Lest We Forget: How the 1930 Musha Incident Reveals the Hidden Nature of the Canada-Taiwan Relationship

Lest We Forget: How the 1930 Musha Incident Reveals the Hidden Nature of the Canada-Taiwan Relationship

October 27 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Musha Incident” – a Taiwanese historical trauma unknown to most Canadians. Yet, Musha says much to Canada-Taiwan relations. A defining characteristic of Taiwan is that, despite Chinese settlement since the 17th century, over half the island remained under exclusive jurisdiction of Austronesian-speaking indigenous peoples until the early 20th century. Only Japan, which administered Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, brought those stateless peoples into a modern state. That history reveals surprising links between Taiwan and Canada, as both countries emerged from a process of indigenous expropriation. 

Japan showcased Musha, a Seediq community in mountainous Nantou, as proof of successful colonial policies. Musha had the trappings of a modern colony: electricity, telegraphs and telephones, a post office, stores, and a thriving timber industry. Seediq women wore kimonos. Two Seediq men were awarded for their service as Japanese policemen. Seediq children learned Japanese and baseball.

Beginning in 1906, the Seediq around Musha, one autarkic band at a time, accepted Japanese rule through ceremonies that somewhat resembled Canada’s treaty-making processes. In 1911, the government organized a trip to Japan for indigenous chiefs, aiming to impress upon them the benefits of joining industrial society. Seediq Mona Ludaw was instead horrified by the economic gap between the colonial centre and periphery. He realized that the Japanese were destroying his peoples’ forests to enrichen themselves. On October 27, 1930, he led 300 warriors to attack a sporting event at the school just as participants began singing the national anthem. 134 Japanese, women and children as well as police officers and soldiers, were murdered. The Toronto Globe reported: “Savage Formosans Murder Japanese, Mutilating Bodies.” 

The Japanese reprisal was immediate and brutal. Desperate to dominate the mountains inhabited by rebellious bands, the military dropped chemical bombs from airplanes on people armed with muskets, spears, and bows and arrows. (This violated the Geneva Poisonous Gas Treaty, which Japan signed in 1925 see Tu 2011). After killing 644 people out of a population of 1236, the Japanese placed the survivors in detention camps, where more were murdered. The Japanese settled the remaining 298 survivors on a small riverine island under strict military surveillance. To prevent the Seediq from returning to their homelands, the Japanese placed other indigenous groups on their original lands. 

This is where Canada enters the story. Part of Japan’s strategy to domesticate indigenous populations was to invite to Taiwan the same institutions that ran residential schools in Canada. On July 29, 1931, the faithful at Toronto’s Knox Presbyterian Church bid farewell to Rev. George W. Mackay and other missionaries. Rev. Mackay expressed joy that Japan finally permitted the church to enter tribal areas. The Globe reported: “Mission Workers to Preach Gospel to Head Hunters.” The lasting impact is that nearly all of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples converted to Christianity. Every Seediq village hosts a Presbyterian congregation. The irony is that these communities had a Canadian presence long before any Chinese authority ever arrived. Seediq people value their long-standing relationship with Canadians, even as most Canadians have never even heard of the Seediq. 

This history has four implications:

  • The legacy of indigenous jurisdiction over 50% of Taiwan in spite of Chinese settlement on adjacent plains, the incorporation of indigenous peoples into a modern state under Japanese tutelage, and the tenacity in which indigenous activists claim sovereignty until today all reveal one fact. China’s assertion that Taiwan was always part of China is little more than irredentist fantasy. 
  • Canada and Taiwan both emerged from settler colonialism. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain established a fortress at what is now Québec City, to be followed by French traders and later English settlers.  In 1624, the Dutch East India Company established a fortress at what is now Tainan, to be followed by Chinese settlers. In 1662, the Dutch were evicted by Chinese-Japanese Koxinga and the Chinese started colonization in earnest. In both cases, settlers encountered indigenous peoples in processes of violent expropriation, but also of alliances and intermarriage. The result is that the dominant groups in Taiwan are “Chinese” only in the sense that Canadians are “French” or “English.” These labels reflect historical and linguistic entanglements, but need not determine national identity. Neither Canada nor Taiwan are merely extensions of the countries that exported settlers from overseas. 

The long-standing relationship between Canada and Taiwan is now endangered by a belligerent China that threatens to annex Taiwan by military force.

  • Canada and Taiwan enjoy an intergenerational relationship. Although many Canadians would rather forget the missionization history, Canadians with the Urban-Rural Mission (URM) have more recently trained progressive social activists. In action that foreshadows woke political movements of today, URM-trained activists tore down a statue of 18th century Confucian administrator Wu Feng in Chiayi in 1988. Wu Feng, once revered for supposedly bringing civilization to head-hunting tribespeople, is now despised as a symbol of settler colonialism and racism. Canada and Taiwan remain linked through church networks. 
  • Canada and Taiwan both seek reconciliation between the state and indigenous peoples. Canada, following Prime Minister’s Stephen Harper’s apology to First Nations, had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2008 to 2015. Taiwan, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 apology, established the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee. As both countries commit to similar goals of reconciliation, there are new possibilities for indigenous peoples to establish their own nation-to-nation diplomacy, a right enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

The long-standing relationship between Canada and Taiwan is now endangered by a belligerent China that threatens to annex Taiwan by military force. That would be a tragedy on a much larger scale than the Musha Incident. In 1930, Taiwan had a population of 4.6 million, including nearly 200,000 indigenous people, and Japan found them difficult to rule. Taiwan’s 25 million people are even less likely to acquiesce quickly to China; and they would probably get international assistance if China invaded. Learning lessons from the holocaust of Musha, China should carefully consider the high risks of invading Taiwan. And, the rest of the world must use all of its diplomatic and other resources to prevent that from happening.  

Photo Caption: A Japanese memorial photo of the 2nd Musha Incident, in which the Japanese military incited hostile groups to murder Seediq rebel groups held in detention (November 4, 1930). 

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