A Qing strongpoint overlooks Keelung harbor today.

Extract from the UK
The Navy and Army Illustrated Apr, 1898.
The French had, indeed, a Chinese history. After the outrages at the Taku forts, they threw in their lot with us, and were parties to the Treaty of Tientsin. They fought with China later on in relation to Tonquin, and, but for the timidity of their statesmen, might in 1885, have held on to Formosa, or to the splendid anchorage and harbour which had been occupied in the Pescadores. The Treaty of Tientsin respected the integrity of China, and the French honourably held to its engagements. The signatories would certainly have stood aghast if they could have foreseen the day when the talons of the German eagle should lay hold a part of the Celestial Empire.

In 1884-5 China and France fought a war, with a critical campaign fought in and around the port of Keelung in northern Taiwan. Relics of that war still litter the area.

Keelung at the time was a major port servicing northern Taiwan, and the French had seized it in the hope of grabbing the city and the coal mines around it, in the vain hope of saving the city from its future of Starbucks and discount cruises. No dice. The Qing responded by investing the city on all sides and bottling the French up in the port. The city, which sits in a volcanic caldera open on one side to the sea, proved ideal for such a strategy.

A panorama of modern Keelung and its harbor.

The area hosted many foreigners engaged in the tea, rice, and camphor trade. In those primitive, bygone days, people kept diaries privately rather than posting them on the internet in the form of blogs, and one UK resident, John Dodd, kept a journal of the fighting which he published in 1888 as Journal of a Blockaded Resident in North Formosa During the Franco-Chinese War, 1884-5. From the first and second pages:

“….For some time past the papers have hinted that, in the event of French demands on China not being acceded to, Kelung or some part of Formosa would be held by them as a material guarantee against the payment of an indeminity to be named by them.”

Indeed, the New York Times reported that very fact on Aug 28, 1884:


Dodd described the situation….

“It is not two months since the French cruiser Volta, Captain Fournier, arrived in the bay of Kelung, and as there appeared to be some delay in obtaining supplies of coal, &c., the gallant Captain gave the officials notice that unless supplies were forthcoming promptly, he would open fire on the forts. This threat had the desired effect, and as coals were sent off the trouble ended, and the Volta flitted northward, Captain Fornier appearing later on as a diplomat and Treaty maker. This little episode was very instructive, and seemed to open the eyes of the military mandarins to the fact that there was a possibility, not very remote, of Leung becoming the seat of war in the island, and that a French invasion might take place at no distant date. At Kelung there is a new fort, which has cost the Government an enormous sum of money; it has taken years to build and is, I believe, armed with Krupp guns. This fort commands the entrance of the harbour, and looks northeast; the position is exposed and undesirable in may ways, but not in the opinion of the Chinese. However, this was the fort, the stronghold, the terror to the outer barbarians; it was supposed that any man-of-war appearing in front thereof would be sunk, and that Kelung was safe from foreign attack…..”

Dodd goes on to write that on the 4th of August three French men-of-war appeared in the harbor and the Admiral demanded that the city be surrendered to the French. That demand being rejected, the ships opened fire on the fort, and “in a very short time it was a mass of ruins.” The French ships proved more or less immune to the guns in the fort, and after taking out some of the smaller fortifications in the area, sent in troops.

My friend Jeff Miller, Keelung history buff, tugs on a screw pine. Sharp and easily broken, it was planted around the Qing works surrounding Keelung so that French attackers would not be able to use it to pull themselves uphill when assaulting the Qing trenches.

The diary goes on to record the tribulations of Dodd, located at Tamshui, securing his positions, trying to sort out fact from rumor — “It is reported that five men-of-war are now in port, but the Chinese who bring reports here daily from Kelung often see double” — and attempting to engage in trade. In the meantime there was a war on….

8th October, 1884.
“….At about 8 a.m. the ‘early birds’ with binoculars adjusted, had observed various signs of extra activity amongst the shipping, and before and hour had slipped away, and just as we were sitting down to a 9 o’clock breakfast, the booming of cannon, from every ship, carried our recollections back at once to the 2nd instant, and one and all decided that the French, after a long five days’ comparative rest, had determined to succeed in not only forcing a landing but in carrying the place by storm.”

By the 20th of October, Dodd writes, foreigners had deserted Keelung and Tamshui was blockaded. Nothing was getting in or out. Another attack, he feared, would lead to a breakdown of control over the Qing forces and looting and attacks on foreigners. Though he did not surmise it at the time, Dodd would spend the remainder of the war trapped in Tamshui.

This cleared area is all that remains of a Qing observation post and strongpoint.

Day after day passes, and Dodd records the weather, trade, the movements of ships, the diplomatic moves, and the confident proclamations of the Chinese, for whom victory is always right around the corner. December brought a dusting of snow one day on the “north mountain”, Dodd notes. Bored, the British gunboat and local foreigners stage a cricket match and later, a regatta. The progress of the French — stifled in attempts to push out of the city and into what is now Nuan Nuan and Badu — is the subject of much rumor and analysis….on the 31st of December, 1884, he observes:

“The French are no doubt finding it difficult to advance into the county. The nature of the country is very favourable to the invaded, the country around Kelung being hilly and full of cover, and the only roads being narrow pathways. Chines soldiers are said to be scattered all over the hills, on the tops and sides of hills. They either dig rifle pits or take up their position in thick jungly cover, and up trees even.”

In February he complains that there is nothing to drink but tea, the foreign drinks all having been finished, nor is there anything to smoke but the “Blocus Mixture” made of local tobacco leaf, “blocus” being a term for the blockade. March in its turn brought glum pondering of their fate:

“18 March
At about high water, 11 to 12 p.m., the electric light from the Duguay-Trouin [a blockading French ship] outside played on the bar for some time, the idea being possibly that the Cockchafer [a British gunboat on the Tamshui River] would steam out at night. Every one more disconsolate than ever. We are in a veritable prison, and may remain here till the war is over. Rained nearly all day.”

Anyone who has ever suffered through a wet winter in northern Taiwan can sympathize…

The Duguay-Trouin (from here)

But in due time the armistice came and by mid-May it was back to complaining about the trade:

15 May
“In the short space of about three weeks (since foreigners returned to Twatutia) the arrivals of tea have amounted to some 60,000 half-chests, a portion of which is old last year’s leaf, which had to be stored until the blockade was raised. With all this tea pouring in daily what is to be done without lead? We can fire tea, and can make chests to contain the same, but unless the packages are lead-lined, the tea cannot be shipped to a foreign market.”

Lead had been declared war material by the French and so none had been permitted to enter the island. Dodd was indignant that the French had so harmed British mercantile interests, but were still permitted to coal their ships in Hong Kong.

The Tamshui River today, looking east toward Yangmingshan.

The diary of John Dodd is both a good read and a useful historical source. Recommended for anyone interested in this period on Taiwan, Dodd not only wrote on the war, but also on trade, local customs and geography, and on the manufacture of such items as camphor and tea. Even the daily temperature was recorded (what else was there to do in Tamshui under blockade?). Dodd’s journal is also a reminder of what life is like in wartime, with its deprivations, boredom, rumor without the comfort of confirmation, arbitrary life and death, and pointless, peevish destructiveness — Keelung was first rendered unfit for habitation by the French, who trashed the buildings they occupied, and then looted by the Chinese when they reoccupied it. Returning locals found a city in ruins. Truly, Dodd reminds us, war is a madness and a waste….