Pioneering in Formosa is a swashbuckling account of a young Englishman’s adventures in Taiwan during the 1860s. After six years of sailing the high seas, William Pickering joined China’s Imperial Maritime Customs service in Fujian in 1862. He was in Taiwan from 1863 to 1870, first in Kaohsiung and then in Anping (the port near the old capital city of Tainan) where he was in charge of customs and later worked for British trading companies.
The Taiwan of Pickering’s day was a wild frontier, with the mountainous interior the domain of headhunting tribes and the coastline notorious as a mariner’s graveyard. Pickering travelled widely – invariably armed with “a Colt’s revolver, a double-barrelled fowling-piece, and a seven-shooter Spencer rifle,” – and made several important expeditions into the mountains and the southern coastal areas.
More than just a witness to turbulent times, Pickering was often in the thick of the action. During disputes over the camphor trade, a bloody standoff resulting in him fleeing for his life, a five-hundred-dollar bounty of on his head, and the British dispatching gunships to the island.
Pickering’s knowledge of the island, his daring, and language skills – he spoke Taiwanese and some Mandarin – resulted in several adventures on behalf of the United States government. Following the killing of crew members from the shipwrecked American vessel Rover, he was invited to accompany an American punitive naval expedition as interpreter. He later helped U.S. Army General Le Gendre secure a treaty from the “savages” guaranteeing the safety of shipwrecked crews.
Published in 1898, Pioneering in Formosa is a fun, fast-paced account, combining the red-blooded arrogance of youth and deep knowledge that came from the author writing the book after additional decades of experience among the Chinese. If you read only one book about nineteenth-century Taiwan, this should be your obvious first choice.