Notes from the Center of Taiwan: Formosa in German Colonial Dreams
Germany’s Far East policy highlights a simple 19th century fact: Imperial possessions were there to be seized from other powers, or traded to settle wars, chips in the big game.
By Michael Turton / Contributing Journalist
Commodore Matthew Perry’s second expedition from the United States to Japan in 1854 sent ships to Formosa on their way back to the United States to assess Keelung’s potential as a coal station. Foresight, Perry recommended that the United States establish a presence in Formosa, as Taiwan was then called. His suggestion went unheeded, but others were watching, little more closely than Prussia.
The Prussians had wanted to follow the Americans with an expedition of their own. In 1858, when William I became regent, the idea of entering the colonial race in the Far East began to take shape in the Prussian political imagination. Prussia’s policy in the Far East would show a recurring desire for the island, until the Japanese put an end to it in 1895 when they annexed it.
PRUSSIAN EXPEDITION TO THE FAR EAST
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In August of the same year, the Prussians decided to send an expedition to the Far East. It was led by Count Friedrich Albrecht zu Eulenburg, who was not a career diplomat but a trade expert, reporting that the expedition was primarily commercial in nature. Eulenburg, who then had no experience of the Far East, traveled to Paris in the early spring of 1860 to meet with British and French diplomats.
According to historian Bernd Martin (“The Prussian Expedition to the Far East, 1860-1862”), representatives of both powers encouraged the Germans. French diplomat Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros, who had commanded French troops in the Anglo-French expedition to China from 1856 to 1860 and was a famous photographer and politician, suggested to Eulenburg that the Prussians occupy Formosa.
Gros argued that a Prussian colony at Formosa would help mitigate Chinese and British southward thrusts and support the French in Vietnam. In his book France and Germany in the South China Sea, c. 1840–1930, Bert Becker describes how Gros argued that treaties alone were insufficient to support commercial ventures in the Far East. Prussia would need a colony.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
The Eulenburg expedition was a success in the eyes of the Prussians. After beating treaties with the Chinese and Japanese, Prussian policy turned to Formosa, which Eulenburg had initially considered the best prospect for a German colony.
The Prussian expedition was accompanied by explorer, diplomat, geologist and ethnographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, a man who would be involved in Prussian enterprises in the Far East for the next quarter century. Today, he is best known for coining the term “Silk Road”.
Richthofen was sent to Formosa to assess its potential as a commercial and naval port and to become Germany’s Hong Kong, an idea that colored German perceptions of their colonial policy in the Far East for decades, a reminder of how colonialism British remained the model for being colonialists.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Richthofen also made a geological study. He observed that Formosan coal was only available locally and that Europeans bought it from Chinese ports, its origin unknown. “…now we have more certain knowledge, and yet we are still dealing with Keelung coal from Chinese port cities.”
Richthofen’s study of the geology of northern Taiwan noted that Formosan lignite could not compete with British hard coal – a huge (by volume) and crucial export from the UK in the 19th century. Underrated today, British coal, a favorite of steamship operators, was a dominant influence on geostrategy in the Far East during the colonial period.
Each nation that operated steamships in the Far East had to consider its necessary presence in formulating its military and economic strategy. Four decades of European and American interest in the coal mines around Keelung suggest that had Taiwan possessed better quality coal, it might have been annexed by one of these powers.
Back in Prussia, the decision makers thought of Formosa. In April 1861, a memorandum submitted to King William I recommended a Prussian naval base and settlement (for settlers and as a penal colony) on the island.
Although Richthofen had recommended annexation, Eulenburg had soured on the idea. He told the Prussian government that the island lacked good ports and that it was too hot and too humid. He also stressed to officials in the capital that it would mean a break with other European countries and upset treaties with China and Japan. Despite the objections of the chief admiral of the Prussian navy, who was quite seduced by the idea of seizing Formosa, the expedition was ordered to return.
However, Formosa remained in the minds of Prussian diplomats and politicians. The Prussian victory over Austria in 1866 and the founding of the North German Confederation in 1867 led to public calls for the acquisition of colonies. In 1867, according to Becker, a German lawyer called for the annexation of Formosa to become a German “Hong Kong”.
Becker notes that the Prussian consul in Japan, Max Brandt, who had participated in the Eulenburg expedition, met with the king and the crown prince to discuss the annexation of Formosa. Although Brandt himself rejected the proposal, he felt that Germany needed a colony in the Far East to sustain its trade. The idea was dismissed as uneconomical.
The expansion of the French presence around Formosa, culminating in the French invasion during the Sino-French War of 1884–1885, helped spark another round of German involvement.
During the war, the French captured the port of Keelung but lacked the troops to seize the nearby coal mines, which remained in Qing dynasty hands.
The French chartered German merchant ships to supply coal and other provisions to their positions at Keelung from Hong Kong (German ships also ferried munitions and troops up the Chinese coast for the Qing).
A decade later, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) left German Kaiser Wilhelm II wistful with dreams of Formosa. He had convinced himself that the British were about to take Shanghai. If that happened, he wrote to the German Chancellor in 1894, Germany would have to annex Formosa. “The speed is indicated,” he said, “because, as I heard confidentially, the French are already fishing Formosa.” A few days later, the German envoy to Peking offered Germany to acquire the Pescadores (Penghu).
Germany had no naval base in Asia and depended on Nagasaki and Hong Kong for repairs and coal mining. Berths in the British colony had to be booked months in advance, a major problem for German naval influence in the Far East.
In 1895, an analysis of the German Navy again suggested that Germany acquire a port. Among the options presented was seizing the Pescadores. The Japanese annexation of Taiwan put an end to it. In 1897, the Germans occupied Kiaochow (Jiazhou Bay 膠州灣) in Qingdao, and finally had their port.
Germany’s Formosa dreams highlight a simple 19th century fact: none of the imperialist powers, from Berlin to Beijing, considered any territory they held to be “integral” territory of their Empire. Imperial possessions were there to be seized from other powers, or traded to settle wars, tokens in the big game. The Qing demonstrated this: when they lost the war with Japan, they raised the shoulders and gave Taiwan to Tokyo.
Think about that the next time someone claims that Taiwan is an “integral part” of China.
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by longtime resident Michael Turton, providing incisive commentary informed by three decades of living and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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