Colonial Racial Science and Taiwan: How Indigenous Peoples Became Anatomy Data Points. Part I

Written by Ko-yu Chiang, Translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: public domain

This article was original published in 故事Storystudio , you can find the original article here.

Under the beating sun in Taiwan’s most southern tip, Mudan Township, an indigenous Paiwanese district with a current population of 5,000, opened a public committee in May 2020. Despite being in a small township in Taiwan’s far south, this committee was an international affair. In attendance was the council of Indigenous Affairs, Bureau of Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture, the Pintung County government. The committee also extended to the other side of the world: Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom and the spirits of sixteen Paiwanese Mudan soldiers who have only recently returned home after 146 years abroad. The museum archive of the University of Edinburgh had previously held the remains of four decapitated Mudan peoples, who are only now getting to return home greeted by their descendants. How did these deceased indigenous people who fought against the Japanese in their retaliation following the ‘Mudan incident’ end up in the University of Edinburgh’s archive? Moreover, how come they are now hoping to return to Taiwan?

The Shimen battle during the “Mudan incident”

The Shimen battle, which took place on May 22nd, 1874, was the largest battle of the “Mudan Incident.” Japan won an inglorious victory, forcing the indigenous peoples of the region to surrender. According to records, 6 Japanese soldiers died, and around 20 were injured. In addition, 16 Mudan people were killed in battle, and 14 died later of injuries. Many reports indicate that the bodies of the 16 Mudan people who died were taken as trophies of war by the Japanese army. This was a fate shared with many who fought the Japanese in this period. Many have known that soldiers were decapitated for a long time, but few know what happened to them afterwards. Were these bodies discarded in the grasses near battlefields? or were they returned to the people of Mudan by the Japanese army to warn against future rebellion? Were they taken to Japan? Did they become an ornament for some Japanese general to show off and scare people? 

This question has confounded people for over 100 years. In 2019, following research by Story Studio, some light had finally been shone on this situation. In the spring of 2019, The Story studio research team and I participated Pingtung County government project to try to uncover the truth about this history. We found two pertinent historical documents. The first was Notes on the crania of the Botans of Formosa, written by the American doctor Stuart Eldridge in 1877. The second, A contribution to the craniology of the natives of Borneo, the Malays, the natives of Formosa, and the Tibetans, was written by British anatomist William Turner in 1907. Although these two pieces were published 30 years apart, both Eldridge and Turner seem to have come into contact with the “Botan’s” severed remains (Botan being the common English name at the time to refer to Pawianese people of Mudan). What did an American doctor and a British anatomist have to do with Taiwan and with these bodies? How did they contact the Japanese army and its battle in the southern tip of Taiwan?

The first piece of the puzzle: An American doctor in Japan. 

Eldridge is the first piece of this puzzle. He did not simply happen to be in Japan when the Mudan incident occurred. He had actually already lived there for 30 years. In 1871, under the request of the Hokkaido Development Commissioner, Kuroda Kiyotaka, the head of the United States Department of Agriculture, sent a team of scientist consultants to Japan. Eldridge, who served both as the head librarian of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Library and as an anatomy lecturer at Georgetown University, was sent to Japan as a medical expert and was subsequently appointed as the chief medical executive of the Hokkaido Development Commission. 

During his time stationed in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Eldridge established the first medical school on the island and served as a teacher. He also helped create Japan’s first medical journal 近世医説 Kinsei-i-setsu (Contemporary Medical Theory). It mostly contained works translated into Japanese by his student, Honda kimitoshi. In 1875, after his contract ended, Eldridge moved to Yokohama. Here, he lived and worked as a doctor for the rest of his life. Based on his profession, the times he lived in, and other details about his life described above, the humble reader has probably already guessed the context he encountered these severed remains. Let’s take a look at his Notes on the crania of the Botans of Formosa published in 1877 and see how he described his “research subjects” to his audience:

It is hardly necessary to remind residents of Japan; that the Botans or Motaus are one of the so-called aboriginal and savasre tribes of southern Formosa; nor, that they were, within a short time, chastised by the Japanese for the murder of certain Liu Kill [Ryukyuan] castaways. Little is known of these people; all that I have been able to gather concerning them may be briefly summarized as follows: They are a race of rather fine physical development, of medium height, courageous, frank, and impressible like most savages; straight haired, complexion very various but always of a brown tint, never black; having some knowledge of agriculture, cultivating tobacco, root crops and rice; possessing, as domesticated animals, buffaloes, pigs, dogs and poultry; living under a patriarchal organization; fond of the chase; having some slight knowledge of certain arts, and a rude form of religion the cultus of which is, at least to some extent, in the hands of priestesses, who are highly reverenced. The skulls upon which this paper is founded are four in number, of which only one is perfect, the other three having apparently served for experiments as to the hardness and sharpness of Japanese swords. I have numbered the skulls 1, 2, 3 and 4* No. 1 is perfect. No. 2 has lost the left zygoma, a portion of the frontal, a portion of the temporal, the body of the ethmoid and nearly half of the facial bones. No. 3 has lost, about half of the frontal hone and is extensively fractured.

Eldridge, 1877

Eldridge never discussed how he actually got hold of these people’s heads or where he obtained any of this information about “the Botans.” What is worth noting is what Eldridge found “hardly necessary to remind” people of, as it reveals how Japanese society at that time viewed Paiwnaese people as “violent savages” who were rightly “chastised” by the Japanese army. In addition, even if Eldridge tried to stick to the “neutral” vocabulary of anatomy, we can understand these people’s violent treatment. For example, he described the remains as “having apparently served for experiments as to the hard-ness and sharpness of Japanese swords.” 

Part II of this article can be found here

Ko-Yu Chiang is the assistant editor at Watch Taiwan Magazine (觀•臺灣). He is also a masters student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, where he studies the history of colonial science and food safety governance in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on UK and Taiwan

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