‘The Last Samurai’: Travels in Formosa

<i>Notes of Travel in Formosa</i>, by Charles W. Le Gendre, 1874.
By Jerome Keating / originally published in Taipei Times

Notes of Travel in Formosa, Charles W. Le Gendre, Eds. Douglas L. Fix and John Shufelt, National Museum of Taiwan History 2012, ISBN 978-986-03-2127-2. 475 pages, introduction i-lxxii.

As the effects of the Industrial Revolution made their way around the world, inevitable change followed. In Asia, the Qing Empire, reeling from the Opium and Arrow Wars and Taiping Rebellion, found itself forced to open more and more treaty ports to survive. Japan, also forced to open treaty ports, responded with its Meiji Restoration (1868) and an eye for expansion. Thus Taiwan with four Qing treaty ports on its western shore and Japan to the north could not avoid the ensuing cauldron of trade, commerce and “progress.” Into this developing mix came Charles W. Le Gendre, a United States (US) Civil War General.

Unlike the fictitious “lost” Captain Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise in the film The Last Samurai, Le Gendre came to Asia with more definite career opportunities in mind. He began as American Consul in Amoy (Xiamen) 1866—1872. This book, his massive four volume, 29 chapters, Notes of Travel in Formosa, editors Douglas L. Fix and John Shufelt, is about those years and provides a much needed insight into the author and the larger mosaic of Taiwan history being shaped at that period.

As Consul in Amoy, Taiwan fell under Le Gendre’s jurisdiction, and two pivotal shipwrecks, the American Rover (1867) and a Ryukyuan ship (the Peony Tribe/Mudan Incident, 1871), happened off the island during his watch. The massacre of the surviving crews of those wrecks called for a diplomatic but satisfactory resolution as well as the prevention of future killings. Le Gendre’s success in handling these two, particularly the latter, would lead to his next position, advisor to the Meiji government (1872—1875). There he would complete Notes.

This work, previously only available in the US Library of Congress, is now available a wider audience.

Between the years 1867 and 1872, Le Gendre as Consul, would make at least eight trips to Taiwan, far more than the obligatory once every three years visit by the Chinese Viceroy dwelling at Foochow. His visits frequently included meetings with Tauketok, chief of the 18 tribes in the south where the shipwrecks took place and with whom he achieved a workable treaty. Notes, however, does not follow those eight trips in strict chronological order. Instead Le Gendre chooses to present a composite picture of the island as seen from north to south. In the “Textual Introduction,” Shufelt suggests that Le Gendre’s aim was to show his comprehensive knowledge of the island should an expansionist Japan choose to occupy it and seek an administrator. It would not happen at that time.

For this reason, eschewing the travelogue style popular at that time, Le Gendre presents his travels with a more “encyclopedic” format including his geological, indigenous languages and resource comments.

Notes further includes some 170 photographs, and a series of illustrative paintings by the Japanese artist, Kobayashi Eitaku (1843—1890) all commissioned and collected by Le Gendre, as well as maps that he composed. The maps would be extremely helpful in the upcoming Japanese Mudan punitive expedition (1874), which Le Gendre helped plan.

Le Gendre includes realistic and sometimes harsh observations. Piracy is a constant threat to local trade. A sharp distinction is made between the Chinese portion of the island and the indigenous controlled territories that are “outside the jurisdiction of the Emperor.”

Warfare is a constant threat between the ethnic groups and in many areas weapons are carried wherever one goes. The rules and laws of the Qing government serve as a “pretext for exacting money from the people” with officials “purchasing” posts anywhere from “$50 to $200,000.” In turn they subsequently “extort” money from the subject people to reimburse themselves. The industrious Hakka live nearest to the indigenous tribes intermarrying and often serving as middlemen to the benefit of both but they also can be “cunning” and “perfidious.” The indigenous (generally described in a favorable manner) are not united and would have to be “subdued” or worse. Most telling of all is Chapter 24, “Has Japan the Right to Assume Suzerainty over Aboriginal Formosa?”

Continue reading on the Taipei Times website

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