depicted in memoirs of Miyoshi Tokusaburou
Source: Identifier: T0875_0003-0024, Miyoshi Tokusaburou Papers (1888-1940)
Besides plague and malaria, tea merchant Miyoshi Tokusaburou who first came to Taiwan in April 1899, had to face strong winds and heavy rains, inadequate telecommunication facilities, and no electric lights. On hot days with temperature above 32.2C, “business had to go on as usual under the heat of the weather and from the many large kerosene lamps hanging in the shops. At that time, Taiwan is really unpopular. However, without actually experiencing it, I do not think one can understand what it is like to live in Taiwan."

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