Documents from Formosa

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by Bob Jaeger

Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, was under Dutch colonial rule from 1624-1662, primarily to trade with China and Japan. The Dutch missionaries also had other motives, such as attempting to convert the aborigines to Christianity. But at the same time, they also taught them reading and writing, using romanization schemes for the different Formosan languages.

After the Dutch were expelled by China, some of the aborigines retained this system of writing, which they continued to use for roughly the next hundred years.

The American Geographical Society of New York Archives contains three documents by the aborigines written during this period of post-colonization. They are all land contracts with China.

 

Pre-nineteenth Century document in the Romaniezed aboriginal Pepowhan (Siraya) language
Pre-nineteenth Century document in the Romaniezed aboriginal Pepowhan (Siraya) language

The AGS acquired these documents from Joseph B. Steere in 1874. A professor of zoology at the University of Michigan, Steere visited Formosa for six months from 1873-1874. He collected various types of biological and anthropological data from the island and its people. The documents date from 1723-1776 and vary in size and handwriting.

These particular documents are written in the Pepowhan (Siraya) language, which was spoken in the southwestern plain of Taiwan. The language became extinct in the first half of the 19th century, but can still be translated by scholars who specialize in the aboriginal people of Formosa. This artifact is held at the AGS Library, UW Milwaukee as part of the American Geographical Society of New York Archives.

 

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