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How European explorers discovered Ilha Formosa

The Renaissance kicked off a thirst for exploration and adventure, the result of which would see maritime European powers descending on ‘the Orient’ in search of land and riches

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

A map of Tainan found in Manual to the Historical Atlas of Tainan, 1624-1960, published last year by the Tainan Department of Cultural Affairs.

Photo: CNA

Very little is known about Taiwan’s early history prior to the arrival of European explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Taiwan’s Aboriginal population of Malay-Polynesian descent, had been here for millennia, interacting with other peoples in the region.

The most fascinating aspect of this interaction is that, based on linguistic and DNA studies, it has been determined that the people in the wider Pacific originated in Taiwan. From around 3,500 BC, sailors from Taiwan set out on simple rafts and outrigger canoes, and island-hopped — from the Philippines, through Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, eventually reaching far-away places such as New Zealand and Madagascar.

But what about those coming to Taiwan? Records of successive Chinese empires show scant mention of the island and its people. And if there is a mention, it is sometimes not even certain whether it was a reference to an encounter with Aborigines in Taiwan or with those in Okinawa. During the 13th century there were the Kublai Khan expeditions against Japan (1281-91) and the voyages by Admiral Zheng He (鄭和) under Ming emperor Yung Lo (永樂, 1405-1433), reaching all the way to the African coast, but there are no records of either of these reaching Taiwan.

So how did Taiwan, which came to be known as Ilha Formosa, end up so prominently on world maps in the 17th Century?


The mid fifteenth century saw the birth in Europe of the Renaissance. After the relatively inward-looking Middle Ages, a major revival in the arts, architecture and sciences flourished around Florence, and quickly spread throughout Europe.

The continent started to be much more outward-looking, commerce and trade grew exponentially and technical discoveries such as the compass led to the search for, discovery and exploration of new continents. The realization set in that the Earth was not flat, and that there were far-away continents to explore.

Prime among these was “The Orient.” At the end of the thirteenth century (1271-1295) Marco Polo from the city state of Venice, made his overland journey to China and southeast Asia, returning home with incredible tales.

Portuguese explorers first traveled south in 1497, with Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) making three trips around the Cape of Good Hope to India, where he established the two major colonies, Goa and Cochin. In 1519, Ferdinand de Magelhaens (1480-1521) also headed south, but turned around Cape Horn, crossing the Pacific to what is now the Philippines. He died in a fight with local warriors, but his men continued home, becoming the first to circumnavigate the globe.

Earlier, two Italian explorers in the service of the King of Spain also made an attempt to find what became known as the East Indies. From 1492 through 1503 Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) made four voyages, and instead of finding the East Indies, discovered the West Indies. During the same period, his countryman Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) made three voyages, discovering a continent further south, and naming it after himself: America.

In the end both Spain and Portugal carved niches out for themselves in the lucrative trade in spices, silk and china with the East. Portugal established its conclaves in India, the Spice Islands and Macao, while Spain carved out a major trade route to the East via Central America — from Spain to coastal cities on Mexico’s southeast coast, overland to Acapulco and across the Pacific to Manila.

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