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Apparently every book and website on or accessible through the internet repeats the exact same "they say..." "everyone knows..." story about the first European contact with Taiwan.¹ They're sure it was the Portuguese; they're sure it was in 1544; they're sure that exact moment was when it became Ilha Formosa, the Beautiful Island.

Which ship? Who was the commander? What was the mission?

"Y'know... the Portuguese..." Only some provide any other details, and those details are vague in the extreme: "passing Portuguese..." "a merchant ship... "on the way to Japan..." One single claim states that there was a log where Ilha Formosa was written down, but is otherwise just as vague as to whose log it was, in which ship, and under what expedition commander.

Does anyone have any clue? Or are the 10 Wiki articles, 20 .gov.tw websites, 100 fifty Google Scholar articles, 500 books, and a few thousand blog posts all in a giant circle of repeating the same nonsense because it sounds about right and everyone else is saying it too?

It's rather hard to believe there's any specificity about the year or naming (let alone with a log involved) without also knowing which ships were involved and under whose command. This is only a year or two after discovering Japan at all. Unless this was a 16th-century SEAL mission, there should be records somewhere of anyone who had even been told Japan's coordinates, let alone outfitted themselves at Malacca to get there and back.


¹ The Wikipedia article on Japanese opium policy in Taiwan (1895–1945), states that the Dutch arrived in 1544 and promptly began addicting the entire Chinese and native Taiwanese population to opium, all of which is "supported" by line-by-line "citations". Apparently it was the focus of a school project and the teacher was a week from retirement or something...

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    @MCW: I think, from the text of the question, "non-natives" should be "Europeans," otherwise one will be dealing with contacts by mainland Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, etc which would go back several millennia. Jan 20, 2023 at 20:50
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    While plenty of sources mention 1544 as the year the Portuguese supposedly named Ilha Formosa, the linked Wikipedia articles doesn't, nor does it even mention the Dutch or Portuguese.
    – Brian Z
    Jan 23, 2023 at 13:01

2 Answers 2

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From [1]

These rutters ... allude to Formosa, sometimes under the sobriquet of Lequeo Pequeno (Little Luchu), since the distinction between the Ryukyu Islands and Formosa was not always clear to the early navigators, and sometimes under the more modern name. The Portuguese, although they coasted the ... "Beautiful Isle" often enough, never ... explored it at close quarters. ... The first recorded visit was ... the shipwreck of André Feio on the western shore in July, 1582

"the Beautiful Isle" -> "Formosa" means beautiful

A rutter (from the Portuguese roteiro) is a long, detailed, text describing, step by step, what could be seen from the ship during a trip. Natural features such as mountains and isles were described, so that the captain might recognize them, as well as latitude and current measurements, and perils such as rocks or sand banks. Rutters were more valuable than maps and often highly secret.

What the book means, in context, is that various rutters described Formosa (as seen from ships), but it was often confounded or conflated with the Ryukyu Islands (a chain of islands which start close to Formosa). As the Ryukyu were called Lequeo, the latter is not really an alternate name for Formosa, it is early inaccuracy.

André Feio translates as Andrew Ugly. It may have been a nickname.

[2] is a book from a missionary bishop. He says the Portuguese first saw Taiwan in 1590, although [1] tells us that, if you consider the naming confusion alluded above and read the rutters carefully, they probably had described Formosa in the period 1550-70.

A Spanish Dominican, Fr. Juan Cobo, went and died there in 1592 (it is not clear but it appears to be another wreck and not an intentional mission). Finally, after the Dutch settled in the south, the Spanish tried to settle in the north in 1626, but the mission was unsuccessful, with native massacres and expulsion by the Dutch.[2]

Finally, [1] also claims Taiwan to be terra incognita for Chinese and Japanese during the 16th century, but there are registers of two Japanese ships trading with Formosa in the first decades of the 17th century. Not sure if before or after the Dutch settled there.

Plus: Do not expect Portuguese travels in the Far East to be always as well recorded as the most famous ones to America or India, with full ship lists and many names known among the crew. The Far East was too far for direct sailing.

They would refit in Goa and/or Malacca, with a partially Asiatic crew (some of the rutters were even written by Gujarati navigators), and much administrative / supply / repair / personal management work was done there. They even used locally made Asian-style ships, specially to less important local trade. Many details were lost, or at least, to find them you would have to dig much deeper than general history books. [1] have references to collections of original rutters, e.g., although it is not an easy reading by any means.

[1] The Christian Century at Japan C R Boxer 1951 UCPress and Cambridge UP

[2] Christians in China Jean-Pierre Charbonier 2007 Ignatius Press (Original 2002 Histoire des Chrétiens de Chine, Les Indes Savantes, Paris)

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    +1 for talk of rutters. Have been a big fan of age-of-sail stuff for decades, but never heard of rutters before.
    – Tom
    Jan 21, 2023 at 1:55
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    @Tom, [1] has a full example. It is long, boring, too detailed, full of nautical terms, besides being 500 y old. Not easy to read, but interesting if you only want to get the general felling and not actually depend on it to navigate safely and save your ass.
    – Luiz
    Jan 21, 2023 at 1:59
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A book chapter by Rui Manuel Loureiro, in the book Taiwan - A Bridge between the East and South China Seas, Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), 2011, addresses these questions in detail. It's difficult to pin down exactly when the island was first named by the Portuguese (initially Lequio Pequeno, it seems Ilha Formosa came later) or physically seen (possibly decades after appearing on maps).

However, one key episode is well known:

The first documented Portuguese landfall on Formosan territory occurred in July 1582, when a large junk outbound from Macau, under Captain André Feio, accidentally ran aground near the south-western tip of the island. Several Jesuit missionaries who were on board, on their way to Japan, later wrote accounts of the journey, including Francisco Pires and Pedro Gomez, and also Alonso Sanchez [...] The mixed group of about 300 people, including, among others, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese, stayed on the coast of Formosa for several months, until they were able to built [sic] some improvised sailing craft, on which they made the journey back to Macau in September of the same year. During their forced residence on the island, they came into contact with the local population, whom the Jesuits describe in some detail.

So far despite a claim in the question I don't see any sources putting Dutch sailors or traders in the area until the 17th century.

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  • Clearly by the mid 17th century the Dutch were firmly established in Taiwan, as can be seen from the Journal of Hendrick Hamel, for example: "After we were sent, by order of the Governor-general and the Counsel of the Indies, we went with the jaght the Sperwer and hoisted sail at June 18th, 1653 from Batavia, with destination Taijoan (Tainan). One of the passengers aboard was Mr. Cornelis Caesar who would relieve Mr. Nicolaes Verburgh as governor of Taijoan, Formosa."
    – njuffa
    Jan 20, 2023 at 23:28
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    The Dutch (specifically, the VOC) first established themselves on Taiwan in 1624 and commenced the construction of Fort Zeelandia at what is modern-day Tainan. I have not been able to find references to an earlier presence of Dutch forces on the island. A depiction of Fort Zeelandia as it appeared in May of 1632.
    – njuffa
    Jan 20, 2023 at 23:59

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