|Members of the Bunun tribe in 1900
Taiwan’s indigenous tribes speak one of the numerous Formosan languages, which
are often so distinct that even dialects of the same language are hardly
mutually intelligible. Before the contact with Christianity, the natives
followed animist beliefs, with some tribes practicing divination through bird
behavior. The Tao people of Orchid Island believed in a “master of heaven and
earth” called Simo-Rapoa, who has several deities under him. Some, like the
Amis, had flood myths. What appears to be a common factor in the belief system
of Taiwanese indigenous groups—irrespective of the belief in a supreme being—is
the belief in good and bad spirits.
Currently, most government-recognized tribes live in the central mountain rage or on the
rugged east coast of the island. The tribes of the western plains had been
heavily sinicized by the early 20th century and had given up their
distinct lifestyle, languages, and culture in favor of Chinese customs. They currently
do not receive special recognition from the Taiwanese government. In recent
decades, however, there has been a movement to achieve public recognition of
the Plains tribes.
The Dominican mission from 1626 to 1642
By the 16th
century, Han Chinese fishermen and traders had established connections with the
population of Formosa, receiving deerskin, venison, and firewood in their
trades with the natives. Yet there were few Han Chinese who settled permanently
on the island. This changed when the Dutch East Indies Company gained control
over large parts of the southern, western, and eastern coasts of the island in
1624. Although the Spanish had considered Formosa a part of the Philippines and
hence Spanish territory since the late 16th century, it was not
until the siege of the port of Manila by the Dutch in the same year that the
Spaniards decided to also establish themselves in the northern half of the
island to prevent further Dutch attacks on the capital of the Philippines.
expedition was sent to Formosa on 8 February 1626, accompanied by six Dominican
missionaries. Among them was Fr. Bartolomé Martínez, who had made a short visit
to the island in 1618 and was enthusiastic about the missionary prospects,
especially since he saw Formosa as a link to the greater empires of China and
Japan. As the Dutch occupied the south of Formosa, the Spaniards had to find
another port in the north and decided on Jilong, naming their fort “San
Salvador”. The northern natives around Jilong, the Taparri and Kimaurri, were
well-connected throughout the aboriginal societies of the island due to their
trade in gold and sulfur. At the same time, they seem to have offered the most resistance
to the influx of Han Chinese settlers into their villages, with very few
Chinese settling among them compared to other tribes. As these two tribes spoke
a lingua franca that the Dominican Fr. Jacinto Esquivel called Baçay or Basay, they
are sometimes referred to collectively as Basay. When the Spaniards arrived at Jilong,
the Basay abandoned their villages and initially tried to prevent other tribes
from trading with the newcomers. Yet after some time, they offered to form an
alliance with the Spanish colonists against hostile tribes, taking advantage of
the advanced weaponry of the Europeans.
|A map showing the Spanish (green) and Dutch posessions (purple) in the 17th century
The first missionary contact between the Dominicans and the indigenous was facilitated by a Japanese Catholic who lived with his native wife and children in a village near Cape Santiago. He had been to Manila before and held St. Dominic’s sons in high esteem. The man asked for his two daughters to be baptized by the missionaries, making them the first Catholic Taiwanese natives. The commander of the Spanish military expedition became the girls’ godfather. The Japanese Catholic also served as an intermediary when the Dominicans offered to make restitution for the damages Spanish soldiers had caused in the natives’ village. As a consequence, hundreds of Basay returned to their villages. In 1627, Jesuits and Augustinians also tried to reach Formosa, but failed. The Dominicans remained the only missionaries on the island until the arrival of a group of Franciscans in 1633, who were destined for the Chinese missions and therefore did not undertake any apostolic work of their own.
The first missionary to live among the natives was Fr. Jacinto Esquivel, who had asked to stay with the Taparri in 1630. The tribe showed reluctance at first: the stranger who would not marry caused suspicion. But the prospect of Spanish military protection seems to have turned the Taparris’ opinion in his favor. Headhunting was widespread among Taiwan’s tribes and was considered a sign of courage, so one could never know when an attack would be launched from a neighboring village. The priest would also intervene with the Spanish authorities to have native captives freed. Upon seeing this, more villages started asking for priests. Fr. Esquivel laid a firm foundation for his mission and moved on to live with the Kimaurri, before he decided to focus on a group of tribal villages known as Senar near the Spanish fort at Danshui.
Catholicism soon gained
a foothold among more and more villages. The islanders appreciated the chant of
the friars and loved the statue of the Blessed Virgin that was carried in
procession into their villages. But old habits of intertribal warfare did not
die immediately. Such was the case when Fr. Francisco Váez told his Senar hosts
he would travel to the rival Pantaos who had desired a missionary. He took some
Senarians with him in the hope they could broker a peace, but his company
instead forged a plan to kill the missionary lest he benefit the enemy tribe.
When they shot their arrows at him, he addressed their leader with the words “Pila,
I come to teach you the law of God, and you kill me?” After this, the Senarians
fled from their villages. Fr. Váez’ successor, Fr. Luis Muro, obtained a
Spanish pardon for his confrere’s killer, but most of the tribe remained in
hiding. Trying to contact them, Fr. Muro was also ambushed and killed with
arrows. Just as had been the case with Fr. Vaez, the natives cut of his hands
and head. Following these events, the firm government of governor García Romero
saw great missionary successes, as missionaries could travel more safely now.
Fr. Teodoro Quirós, who would become the most veteran of the Taiwanese
missionaries and wrote a grammar of the language of the Tanchui people, reported
how he baptized hundreds and was not bothered during his travels as the
villagers feared the governor.
But doom befell the
mission when the Spanish authorities decided to abandon Formosa as a
colonization project. It did not proof to be a useful deterrent to Dutch
blockades and failed as a transshipment point between China and the Philippines.
Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, the governor-general of the Philippines, argued in
1636 that most Formosan natives were hostile to Christianity and that the
relatively small number of Catholic islanders could be settled in the
Philippines instead once Formosa had been abandoned. The governor of Formosa, subordinate
to Hurtado de Corcuera, was to prepare the Spanish departure from the island.
This met with the resistance of the Dominican Provincial of Holy Rosary
Province in the Philippines, Fr. Diego Aduarte, and from Dominican missionaries
on Formosa, who accused the governor of playing into the hands of the
Protestants. In August of 1641, the Dutch together with their native allies attacked
the Spaniards at Jilong. Although they later withdrew, the attack that followed
exactly a year later would bring about the end of the Spanish rule over
northern Formosa. The Spanish colonizers who had married Formosan women brought
their wives and children to the Philippines, while the rest of the Formosan
Catholics seems to have stayed behind. It is reported that the Italian
Dominican Fr. Victorio Ricci visited Formosa in 1662, still finding the
Catholics fervent with some going to confession, yet this report seems doubtful
as he stated he went to Tainan, which is in the south of the island where no
Catholic mission had been established.
(Click here for Part II)
José Eugenio Borao
Catholic Dominican Missionaries in Taiwan(1626-1642)”
José Eugenio Borao Mateo, “Dominicos españoles en Taiwan
(1859-1960): Primer siglo de historia de la Iglesia Católica en la isla”
Tonio Andrade, “How Taiwan Became Chinese. Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century”
 The Protestants undertook
missionary work in the Dutch possessions in the south at the same time.