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Why is there a French cemetery in Keelung?

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Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, … Taiwan is known for the numerous country that either tread its ground and even battled it. France is one of them. Today, there still is a place to witness the vestiges of this historical conflict: Keelung French cemetery.

The war behind Keelung French cemetery

The corpses buried in the cemetery belong to the French soldiers who fought during the Sino-French war (1881-1885). At this time, Taiwan was part of the Qing dynasty. Fueled by colonial ambitious, France won several battles and signed treaties with Vietnam. French troops eventually colonised and established a protectorate in Tonkin, with the ultimate goal to develop trade with the Chinese neighbor.

The Emperor of Annam urged his ally, the Qing dynasty, to intervene, while France tried to convince them to stop supporting Vietnam. Diplomatic discussions between France and the Qing all failed, and war once again erupted.

Led by one of its officers, Admiral Amédée Courbet (1827-1885), French army tried to occupy Taiwan and bombarded Keelung mid-1884 to put pressure on China. Unable to go further because of the island topography, they settled here and opted for a blockade – rather ineffective – bombarding the city of Tamsui too. When French reinforcement finally arrived in January 1885, they attempted once again to expand their occupation of the island and attacked the surrounding forts.

Progress was slow as Liu Mingchuan troops resisted, and along the dead in battle, a lot suffered and died from typhoid and cholera. A part of the French fleet moved to Penghu late March 1885 to try to control the island too. Eventually, France stepped down for tactical reasons to focus on Tonkin battle.

Keelung campaign was criticised even by the admiral that led it himself, Amédée Courbet. It is said that him and Liu Mingchuan, that resisted against the French and is known as a hero, paid each other mutual respect for their intelligence and strategy.

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The alleys of Keelung French cemetery, that appears more like a small park today

What remains of Keelung French cemetery today?

Today, the cemetery looks more like a small park, if it wasn’t for the war memorial that occupy the area. The shape of the monuments is similar to the war memorial you can find in France too. You can observe the tombs of Dert, the purser of the French Navy, and of Lieutenant Johenne, another officer of the French Navy. Both were initially inhumed at Makung, in Penghu. They were later transferred to the cemetery of Keelung during its 1954 renovations, along the other tombs that laid in Makung.

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Lieutenant Louis Johenne tumb. He was previously inhumed in Makung (Penghu) and was transferred in Keelung during the 1954 renovations.

700 French soldiers are since inhumed there, but you can’t find as many gravestones: many were washed away by the erosion, some are still there but damaged. In fact, the cemetery was initially located way more in the north, by the seaside, and was relocated here in 1909 by the Japanese, at French request. When France broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1964 by recognizing China, the cemetery closed and was only reopened in 1999, when it was declared municipal monument.

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A commemorative plaque in Keelung French cemetery

 

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How to go to the Keelung French cemetery?

It is pretty easy to go there from the center of Keelung. You have the choice between different buses, depending on where you’ll go from:

  • 101 and no. 103 to Badouzi (八斗子)
  • 104 to Shen-Mei Elementary School
  • Or no. 791 to Fulong (福隆).

Your stop is Zhongzheng District Administration Building. From there, just cross the road and turn left. Continue up the street and pass the building before arriving at what looks more like a small park on your right. You will see an arch at the entrance, with a plate indicating “Cimetière français de Kilung”.

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The entrance of Keelung French cemetery forms an arch with a plaque in Chinese on its left side and another in French on the other side

 

Sources:

  • Historia, “Pékin – Taïwan. La guerre des deux Chines. 1661 – 2022” [Beijing – Taiwan. The two China war. 1661 – 2022], no. 22, november 2022
  • Ministère des Armées [French Ministry of Army], “French Military Cemetery in Keelung”. Website link 

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Follow Angelina:
Angelina comes from a small village in France. After graduating in cross-cultural studies, translation and interpreting, she took a break from her job in international communication to visit Taiwan for 6 months, discovering its people, culture, history and languages.

  1. Dert

    Merci pour votre commentaire de mémoire….
    Vous auriez pu aussi mentionner que l’amiral Courbet y est mort du choléra, 3 jours après mon arrière grand père
    Cordialement
    François DERT

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