From downtown Taipei, Danshui looks, literally, like the end of the line: it is, after all, the last station on the ‘red’ Tamsui MRT line. Mention the name of this small seaside town and it brings to mind thoughts of romantic strolls along the riverside and watching the sun slowly set over the Taiwan Strait. Unfortunately Danshui’s important historical role as the entry point to the Taipei Basin tends to get lost amidst the snack foods, street performers, and river cruises. In the age of wind and sail, when Taiwan was known to the outside world as a remote, distant and dangerous land, Danshui was, along with Tainan and Jilong, one of the island’s three navigable harbours. Well into the late 19th century Danshui was the first point of contact for those who travelled to the north-west of Taiwan from outside the island, and for a period the town was Taiwan’s busiest port.
Danshui was therefore, after Jilong, one of the two places in Taiwan that the Spanish chose as bases from which to attempt trade with China and Japan. Their fort in Danshui, which they named Santo Domingo, went up in 1629, three years later than its sister fort, San Salvador, near Jilong. Sitting on a small hill with commanding views over the Danshui River, the fort’s strategic location is clear to visitors today, though neither its position nor its high wooden walls stopped the aboriginal inhabitants from nearby settlements from attacking it. One night in 1636 local tribesmen attacked the fort and set it on fire, before killing many of the fleeing Spaniards. The fort was subsequently reinforced with stone, but facing failure in both their colonisation and trading efforts in 1638 the governor-general of the Spanish East Indies in Manila sent orders for the outpost to be scaled back and resources to be consolidated at Jilong.
Having been abandoned by the Spanish in 1638, their Dutch rivals soon moved in and established a new fort on the same site. In a remarkable example of historical brown-nosing, they named it Fort Anthony after their boss, the governor of the Dutch East India Company at the time, Anthony van Diemen. While Dutch attempts to build a viable colony and trading post in the north of Taiwan fared better than those of their Spanish predecessors, the results were less successful than in the area surrounding their provincial capital near what is now Tainan. A small garrison was maintained at Fort Anthony, and in one of the Dutch initiatives whose results we see but take for granted today, Han Chinese immigration and permanent settlement in the Danshui area was strongly encouraged.
After Zheng Chenggong / Koxinga’s invasion of Taiwan in 1661, Fort Anthony held out for longer than Dutch forces in the south of the island. Yet it was only a matter of time before the Dutch were forced from their northern outposts too and Koxinga’s Ming rebels soon established their own fort, officially calling it Danshui Fort. By that time, however, the fort’s modern nickname was apparently already in use: the Dutch were known by locals as ‘red-haired people’, and their colonial project in Taiwan is commemorated today in the fort’s best-known label Hong Mao Cheng (紅毛城) or ‘Fortress of the Red-Haired’.
Following the Zheng family’s brief reign over Taiwan, from 1662 to 1683, and their subsequent surrender to the Manchu Qing Dynasty, Danshui’s fort was appropriated by imperial troops and underwent substantial renovation, adding extra gates, and reinforcing the outer walls. Neither its guns nor its walls were subsequently put to the test, however, and the site was rendered largely superfluous as a military installation as a result of Qing defeats further afield in conflicts with foreign powers, and the treaties which followed.
With Danshui’s growing importance as one of China’s treaty ports – trading in goods such as tea, camphor, sulphur, coal, and opium – the British established a consulate in the town in 1864. By 1867, the site of the fort was acquired by the British and became their consulate compound, ending nearly 240 years of the fort’s use for military purposes. Deeming the small fort building too cramped and too prone to humidity and termites (and, apparently, too white – they decided to repaint it in its current distinctive red hue) in 1891 a modern colonial building was built adjacent to the fort using bricks imported from Xiamen. The fifth British consul in Danshui was Herbert Allen Giles, and it was there that the linguist did much of his work on the standardised romanization of Mandarin Chinese, which became known as the Wade-Giles system. With a brief interlude during the Second World War, when the consulate was occupied by Japan, the British consulate at Danshui stayed at the fort until 1972. Following that the buildings and grounds were managed briefly by the Australian government, then by the United States government before, in 1980, finally being acquired by the government of the Republic of China. In 1983 the fort was opened to the public as a historical site.
Whether you’re a history buff or not, it’s tough not to be inspired by Fort San Domingo’s lengthy, multi-faceted past. Indeed, the site’s own unique history condenses many of the broader historical themes of Taiwan’s recent past within one small building, giving those modest red walls an added significance. The architecture alone, with examples from the Dutch period, the Qing Dynasty, and the late 19th century Victorian colonial style makes the fort a fascinating place to walk around and it surely stands out as one of northern Taiwan’s most revealing and best-preserved historical monuments. Pious and fearful Spaniards, marauding tribesmen, capitalist Dutch, victorious Ming rebels, wary Qing bureaucrats, and ambitious Britons – there’s enough food for the historical imagination here to sate any appetite. Luckily tourists, by contrast with previous users of the site, can now enjoy the fort at their leisure, free from fear of attack. Staring out at the splendid views of Guanyin Shan and the Danshui River as it meets the sea it’s easy to forget the fort’s less pleasant previous uses – as watchtower, symbol of intimidation and control, and bastion of colonisation.
The fort is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm, which means that there is unfortunately no chance to watch the Danshui sunsets which must have been one of the few comforts the fort’s historical residents were able to enjoy. Exhibits inside the fort’s tower on the site’s history, while interesting and accessible (explanations are printed in Chinese, Japanese, and English), are by no means comprehensive, and the volunteers manning the museum are perhaps less clued-up than they should or could be. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating prints of old Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese maps and engravings depicting Taiwan, and explanations of the wider historical contexts in which Danshui’s fort was set are both useful and insightful. The Victorian British consulate building has further exhibits detailing the British use of the fort, and many of the rooms contain their original period furniture and layouts. This all makes Fort San Domingo a rewarding excursion and an accessible window into Taiwan’s history. Free entry means that weekdays are probably the best time to see the place, and late afternoon makes for the best light to enjoy the stunning views.
As visitors leave by the main gate of the fort, they may notice seven modest flagpoles, from which hang the flags of Spain, Holland, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, the United States, and the R.O.C. In many other countries, sites associated with colonial dominance are often pasted with jingoistic paraphernalia and the celebration of national independence movements. Fort San Domingo’s flags represent a different, very Taiwanese approach to its past; they serve not just as symbols of historical proprietorship over the site, but also appear to represent Taiwan’s very mature, forgiving, and self-confident acceptance of its complex history. Fort San Domingo, Fort Anthony, Fortress of the Red-Haired, Danshui Fort; call it what you will, the fort is undoubtedly a must-see celebration of Taiwan’s rich history.
By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei
Opening Times: Tuesday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm
Address: No.1, Alley 30, Zhong Zheng Road, Danshui, New Taipei City 新北市淡水區中正路30巷1號