Ilha Formosa: An apocryphal tale

1596 map included in a book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Early depiction of Taiwan, labeled I. Formosa
Early map depicting Taiwan (red box, labeled I. Formosa). Included in a 1596 book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Linschoten popularized the name “Formosa.” (Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, p. 23).

A 16th century mariner spotted a verdant, uncharted island and was so overcome by its natural beauty that he exclaimed, “Ilha formosa!” (beautiful island in Portuguese). Thus the island of acquired a name. Thus it would be known for the next 400 years.

You will encounter some version of this story should you pick up a guidebook on Taiwan.

To illustrate:

In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were so impressed by the towering, green mountainous island they saw from the decks of their ships that they called the placed Ilha Formosa, meaning “beautiful island.”

National Geographic Traveler Guide to Taiwan (p. 14)

1544: Passing Portuguese sailors became the first European to lay eyes on Taiwan; they are so enchanted they name the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

From a timeline in The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Taiwan (p. 325)

In 1517, the Portuguese Admiral Andrade sailed to Taiwan and became so enchanted by the place he named it Ilha Formosa, or the ‘Beautiful Island’. The Portuguese established a small but important trading presence there.

Culture Shock: Taiwan (p. 14)

It is not just guidebooks. Here is story as told a trusted by Britannica, an online encyclopedia:

In 1517 a Portuguese ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, and the ship’s log recorded the words “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island” in Portuguese. Formosa subsequently became the Western term for Taiwan. But the ship did not stop, and the Portuguese did not lay claim to Taiwan.

Under a section on Taiwanese history found here.

Here’s an account I copied from an online exhibit titled “Ilha Formosa: The Emergence of Taiwan on the World Scene” found on Taiwan’s National Palace Museum website:

In 1542, Portuguese sailors on their way to Japan came across an island not identified on their maps. Amazed at the forest-cloaked land, they shouted, “Ihla Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island.” The island had thus come to be known as Formosa, which was to become what we know today as Taiwan.

You’ll have to trust me on the sourcing. The webpage is no longer available.

By now, you might see what I was seeing.

  1. There are different dates for when this sighting supposedly occurred. Is it 1517, 1542, 1544, or some other date?
  2. Was it an anonymous Portuguese sailor who exclaimed those famous words, or was it the “Portuguese Admiral Andrade”? (I’m assuming the reference is to Fernão Pires de Andrade, who led a trade mission to China in 1517.)
  3. Were they passing by the island, or were they standing on it? Did the Portuguese claim the island at the time or not?

Other questions I have: When and how was this event first recorded? Was it written in a ship’s log? How do we know these words were spoken aloud? Is it possible that different people were inspired to say more or less the same thing on different occasions?

Or is it a tall-tale repeated so often it has acquired a veneer of truth, a irresistible anecdote too good not to be true, or at least not to include a guidebook?

Jonathan Manthorpe, author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, had this to say: “…it is a pleasant story, but it may be no more than that.” That’s a nice, tempered way to put it.

Let me be more intemperate: I call bullshit on this story.

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