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Sonntag, 21. Januar 2024

The early Catholic missions among Taiwan's indigenous tribes

Members of the Bunun tribe in 1900

The island of Taiwan (traditionally referred to as Formosa, “the beautiful one” in Portuguese) and some of its outlier islands are home to 570,000 native Austronesians, who are divided into 16 tribes recognized by the Taiwanese government. Taiwan’s indigenous tribes not only predate Chinese settlement of the island by millennia, but the island is also widely recognized today as the Urheimat of the Austronesian peoples, a large family of ethnic groups found today in much of Maritime Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and Madagascar, with minorities living in other regions of the world.

Traditionally, 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.

A Spanish 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[1] 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 Mateo, “The 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”

[1] The Protestants undertook missionary work in the Dutch possessions in the south at the same time.

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