Thu, Nov 15, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Exhuming French history in Taiwan

France attacked Taiwan in 1884, angry with its Ching-dynasty rulers over a Vietnamese territorial dispute. Many of the French casualties of that little-known battle are today interred in an even lesser-known cemetery in Keelung

By Steven Crook  /  STAFF REPORTER

A headstone marks one of some 600 graves in Keelung's French cemetery.


Keelung has a long history of contact with the West -- at various times the port has hosted a Spanish garrison, a Dutch trading post, and a British consulate -- but many visitors overlook the port's French cemetery, a relic of the Sino-French War of 1884 to 1885 located on a city plot hemmed in by buildings near the ruins of Ershawan Fort (二砂灣).

Part of the significance of this graveyard lies in it being the largest concentration of foreign remains in Taiwan, with the exception of Taichung City's Paochueh Temple (寶覺寺), where the bones of Japanese nationals who died during the colonial period were reburied after World War II.

The French cemetery is the subject of a new book by Christophe Rouil titled Formosa: Some Nearly-Forgotten Battles, which took the author a year and a half to research and write. The French-language edition will be launched at the end of this month. English and Chinese-language versions will appear next year.

With the help of the Social Affairs Bureau, Rouil collected information from the archives of the French armed forces and diplomatic corps, and visited Makung in the Penghu Islands, where the leader of the French expedition, Admiral Amedee Courbet, died of a tropical disease in June 1885.

Battle a `minor detail'

Courbet is regarded as one of France's heroes because of his military exploits in the 1860s, but neither the war in which he died nor the fate of the Keelung French cemetery are well known in France.

"History books treat the Sino-French War as a minor detail in the history of France's colonization of Indochina," Rouil says. France attacked Taiwan in 1884 because of a dispute with the Ching () imperial court over Vietnamese territory.

The current French cemetery is not the original, Rouil explains. The remains were moved there from a seaside location in 1909.

The graveyard -- which is not much bigger than a tennis court and is shaded by a canopy of trees -- has been looked after by the Keelung City Government in recent years. Unlike the foreigners' cemetery in Tamsui, the site has not been designated a national relic, but it is open to the public.

Near-identical obelisks stand at opposite ends of the plot -- one in French is dedicated to soldiers and sailors; the other, in both French and Chinese, is dedicated to officers as well. A few other markers are too weathered to read. One standing over a mass grave reads: "Here lay the soldiers and sailors of France who died in Keelung."

The number of French servicemen buried here is unknown, according to Rouil, though, neither the often-cited figure of 500, nor the 700 inscribed on the graveyard's memorial stone are accurate. His research indicates that the remains of around 600 French officers, soldiers, and sailors lie in the Keelung French Cemetery. Approximately 120 of them were killed in battle, while 150 died later of their wounds. The majority succumbed to malaria, cholera, dysentery, or other maladies. More than a fifth of the French force never returned home.

Archibald R. Colquhoun, a British political commentator who visited Keelung during France's eight-month-long occupation, and J.H. Stewart-Lockhart, described the decimation of the French forces in an 1885 issue of The China Review: "The French no sooner landed in Keelung than they began to experience what the climate of Formosa is for the European. The small force under Admiral Courbet has been greatly weakened by sickness, a considerable number of men being sent away by each French mail steamer, calling fortnightly at Keelung, as well as by each available transport."

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