Everyone knows that the expedition of Matthew Perry and his Black Ships opened Japan. But how many of you know that Perry and his ships stopped in Keelung in 1854 on his second trip for 10 days to do a survey of the harbor and to assess its coal resources?
In the summer of 1854 Perry had just completed another voyage to Japan, and was returning home to the US a hero. In June he split up his squadron of ships, sending them on various errands. Around June 13 Perry sent Lt. George Henry Preble in Macedonian to Keelung. Preble, who kept a diary in defiance of strict orders not to, wrote in his illegal record of the voyage:
The Commodore has decided to send our ship to Keelung a port on the Northern end of the Island of Formosa. I am to survey and make a map of the Harbor. Mr. Jones the Chaplain of the Mississippi goes with us to make a geological survey of its coal mines and the Supply is to accompany us to take away a load of its coal as a specimen, provided she can get one.Keelung was reached on July 11, 1854. Preble said:
We anchored here at 10 o'clock this morning and found to our surprise the Supply has not arrived before us. We have been regaling ourselves after our long abstinence with pine apples, egg plants, cucumbers pumpkins, pigs, poultry and eggs, not that anyone of us have eaten through the whole list, but the sight of all these attainable things is refreshing. I was on shore today for a few minutes but saw only a crowded dirty town which reminded me of a dozen similiar dirty Syrian towns in the Mediterranean.The first western lithograph of Keeling (called Killon) was made in 1824 by Lieutenant G. Parkyn, R.N., of the British vessel Merope. Parkyn described Keelung Island, that protruding bit of the harbor's caldera, as the landmark that enabled mariners to find the harbor, a situation that would persist through the middle of the 19th century (source). Preble recorded this on the map above:
Keelung harbor or Keelung Taw (head or promontory) is situated near the North Eastern points of the Island of Formosa. The Entrance may be readily known by the high Island of Keelung, situated 3 ½ miles to the N.E. and by the high craggy land to the Westward, outlines of which are given on the Chart.Keelung Harbor today, with Keelung Island prominent in the background.
Preble made several sketches of the harbor and described its many geological peculiarities. Here he describes the rock formations that line both sides of the harbor:
At the Western entrance of the Harbor, there is another curious and peculiar appearance. The soft yellow sand stone has been eaten into and washed away by the corrosion of the sea leaving large and dark colored boulders of a harder rock supported on pillars of the softer stone thus creating many fanciful shapes resembling at a little distance and with a slight effort of the imagination images of men, birds and beasts. I have named it in my survey Image Point.Three sketches by Preble: (1) Keelung Island (2) Western entrance of the harbor (3) Distant outline of the land about Keelung
Rock formations on the west side of Keelung harbor
Preble described a rock formation which, in sketch 2 above, labeled Ruin Rock. He wrote:
A rock which I have taken for a signal or triangulation point, and named "Ruin Rock" is a lump of soft sand stone washed by the rains so as to present a very exact resemblance to a small gothic ruin. On its top there is a cup like pulpit about large enough for three men to stand upon. The annexed sketch shows some of its peculiarities but not all of them. One of its hollow archways has been connected into a small joss house or altar, and in it there is a quantity of bleached bones and human skulls.This is probably the major rock formation on Heping Island. Here it is below:
The famous cave on Heping Island.
Preble goes on to say:
The dark parts are round or oval shaped rocks impregnated with iron and stuck here and there in the sand stone like plums in a pudding. The unshaded part is a light buff sandstone. Two points thus abraded by the sea extended their arms to the E 8t on the Western side of the entrance and between them is formed a beautiful natural dock large enough to hold our ship, and deep enough on one side for her to lie alongside the natural pier. Back of this dock and between these image like projections, there is a level amphitheater with the escarpment of a sand stone hill rising in terraces behind it. The level part is perhaps one hundred feet square, and its natural stone pavement is traversed by seams and cracks which give it the character of a tessalated pavement like the sketch. Dikes of different colored stone six to eight inches in width marking it all over in irregular seams. A small island in the entrance of the Harbor about a third of a mile square is another interesting feature. The whole island is based on sand stone and the northern side including nine tenths of the Island is washed by the sea in heavy gales, and resembles the natural pavement I have already described. The Southern edge of the Island has on top of the sand stone, a coral formation from six to ten feet in thickness, the top of which has decomposed and furnishes a soil for a few bushes, and some grass and weeds. The Island has evidently been elevated from beneath the sea.Today a visitor can walk around Heping Island and see the same formations Preble did, looking much as he described them more than century ago.
Preble's maps and sketches were foundational for later Keelung Harbor maps, as Douglas Fix of Reed College observes. The British Admiralty sketches of the Harbor done in the 1858 were based on his work.
Preble's mission also went well. He noted in his diary that Supply would be able to obtain the 300 tons of coal she was ordered to obtain, and opined that Keelung might one day be an important coaling port, lying as it did on the shipping routes. Of the Keelungers he was less complimentary:
The present inhabitants are a rude thieving opium smoking sam shu drinking people. The exceedingly coarse cotton flags I put up as signals and which I punched full of holes and cut in shreds to render valueless, were stolen nightly from the poles, and had to be replaced in the morning before commencing work.Preble noted that "the chief mandarin" was happy to see the ships, as he was preparing to fight one of the island's interminable revolts. He also assessed the city's defensibility:
The town reminds me of several Syrian towns. The streets of shops, being bazaars or under arched footpaths, and the shops very small. The filth, dogs, dark skinned inhabitants, and peculiar dress, many wearing turbans serve to increase this resemblance. A wall or moat surrounds the town, and it is defended by a miserable fort, armed with two immense guns, and three smaller ones, all rusty and cumberous, and on such rotten and silly planned carriages that I would face the guns than stand behind them in action. The towns best defenses are the paddy fields which nearly surround three sides of it and extensive mud flats in front which prevents any approach by boats, leaving only a narrow causeway and a gorge between two hills which has been walled up with a high double wall the only way for the approach of an enemy. A handful of men could defend the place from thousands.Preble's next entry dates from 10 days later, merely noting that they had sailed from Keelung and were on their way to Manila and eventual rendezvous in Hong Kong with the rest of Perry's squadron. [UPDATE: To understand the remark about turbans, see this pic of Ketegalan aborigines]
The diary of then-midshipmen Kidder Randolph Breese, who would later go on to fame in the naval actions of the Civil War, tells some of the tale of Macedonian's days in Keelung port. He wrote that the Chinese junks refused to deliver coal by day, instead shipping over to Supply at night. He was evidently a friendly, easy-going man, and appeared to enjoy his time in Keelung very much, writing:
The streets of Keelung are a succession of arcades, with, for Chinese, very good ranges of shops on each side, and the pavements in front are covered with a busy throng vending fruits and trinkets of every description -- except the best....Amidst all the descriptions and sketching and coaling, there was politicking going on. Returning home to the United States the following month on a British ship out of Hong Kong, Commodore Perry would recommend to his government that the United States establish a presence on Formosa, as well as on Okinawa and the Bonin Island. Perry was looking forward to the future merchant shipping as well as for refuge in future wars. Ironically despite Perry's activity and forward-looking recommendations, it was not in the north of Taiwan but in the south that the US would, for a few years in the mid-1850s, make its presence felt.
...The districts in which vegetables, fish, poultry, and fruit are sold present a very goodly array of the above-mentioned provisions. The pineapples are plentiful, also mangoes of a good quality; the sweet potatos, especially the top ones, large; eggs, principally those of ducks. Bananas are scarce, the country being too hilly for them, the same may be said of coconuts. The watermelons are excellent -- not large, but with very thin rinds.
Continued our walk through the town, stopping now and then to examine the contents of the stores, or accepting the often-repeated invitation to walk in and take a pipe and cup of tea, on which occasions we would write in English for them, or draw a rough chart, showing the vessels' track and destination, with which they were very much pleased, many understanding the position of the countries, represented on the chart, very well.
As T. R. Cox records in Harbingers of Change: American Merchants and the Formosa Annexation Scheme,* Perry's 1854 proposals were part of an emerging stream of US recognition of the importance of the Pacific trade and increasingly, of Taiwan. The California gold rush had encouraged US ships to voyage to the Pacific, where they established a flourishing trade with China that took them past the island of Taiwan. In the 1850s Taiwan was basically closed to foreign trade, and feared as a pirate haven. An officer in Perry's expedition wrote: "one could scarcely realize that a spot so lovely to the sight was the home of a lot of throat-cutting piratical Chinese refugees." But the island's coal resources were known by 1847, when they were surveyed by a British officer, and by 1850 there were regular shipments to the south China coast for coaling western vessels.
Another factor in the emergence of Taiwan at that time, according to Cox, was the Taiping Rebellion, which cut off the flow of rice from the south of China to the north. The war threatened the commerce of the ports, and Taiwan appeared a natural alternative to the anarchy of southern China. Townsend Harris, then a US businessman in China (later a diplomatic representative there) suggested to the Sec of State in 1854 that the US buy it from the Manchus.
The Great Game over Formosa was commenced in 1855 when one Nathaniel Crosby decided to ship lumber out of Oregon to Japan. When Japan's abundant forests became known to him, he determined on establishing some kind of trade, and set off for Taiwan with a cargo of opium. In Tainan he was refused entry but they sent him to Kaohsiung, where he was met by a local leader, the Taotai, probably in Fengshan, who was eager to establish trade relations. Crosby was quite impressed by Taiwan:
"As far as the eye could take in, hundreds upon hundreds of acres of rice and sugar were stretched out. The people appear to have devoted their attention almost exclusively to agriculture and appeared to be happy and comfortable. Cattle too were seen in great abundance."Sounds nice, eh? However, since Crosby described Fengshan as a gigantic walled city with a population of 300,000 to 400,000 people, his words should probably be taken as mere commercial propaganda. Crosby purchased rice and sugar cheap, and shipped it back to Oregon, where he cleaned up. Unwittingly, Crosby had established the Taiwan trade. Cox writes:
Shippers in the Far West emulated Crosby by sending cargoes of lumber from the Pacific Northwest to China. More important, Crosby's voyage stirred residents of Hong Kong to action. True, other captains visited Taiwan at about the same time as did Crosby, but it was his visit, not those of his contemporaries, that demonstrated that it was both possible and profitable to trade there for items other than coal. When this became known, traders along the South China coast quickly moved to take advantage of the information. Crosby's voyage was clearly the catalyst for the development.Moreover, previous interest in Taiwan had all been directed at the north. Crosby showed that money could be made in the south as well.
As Cox narrates, other merchants moved in rapidly, including William Robinet and two American firms, the Nye Brothers and Williams, Anthon, and Company. Pooling their forces, they sent off five ships to Taiwan and determined that Takao (Kaohsiung) was the best place to set up trade. They met with the Taotai in Taiwan-fu (Tainan) who let them establish a trading post on Monkey Hill above the port of Takao, and granted them extensive concessions, including a monopoly on the camphor trade and a commitment to do everything in his power to discourage other traders (Crosby was thus betrayed). The Taotai had exclusive control over the island's forests so that he could supply timber for government shipping -- meaning that the camphor trade was his monopoly, from which he derived considerable income.
Of course, other American traders were moving in as well. In the north Augustine Heard had arrived and was trying to get permission to develop the coal deposits there. Though he was refused, he did gain -- you guessed it -- a camphor monopoly. When Robinet showed up he was naturally outraged by this betrayal, mounted cannon on his ships, and assembling his fleet off the coast, declared he would bombard the island if he didn't get the monopoly back, bribery and cajoling having failed. He was hastily granted a "monopoly" but Heard continued to do business in camphor.
Crosby, Cox sadly observes, returned to Taiwan to find the other traders in control, and left. He never came back to the island he had opened for business.
Meanwhile Robinet's business partners had failed and he bought them out. I'll let Cox carry the ball here:
In coming under the sole control of Robinet, the enterprise was passing into most unscrupulous hands. Robinet had been born of a British father and American mother and had lived in the United States, South America, and Hong Kong. He had served as a lieutenant in the Peruvian navy, as consul for Chile in China, and, in 1856, played an important role in the American assault on the barrier forts below Canton. Both through his official services and by marriage, he had important connections in Latin American mercantile circles. But of honesty he apparently had little. When his enterprise on Taiwan collapsed following the rejection of Peter Parker's proposal for American annexation, Robinet resorted to fraud in an attempt to stave off creditors and, when found out, pretended to commit suicide by jumping overboard at sea. Discovered in Lima, Robinet was returned to Hong Kong where he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. The trial was the sensation of the season in the British colony. At its conclusion, the China Mail commented that Robinet was "both by nature and training unfit to appreciate the duties and requirements of the commercial position to which he aspired." The judge, the paper added, had no choice but to refuse the defendant's plea for release and thus "condemn Robinet's commercial character and put a check on his singular and unprincipled career."In 1856 things began to slide for Robinet. His business began to fail like the others. The British war with China meant that the threat of the UK seizing the island and dispossessing him of his trade became real. UK merchants were also moving into the Taiwan trade and displacing him from his camphor monopoly. The solution was obvious: if the US annexed the island, Robinet would be free to trade there without interference from the detestable British. Hence he joined forces with Gideon Nye of the Nye Brothers, and together they contacted Peter Parker, the American Commissioner in China. Their goal: to get the US government to annex Formosa.
Parker was both a US nationalist and an evangelical Christian whose heavy-handedness was a source of constant complaint among the Chinese leadership. According to Cox, he saw the opportunity both to increase the territory of the US, and to Christianize the local Chinese.
Both Robinet and Nye wrote separately to Parker, Robinet mendaciously saying that he controlled the island's trade, and Nye mendaciously claiming that among the shipwrecked souls on the island was his own dear brother Thomas. Robinet not only emphasized the possibility of missionizing the locals, but also pointed out that the US should grab Taiwan before the British did.
Parker was soon sold on the idea and forwarded Nye's letter, pointing all the advantages of annexing Taiwan to his superiors. Cox writes:
Since it appeared unlikely that Taiwan would long remain a part of the Chinese empire and there was ample justification for action by the United States, Parker argued that the United States should move quickly. "I believe Formosa and the world will be better for the former coming under a civilized power," he wrote.Such irony! Meeting secretly, Parker also prevailed on the local US naval commander, J.D. Armstrong, to send a US naval commander to southern Taiwan, according to a US reporter with the Navy, who wrote that his orders were "to proceed to Formosa, and in the city of Fung-shan hoist the American flag and take formal possession of the island." The deviousness of Robinet, Nye, and Parker also infected Armstrong, who told his superiors that he was just sending the officer there to see about shipwrecked American sailors.
However, Nye-Robinet scheme was killed by Sec of State Marcy, part of the outgoing Buchanan Administration. When Pierce came in, he appointed William Reed in Parker's place, and instructed him that on no account was the US to annex Chinese territory.
His hopes dashed, Robinet sold his interest in Taiwan, and significant US trading interest in the island ceased for half a century. The US, which would soon be plunged into Civil War, never did get around to annexing Formosa or even establishing a presence there, as Perry had presciently recommended.
*Harbingers of Change: American Merchants and the Formosa Annexation Scheme, Thomas R. Cox, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, No. 2 (May, 1973), pp. 163-184
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