I've an ingrained enthusiasm both for the outdoors and for history.
When we moved from Taipei to the outskirts of Keelung in 1999, among the practical enticements included green hills to hike (Taipei, by contrast, is largely flat and paved) and a vague notion that the port had been occupied at some point by France.
Over the past eight years, I have trekked across much of the Northeast Coast and its hinterland (as well as elsewhere). Not only are remnants of the Sino-French War (中法 or 清法戰爭) still clearly evident along the hilltops and ridges that ring the city, the area is also peppered with many other vestiges of history and previous economic activity. Such continue to make this area an interesting place to live and explore.
As a prelude to long-planned (well, in my head at least) blog-type entries on hiking, historical sites, flora, etc., I plan to post to this site some topical introductions (tagged "background") to various aspects of my city on the sea. Content is my own, drawn from various English and Chinese sources, and can be used elsewhere as long as the source is cited.
A Quickie Guide to the Sino-French War
A decade of hostility between France and China over influence in Annam (modern Vietnam) climaxed in the Sino-French War. French authority in the area had grown steadily since France established the colony of Cochin China (in the Saigon Delta) in 1862. Legionnaires captured Hanoi in 1882 and the king of Annam acknowledged French suzerainty in 1883.
Facing imminent loss of a vassal and southern buffer against belligerent colonial powers, China dispatched troops to Annam to help indigenous Vietnamese and Black Flag irregulars fight the French. (In one interesting historical note, the Black Flag society (黑旗隊) formed in 1866 in south China to challenge Qing authority during the Taiping Rebellion [see Wikipedia article here]. The Emperor later granted Black Flag members amnesty in exchange for pledges of loyalty. In the 1870s and 1880s, the group was engaged by anti-French members of the Annamese nobility to help fight French influence in their country.)
Now at war (albeit unofficially) with China, France broadened the conflict beyond Vietnam to the China coast in hopes a series of decisive victories there would force a Qing capitulation. French warships shelled Mawei (馬尾, near Fuzhou) and Tamsui (淡水) and troops stormed Keelung and Magong (馬公, in the Penghu Islands).
However, France largely failed to achieve its strategic objectives. Qing troops consistently outnumbered and, in many important battles, outmaneuvered their adversary. In northern Vietnam, France endured significant setbacks and, in Taiwan, held Keelung harbor and several adjacent valleys only at a high price in blood.
China nonetheless did not press its advantages in the field and the Emperor's military advisers were consumed with a fear that France's navy, sailing unopposed in the East China Sea, would move north and land troops to threaten the capital at Beijing. The Treaty of Tientsin, signed in June 1885, ended hostilities. China acknowledged French control over Vietnam and France evacuated its remaining soldiers from Chinese territory ...
Keelung was a ten-month nightmare for French troops. Terrible weather, malaria, meager support from the high command, pesky British and American opportunists and an unexpectedly real Chinese resistance kept the French bottled up inside the first row of hills that separated the harbor from north Taiwan's interior (e.g., the Keelung River and Taipei Basin beyond). There was never a realistic prospect that France could have extended its occupation to Taipei (Banka) or elsewhere. The Qing government took very seriously France's attack on Taiwan, and the Chinese repulsed solidly a French attack on Tamsui and arrayed over 10,000 Mainland and Taiwanese soldiers in the hills surrounding Keelung to keep the 2,000 or so French Legionnaires and Bat d'Af soldiers from moving any further inland.
For the "honor" of France and the Legion, several months before abandoning Keelung for the relatively more pleasant Pescadore (Penghu) Islands, just over a thousand French soldiers made a final desperate push to take the heights above Keelung. Several days of horrific hand-to-hand fighting along ridgelines to the east of the harbor ended in France capturing "Fort Bambou", the highest crest overlooking the harbor, and sending most of the Qing army across the Keelung River, where defensive lines were reestablished.
Chinese military resistance to France in Taiwan was a resounding success, won largely by overwhelming manpower and a home field advantage. The French occupation was a strategic failure. France was never able to use the harbor as a supply depot (France's navy still used Jinmen and other islands for coastal activities), and hoped-for coal supplies lay beyond the occupied harbor area.
However, while China won the battle (for Taiwan), they lost the war. Irresolution at the upper levels of Qing officialdom and concurrent challenges to Qing sovereignty elsewhere convinced Chinese leaders to disregard successes at Keelung and Annam and sue for a quick peace, largely on France's terms.
For both the French and Chinese, hostilities in Taiwan represented an extemporized, ad hoc affair. Although wooden structures built by both sides have long since disappeared, dirt trenches, gun emplacements, and cleared areas for barracks and command posts remain intact to a surprisingly large extent. With preserving island history high in importance for most Taiwanese (tongue firmly in cheek), such remnants have since become good spots to grow bamboo or have simply gone back to nature. The government has made no effort to designate or restore Sino-French War sites, which all in all may be for the best ... until the construction industry figures out how to plant high rises along hilltops.