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A Report from the British Consul in Formosa, August 6th, 1881


The British Consul's signature 

I often write about Japan's colonization (1895-1945) of Taiwan on this blog. I did my M.A. thesis on a governmental process that took place during this era, so naturally an interest lingers. The idea that gets my attention is hardly an original one. It goes like this: Japan's arrival in 1895 was a good thing for Taiwan. Why? Well, Japan built up Taiwan's infrastructure. This included the establishment of useful railroads, roads, banks and hospitals. Japan modernized our agricultural practices and brought about a modern and systematic education system. Japan eradicated deadly diseases, such as malaria and cholera. Japan brought social order and democracy to this country. Finally, Japan stamped out much of the bureaucratic corruption plaguing Taiwan throughout its time under the Ching Dynasty (清朝). 

Of course the naysayers will say Japan built up Taiwan's infrastructure to more easily access and then rape the island of its resources. A Japanese education system was step one in indoctrinating the masses, deserted by China and thus left defenseless, to this cause. Sure, Taiwan produced a lot of food, but something like 90 percent of our agricultural exports went into Japanese bellies during the Japanese colonial era. The eradication of disease was a necessary course of action in maintaining a Japanese population on the island. And oh yeah, Taiwan had already tasted democracy (albeit for only ten days) before Japan put a halt to such shenanigans, installing one brutal governor after another for two and a half decades. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Taiwan basically got its first non-military governor in 1919 (there could have been a sole civilian in that time up for a cup of coffee -- I can't remember). For the first 24 years, notions such as crackdown and summary execution were not that unusual. We shouldn't forget that Japan led Taiwan into the Second World War. Over 200,000 men and women signed up or were conscripted / dragged into this fiasco. 30,000-plus of these individuals died, plus many more civilians in the nine months of air raids that ensued.

A few years back, I came across a ten set volume of books in the National Chengchi (政治) University Library called Taiwan: Political and Economic Reports: 1861 to 1960. For my money, this set of books is the best source of history for Taiwan for the late Ching Dynasty (清朝) and the following Japanese years. Taiwan: Political and Economic Reports: 1861 to 1960 is a collection of the letters written by the many British consuls posted in Danshui over this period of time. In the letters, we can find statistics on everything from the yearly sugar crops to how much coal was being dug out of the mines in Keelung. Then there are the reports on the daily goings-on around the country: current events, gossip and scandal, the weather, the price of food in the local market and so on. As all of this was confidential, the consuls didn't worry about whether they were going to get in trouble for speaking their minds. In other words, their letters were candid and often quite scathing, especially of their peers in Taiwan's bureaucracy. 

I'm going to post part of one the letters below because I think it is an excellent example of why the Japanese were good for Taiwan / the Ching Dynasty needed to go. I can't put it up in full because, even though this letter was written 130 years ago, it is still somehow under copyright. Penned on August 6th, 1881 by the British consul (I can't give you his name because I am unable to make out his signature), it underlines the incompetence of the Ching Dynasty (清朝) government when it came to dealing with crime. The consul's letter also brings to light corruption. I'm using word in a special way because I came away from my reading with the feeling officials in Taiwan in 1881 simply did not care if the island could be improved or not. It is as if these officials were completely indifferent to Taiwan. Is that not also a form of corruption if you are an official? 

This is the report, written by the British consul from his perch high above the Danshui Harbor on August 6th, 1881. BTW, I'll put my own comments in brackets:

Intelligence Report. Her Majesty's Consulate. Sir,  [Sir Thomas Francis Wade, K.C.B., Her Majesty's Minister, Peking] Since the date of the last Intelligence Report from this place [Danshui (淡水), Taiwan], May 7th, 1881, very little has occurred of sufficient importance to be recorded.

1. Political Summary. The Government Coal mines have been put under the management of a special official deputed by the Arsenal authorities at Foochow. This official came over to Kelung [old spelling] on the 16th May and took over charge of the mines on the 28th of that month. Since his arrival I have not had any complaint from British merchants of refusal on the part of the Mines' Authorities [now a capital a] to sell coals or obstruction from them in the way of buying from the private mines. The Chinese Government vessels, however, still have the monopoly of all the best coal from the Government mines. This coal is heaped up for them in the open air at Kelung, and no precaution is taken against accidents. What is amassed at the Pescadores [Penghu] and other places will not be of any use, I am told, after a few months' exposure to the atmosphere and the authorities do not seem to be acting wisely in not selling this coal at Kelung, or using it up at once in the Arsenal [This kind of long paragraph, which I love,  seems to have left English writing for the one or two sentence-ers of journalistic writing. No contractions either. I think they may not have been in use in English at this time.]

On the night of June 25th [1881] a serious robbery was committed from the premises of the Paymaster of the Government Coal mines. It seems that a large body of men, but accounts differ as to the number, armed and with their faces blackened made an attack on the paymaster's [small p] official residence for the purpose of securing a large amount of silver which had just been received from Foochow. The robbers apparently did not meet with much resistance, and they are reported to have succeeded in carrying off bout $3,000 in silver, and a quantity of miscellaneous articles. Two men have been arrested on suspicion, but the booty has not been recovered and the robbers are still at large. As the money was the property of the Government [will it be shared out equally among the officials that tipped off / arranged for the robbery?] the loss has to be made good, I am told, by the Paymaster [capitals again], the Kelung Ting [?] and the Tamsui Hsien [?].

2. Commercial. The Tea [capital t] market became very lively in the latter part of May and a steamer left the port for Amoy. This excitement, which lasted for about a month, was followed by a reaction, and for than a month past very little business has been done. The producers are holding out for large prices, the supply in Amoy has been very largely above the demand, and the Market in New York has not been good... [I'd like to put more up, but, like I said, these letters are still under copyright.]

3. Army and Navy. Copyright.

4. Relations with Chinese officials. I can only repeat the words of my last Report. Nothing has occurred to disturb the harmony which has hitherto existed between the Consul and the native [Taiwanese] officials.

5. Movements of Chinese officials. Concerned about the copyright: All rights reserved. Except for short passages used for criticism [plenty here], reviews or personal research and quotation, no part . . .

6. General. There's a pretty good description of a fire breaking out in Kelung: "It didn't extend very far, but did take out the property of a rich native, and accounted for $30,000 in damage [probably millions in today's reckoning]." There is also some sympathy for livestock on the part of the consul, who would just die on a whim: . . .  "an epidemic like cholera has broken out among the geese, ducks, and fowl. These poor creatures seem in ordinary health one moment and in another they are dead . . . "

My friend eyedoc over at The Battle of Fisherman's Wharf http://danshuihistory.blogspot.com/ told me he wants to get these hand-written letters typed up and out for people to read. As is, these ten volumes are out of print and are going for about US$5,000 on Amazon. I don't understand how he is going to proceed, especially considering the big fat healthy copyright that miraculously landed on these 130-year old letters in 1997. But eyedoc is a smart guy. Suggestions?

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