Island named 'Formosa' by Portuguese may not be Taiwan: Scholar

Oops, if Taiwan was not 'Formosa' which island were the Portuguese actually referring to?

Dutch map of Formosa circa 1640. (Image from colonialvoyage.com)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- In textbooks and tourist brochures, the standard line is that upon first sight, Portuguese sailors in 1542 dubbed Taiwan "Ilha Formosa" or "Beautiful Island," however an Academia Sinica scholar says they may have been actually referring to a totally different island. 

According to a report by Clever Research (研之有物), Associate Researcher at Academia Sinica Weng Chia-yin (翁佳音) and editor Huang Yen-wan (黃驗完), assert in a book titled "Decoding the History of Taiwan from 1550-1720" (解碼臺灣史 1550-1720) that the island Portuguese sailors referred to as "Ilhla Formosa" may not in fact be Taiwan. After a careful study of historic accounts by the Portuguese about their arrival in Asia, they appear not to be referring to Taiwan, claims Weng. 

According to the historic records, the island described as Formosa has a northwest-southeast orientation, with a total length of 100 kilometers, however Taiwan has a northeast-southwest orientation and a total length of roughly 400 kilometers. From this information Weng inferred that the Portuguese were actually referring to Okinawa, which is 112 km long, and that the myth that they were referring to Taiwan was constructed from the imagination of later generations. 

Weng said that vast majority of Portuguese documents he found from the period referred to the island of Taiwan as Lequeo Pequeño (小琉球).


Portuguese map showing Formosa above Lequeo Pequeño.

The book also points out that a name resembling Formosa did not become equated with Taiwan until 1584 when the Spanish fleet first sailed past Taiwan and named it "As Ilhas Fermosas" or "Beautiful Islands." Later, when the Spanish plotted sea charts in the area, they changed the spelling to "Hermosa" (Beautiful).


Taiwan depicted as cluster of islands called "Fermosa" in A. Ortelius' map from 1570. (Wikimedia Commons)

Weng posits that it continued to be referred to by the Spanish version of Hermosa, until the Dutch set up rival bases on the island in 1624 and named it Formosa. It was not until the Dutch ruled the island that it began to be referred to as Formosa by Western countries, said Weng. 


Map of Taiwan referred to as "Hermosa" (top) and Luzon, Philippines (bottom). (Wikimedia Commons)


French map of Taiwan referring to it as "Formose" (Wikimedia Commons)