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  • Spencer Low

Formosa: Taiwan's other name from the Portuguese

My family and I are back in Toronto for a home visit to see friends and family, and folks here are still talking about the recent mayoral election which saw Olivia Chow win. Chow was born in Hong Kong, while her main rival Ana Bailão was born in Portugal, in Vila Franca de Xira near Lisbon. Coincidentally, the Hong Kong Chinese and Portuguese populations in the multicultural Greater Toronto Area are both about 200,000 strong, but I digress.

Our flight to Toronto involved a stopover in Taipei, Taiwan. Flying over the island before landing, I was struck once again by how lush and green it is. For hundreds of years, Taiwan (臺灣 or 台湾 in Chinese) was referred to by Westerners as Formosa, and as a child I didn't learn about the history behind that name. As a Portuguese speaker now, it's obvious that there's an Iberian connection that predates the Spanish presence in the Philippines just to the south.

Ilha Formosa on Lopo Homem's 1554 world map (full version below)

The Portuguese first reached China's Pearl River Delta in 1513, and even before they were finally given permission by the Ming dynasty bureaucracy in 1557 to establish a permanent settlement in Macau, they were already trading with the port city of Ningbo (near Shanghai) in 1522. Given that Ningbo is well to the north of Taiwan, this means that the Portuguese must have first sailed past Taiwan before 1520, but possibly without sighting the island. In fact, the first record by Portuguese sailors wasn't until 1544.

At this point in time Taiwan was still mainly inhabited in its highland areas by indigenous peoples closely related to the Austronesian populations of Maritime Southeast Asia, Polynesia and even Madagascar. The Portuguese probably never observed much human activity and therefore did not explore the island as they were only interested in trade. That said, Taiwan must have looked like a large, green and lush island. The Portuguese therefore named it Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island. The Spanish sometimes used the direct Castilian translation of Isla Hermosa, but the Dutch and even the French defaulted to Formosa (or Formose en français).

It wasn't until 1582 that several Portuguese set foot on Taiwan, the first Europeans to do so. Survivors of a Portuguese shipwreck, they spent 45 days battling malaria and fending off indigenous tribes. Desperate, they built a raft and miraculously managed to return to Macau...

By the start of the 1600s, Taiwan had become contested territory: the mainland Chinese had accelerated their surveys and settlement of the island, while the Dutch showed up and occupied the Pescadores Islands (today known as Penghu County). The Japanese mounted an unsuccessful invasion of what they called Takayamakoku (高山国 in Japanese, meaning high mountain country), and even the Spanish got involved for the fun of it before being ousted by the Dutch. In 1644, the Ming dynasty in China was overthrown by the Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty. In the resulting turmoil, General Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功), also known as Koxinga, led troops loyal to the fallen Ming dynasty to evict the Dutch from Formosa in 1662, 118 years after the Portuguese give the island that name on a map.

Here's a full image of Portuguese cartographer Lopo Homem's 1554 world map, which is remarkably detailed for its time. See if you can find the section that shows the speck that's called Ilha Formosa in the extract above:

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May 13

Sorry to bother you, but could you please provide the source for the 1582 shipwreck. I've been getting into Taiwanese history but sources are difficult to find online.

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