Formosa Expedition

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Formosa Expedition
Formosa Expedition 1867.jpg
"Attack of United States Marines and Sailors on the pirates of the island of Formosa, East Indies" by Harper's Weekly.
Date June 1867
Location Southern Formosa, Pacific Ocean
Result Formosan victory, American failure[1]
United States United States Paiwan
Commanders and leaders
United States Henry H. Bell
United States Alexander Slidell MacKenzie
43 marines
138 sailors
2 sloops-of-war
Casualties and losses
1 killed None

The Formosa Expedition,[2] or the Taiwan Expedition of 1867 was a punitive expedition launched by the United States against Formosa. The expedition was undertaken in retaliation for the Rover incident, in which the Rover, an American bark, had been wrecked and its crew massacred by native warriors in March 1867. A United States Navy and Marine company landed in southern Formosa and skirmished with the Paiwan aboriginals until they disengaged and retreated after their ambushes failed to halt the American advance. Nevertheless, the Americans withdrew shortly after without completing their objective of decisively defeating the natives in battle. The event is regarded as a failure in United States Naval history.


An 1864 painting of Hartford.

On 12 March 1867, the United States merchantman Rover was sailing off Oluanpi, Formosa when she wrecked on uncharted reef and began drifting out to sea. Her crew of over two dozen safely made it ashore but were attacked and killed by the Paiwanans. The Royal Navy ship HMS Cormorant reached the "Koalut country" on March 26,[3] discovered the fate of the Rover and informed the American East India Station. Squadron commander Rear Admiral Henry H. Bell ordered Commander John C. Febiger in the newly commissioned gunboat USS Ashuelot to proceed from Foochow to the island for an investigation of the incident.

Upon arrival Qing authorities assured Commander Febiger that the attack was carried out by warriors of a village that did not practice respect of the nation's laws. With this information, Ashuelot returned and notified Rear Admiral Bell. The American consul to Amoy, C. W. Le Gendre, had spent the month of April trying to establish communication with the tribes but the Koaluts remained hostile.[4]

At this point, diplomatic pressure proved a failure so as was typical of the time. After a delay of three months and "a good deal of red tapeism in Washington", a punitive expedition was decided on.[4] Bell, with the screw sloop-of-war Wyoming and his flagship Hartford left Shanghai in June for southern Formosa.


The passing from Shanghai to Formosa was uneventful, the two Americans warships arriving off the southeastern coast on 13 June 1867. The sloops anchored a half-mile off the shore and made preparations for landing. A total of 181 officers, sailors and marines were landed by boat, they were commanded by Commander George E. Belknap of Hartford and seconded by Lieutenant Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie. When on land the company was broken up into two forces, one commanded by Belknap and the other by Mackenzie. Captain James Forney directed the marines, twenty of whom were deployed as skirmishers in the front of the columns. Their objective was to defeat the aboriginals decisively and to capture their village. Formosa is a tropical island, very hot and humid in the summer, with mountainous jungle on the east and plains in the west. This made the march through the jungle difficult for the Americans who wore heavy uniforms designed for keeping men warm at sea.

Rear Admiral Henry H. Bell

After marching for nearly an hour, the Formosans attacked with muskets from concealed positions on top of a hill directly in front of the American columns. Though difficult to see, the U.S. expedition later reported that the Formosan warriors wore colorful face paint and were armed with spears and some firearms. Lieutenant MacKenzie's force engaged first by immediately charging the Formosan ambush but the natives fled before the Americans had time to climb the hill. The expedition continued further and was ambushed again so once more the Americans charged and captured the position but without inflicting losses on the enemy. As the expedition continued on to the village, the Formosans ambushed the Americans several times but did not actually hit them.

It was not until the last action that the first and only American casualty was sustained: the warriors fired a volley and a musket ball hit Lieutenant Mackenzie, mortally wounding him. After the volley the Formosans retreated again but the Americans chose not to pursue. By this time, after six hours of marching, several men had either grown delirious or passed out from the heat so the expedition returned to the ship.


When they arrived back at shore, the sailors and marines boarded their ships and then sailed back to China having failed to complete their objectives. Formosan casualties were minimal if any; no bodies were found by the Americans.

Admiral Bell and other American officers stated in their reports that the only way to make the region safe would be to drive out the natives and put the area under control of a powerful ally.[4] American diplomat C.W. Le Gendre persuaded Governor General Liu of Foochow to send his own expedition to Formosa. He also requested that Rear Admiral Bell send a gunboat in support of the operation but this was denied. Le Gendre took command of the Chinese troops and left Foochow for southern Formosa on 25 July 1867. In September, Le Gendre arrived at Taiwanfu (the capital city, modern-day Tainan) to announce the object of his visit and take delivery of the Amoy viceroy's promises of assistance. According to his report,[5] Le Gendre marched to the tribal capital and negotiated a treaty (南岬之盟) with Chief Tauketok (also Tokitok; 卓杞篤) to assure the safe conduct of shipwrecked sailors throughout the Paiwan chiefdom.

Attacks on wrecked merchant ships by Formosan natives did however continue. The Mudan Incident of 1871, where 54 shipwrecked Ryūkyūan sailors were captured and beheaded at the southeastern tip of Formosa, resulted in the Taiwan Expedition of 1874 in which the Japanese military campaigned against the Paiwanans. The Japanese succeeded in engaging the Paiwanan warriors in battle and received compensation from the Qing government for the massacre. From late 1867-early 1868, Bell was appointed commander of the new Asiatic Squadron and while supporting the Opening of Japan, he anchored off Osaka to increase pressure on the Japanese government to open Hyogo on 1 January 1868 as previously scheduled. On 11 January, in attempts to force the Japanese at Kobe to comply with American merchant trade, rear-Admiral Bell was killed along with all but three of the men after their vessel was overturned.

See also


  1. The Nation. J.H. Richards. 1889. pp. 256–.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Davidson (1903), p. 115.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Davidson (1903), p. 116.
  5. Davidson (1903), p. 117-122reproduction of Le Gendre's report