Among the Headhunters of Formosa is not only a rare account of Japanese-ruled Taiwan – a time when the country was off-limits to travellers – but also a valuable description of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes by a daring, globe-trotting American anthropologist. Janet Blair Montgomery McGovern was initially drawn to Taiwan by its great beauty, first seen on a voyage to Japan. After several years in Kyoto teaching English and studying Buddhism, she secured a position at a government school in Taipei, and enjoyed an incredibly action-packed stay in Taiwan from 1916 to 1918.
A light work schedule left McGovern with plenty of time for exploring, and despite obstacles and disapproval from the Japanese officials, she made numerous trips into the mountains. She was a frequent visitor to the Taiya areas of northern Taiwan, and, during school vacations, she traveled further afield, visiting the Ami, Paiwan, and other tribes. In some instances she was the first white woman the aborigines had seen.
Though headhunting hadn’t been entirely stamped out, McGovern didn’t feel threatened by the aborigines. She was warmly received, something she thought was due to them regarding her “as the reincarnation of one of the seventeenth-century Dutch, whose rule over them, three hundred years ago, has become a sacred tradition.”
McGovern was especially interested in the matriarchal nature of some of Taiwan’s aborigines, believing they offered a glimpse of a lost age at the dawn of civilization when women supposedly held more power. She was also determined to investigate rumors of the existence of a pygmy tribe.
Originally published in 1922, Among the Headhunters of Formosa is an exciting and sympathetic account from a real-life, female Indiana Jones. (Indeed, her son, Professor William Montgomery McGovern, is often credited as the likely inspiration for the Spielberg character of Indiana Jones.)