Mapping Taiwan: A journey through history

Dutch historian Francois Valentyn’s map of 1724, replete with depth markings between Taiwan and mainland China, accentuates the strategic value of the strait. (Courtesy of SMC Publishing Inc.)

By Kwangyin Liu / Taiwan Today

Taiwan may be Asia’s most vibrant democracy, but this lofty status masks a colonial past that continues to impact local society and the identity of the people. For Jerome F. Keating, a U.S.-born academic, documenting the island’s history through the cartographic lens is a labor of love that has finally reached fruition.

In “The Mapping of Taiwan: Desired Economies, Coveted Geographies,” Keating tells a tale of imperial and mercantile ambition using a collection of antique maps supplied by Taipei-based SMC Publishing Inc.

According to the retired history professor at National Taipei University, his book’s tagline, “a story within many stories,” succinctly sums up Taiwan over the years as its significance ebbed and flowed depending on which foreign power sought its resources.

“Taiwan has always been an island en route of the ambitions of others,” Keating said. “Even though it was insignificant, even thoroughly neglected at first, it emerged as a crucial player centuries later in Asia’s colonial history.”

Keating, who came to Taiwan from Dallas, Texas, in 1988 on contract with Taipei Mass Rapid Transit Corp., quickly fell in love with the island and has called it home ever since. A recognized Taiwan advocate and political commentator, he readily admits to facing a steep learning curve during his early days in country.

“At that time, I only knew in the U.S. that everything was made in Taiwan. I was expecting to find an island of factories,” he said.

It was only after extensive research that Keating discovered how Taiwan’s fate is intertwined with its colonial past.

Keating believes that the ball got rolling for Taiwan in the 16th century when “everybody was here for the business.” Growing demand for spices in Europe launched one empire after another; the most notable being the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. Explorers from these countries set sail on epic maritime expeditions in search of new sources of production, and international trade and colonialism flourished for centuries to come.

Possessing limited knowledge of the new world, early attempts by European cartographers to map Southeast Asia often saw the size of the Spice Islands, such as Java and Sumatra, exaggerated. Taiwan was frequently drawn out of position and incorrectly portrayed as a rectangular land mass, sickle-shaped half-island or cluster of islets.

Keating said that despite Taiwan not being part of the spice trade, it was situated at the crossroads of regional trade lanes and soon featured on the maps of European powers. It became slightly better known after a crew of Portuguese sailors traveling from Macau to Japan in the 1540s described it as “ilha Formosa” or beautiful island, he added.

Although the name caught on, and is still popular in the 21st century, Taiwan continued being misrepresented on maps of the day, Keating said. “But this changed after European powers realized what the island had to offer.”

Keating believes maps are valuable documents offering unique insights into the historical development of a region. (Courtesy of Jerome F. Keating)
In the early 16th century, as the Dutch pushed into Asia, Taiwan began occupying a more prominent position on the world map. Charts by Dutch cartographers throughout the 17th century began accurately showing the island’s location and features, reflecting its importance and growing European knowledge of the region.

Some maps are testimony to Taiwan’s strategic importance. Dutch cartographer Francois Valentyn’s 1724 chart depicts Formosa and the Pescadores, known today as Penghu Islands—a 126.9-square kilometer archipelago of 64 islets situated about 50 kilometers west of Taiwan proper—replete with depth markings from the coast of China.

“Since Taiwan’s major ports were dotted along its western coastline, many believed that whoever controlled the Pescadores controlled Taiwan,” Keating said.

By the mid-19th century, European merchants had reason and means to expand their presence in East Asia. The Industrial Revolution, which helped spur consumerism, made it possible to build steam ships that could quickly bring goods such as porcelain and spices back to Europe in greater quantities than ever before.

The popularity of these products saw China and Japan forced to open their ports for international trade—a development leading to Taiwan’s rise in prominence on maps commissioned by the Western powers. For the first time, these charts took on greater sophistication, accurately listing features including mountains and their heights, names of rivers and major harbors.

But Taiwan was still an afterthought during this period, Keating said, adding that this soon changed when demand for camphor and tea—two items later produced in large quantities on the island—started ramping up in the West.

After Japan assumed control of the island in 1895, more detailed maps were made as the rising world power set about creating a model colony. “Taiwan was desired both for its economic appeal and also as a symbolic step in Japan’s coming of age in the global community,” Keating said.

Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Taiwan came under ROC control and developed into a distinctive ethnic Chinese society powered by a robust economy. “With the colonial past becoming a part of history,” Keating said, “the time is ripe for the people of Taiwan to map their land and control their own economy.”

Overcoming the cartographical aspect of this challenge is simple enough given the prevalence of satellites and GPS technology, he said. “Yet the task of charting Taiwan goes beyond producing accurate and realistic maps.”

Taiwan’s strategic location between mainland China and Japan has often led Western nations into perceiving it as little more than a stepping stone for greater trade opportunities, he said.
Keating sees this attitude as contributing to the island’s inability to clarify its position in regional politics and the economy, as well as its failure to cement relationships with neighbors and reconcile persisting tensions among different ethnic groups within society.

“This is especially true when it comes to the indigenous population, as they have always been underrepresented, if not ignored,” he said.

“Taiwan’s future and its economy are for the first time in its history in the hands of its own citizens,” Keating said. “If the people can continue to exercise control and create a clearly Taiwanese community and geography, there is no reason why they cannot map their future history.”

Write to Kwangyin Liu at

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