There are only a handful of countries in the world that have survived to the modern day while having been coveted by so many major powers. Some famous ones like Poland springs to mind. Sandwiched between larger neighbors and even disappearing off the map for a good century, they’ve had a less than enviable history. Or Vietnam, a country that’s endured the invasion of the Chinese, Mongols, Chinese again, French and a more recent civil war. Also not the most enviable history.
But there’s a country that has slipped under the radar for all of these years and that is the island that goes by Taiwan. A country happened upon by the Portuguese and was subsequently named ‘Formosa’ for beautiful. An island that’s beautiful, rich in resources and so wonderfully located, is going to be coveted as much as Helen of Troy. And… we know how that turned out!
A Brief History
So here’s a very brief and unceremonious rundown of recent Taiwanese history. It starts with the colonization by the Dutch in the south of Taiwan in 1624 and by the Spanish in the north in 1626. This tenuous divide lasted until the Dutch kicked the Spanish off the island ~20 years later. Another 20 years after that, the Dutch picked a rather unwise fight with the Qing Dynasty in China and then lost Formosa to the Chinese. Things hardly got better with the Opium Wars in 1839. And then the Sino-French War in 1884 when the French took Keelung for a brief period of time. On the bright side Formosa stayed in the hands of the Chinese during that time.
Then that changed too when the Japanese arrived roughly a decade after the Sino-French War and took control of the island from the Chinese. They had a long and successful rule until… a World War changed that too. And alas, we arrive in the present day where the Republic of China has governed Taiwan since then.
That’s a lot of fighting…
That’s precisely what makes Taiwan, and particularly Keelung, so interesting! As unfortunate as it is, war can shape the world in record time and these changes can echo long after the last shot was fired. These scars still shape the land in and around the northern port city of Keelung since this city was a focal point throughout so much of Taiwanese history. This is a history that we can see through the many forts that dot the surrounding hills.
Rather than go through a comprehensive and chronological history of the battles and wars in the Keelung area, I’d rather take a visual tour and dive into the history of the many forts around Keelung. If you’re ever in Keelung, you can see the forts for yourself and take a walk through history. Even if you’re not the biggest history buff, I can still recommend a tour of the forts for one big reason:
The views. The stunning views of the rolling Taiwanese hills and the expansive coastline. Forts are made as hard points in defensive lines so they need to control as much of the surrounding area as possible. There’s no better way to do this than to build these forts at the highest possible hill. This means that your visit will bring you to wonderful trails that lead up to parks and forts. These trails will provide spectacular vistas of the countryside.
So let’s have a look at some of these forts!
Baimiweng is one of the livelier, more accessible and intact forts around Keelung and it’s one that I’d highly recommend. Bamiweng’s long history dates over 300 years, as it was first constructed by the Dutch, then became briefly occupied by the French and finally got renovated to its current state by the Japanese.
And what a renovation it was! Four circular gun seats with a diameter of 15 meters that housed state-of-the-art 203.5 mm Armstrong cannons. These babies could fire with a range of 8.8 km and probably make a ship sink quicker than that iceberg that got too friendly with the Titanic. A level under these gun emplacements are ammunition vaults, made with 60 centimeter thick concrete. Then there are ramps leading from the vaults to the cannons for easy resupply. Lastly, add an observation post, barracks, warehouses and toilets to round off all the military necessities.
Like the most of the other forts around Keelung, it offers lovely views of the water but the best part is that this fort has also been transformed into a park. Taiwanese children can be seen playing tag across from the fort, families are flying kites and a grandpa teaches his daughter badminton in the middle of the gun seat. There is a previous blogpost with a great visual guide of the whole Baimiweng Fort area. There’s also a temple and a cave nearby that can be visited to round out the afternoon.
Built back in 1908 during yet another war. This time it was the Sino-Russian War and it was based on a previous structure built back in the Ching Dynasty. Getting here is quite the treat as there’s a long paved hiking path that leads up the hill. It’s a common sight to see families or couples taking a leisurely hike up to Gangizihliao. This fort can be divided into a few different areas shown below.
The highest layer is the gun emplacements which housed six howitzers. The emplacements are still in good shape and are arranged in a straight line with the ammo depots below them on the second layer. Combined with an observation area, they provide a commanding view of the sea. A view that you can enjoy without worrying about the threat of lurking Russian battleships.
Sheliao East Fort
Located on the wonderful Heping Island, there are actually twoSheliao Forts. The western fort is still used to this day by the military and only the eastern fort is available for public viewing. This fortress is one of the older ones, being built in 1626, then modified by the Chinese and then again by the Japanese. It was designed to control the Keelung Islet and it makes for a unique sight as nature has begun to reclaim the location. While it’s admittedly one of the smaller forts around Keelung, its worth a visit since its easily accessible if you’re on a day-trip to Heping Island. You can definitely make a day out of Heping Island.
This is admittedly the smallest fort around Keelung and in some ways, the most mysterious. The best guess is that it was built between 1886 and 1894 during the Qing Dynasty. What we do know is that the fort had poor craftsmanship and was hastily built and that it took western influences during its construction. The clear example is with the bricked arches on the doorway.
What’s incredible is that the remaining structures would make it hard to believe that there was once a bustling military fortress here at all. Gone are the gun emplacements that are supposed to support the defense at Ershawan Fort. All that’s left is the living quarters, overrun with weeds and the reminder that even the scars of war will fade. It just needs ample time.
Shiqiuling holds a unique spot south of the city. It was built in 1884 as a key defensive point for the harbor and the fort was fought over during the Sino-French war where it became part of the French defences. This was also the site of fighting between the Qing and Japanese forces during the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 where the Japanese stormed the fort after intense fighting and then took control of the 5-inch coastal artillery guns.
What makes this fort worth visiting for you is the short though scenic trail that leads up to a well-lit park area. Shiqiuling’s accessible location south of the city and being situated on the highest hill of all the forts around Keelung, makes it a perfect spot to view the city lights.
Like some of the other forts, much of the military camp has been lost. What remains is the command post and a gun emplacement. It’s also unsure who constructed these buildings. The command post may have been built by the Qing Army or the French Army. Additionally the gun emplacement looks like it’s sized for howitzers, making it likely to be built by the Japanese or the Taiwanese National Army.
One of the more intact forts that can be reached from the heart of Keelung by a rather long but possible walk. It’s a fort that’s seen much action and has played a pivotal role in a couple of major wars. Read more about the history of Ershawan Fort.
In my opinion, Dawulun Fort is the cream of the crop. The crème de la crème. The biggest gun in the armory so to speak.
And why? A quick google search will show that it’s located a little remotely but that’s what makes it so magnificent. Dawulun boasts a location in the middle of the scenic rolling Taiwanese hills far away from any cities that would threaten to mar the picturesque views. Dawulun is close to Lover’s Lake, numerous walking trails and is within a good hike to the coast and the beach. A visit here provides a better part of a day’s worth of outdoor activities beyond the fort itself.
Why it’s unique
The fort was constructed during the Qing Dynasty. The fort contained garrisons during the Opium War and the Sino-French War 44 years after that. Like Baimiweng Fort, it probably reached its current state through renovations by the Japanese. Unlike many of the other forts around Keelung which were created to safeguard the coast, Dawulun fort was constructed to defend Keelung Harbor from the west. Therefore, it housed different weapons were from the other fortresses. This fortress can be divided into three areas: the outer perimeter, the inner perimeter and the camp area.
The camp area is unique in that they’ve constructed cave barracks for extra protection. The cave barracks are particularly impressive. They’re 49 meters wide with varying depths and the walls are made of a layer of brick and covered by a layer of concrete. The cave barracks only have one entry which normally poses a problem with ventilation due to Keelung’s humid climate. However, the builders left a vent hole in the rear end of the cave that would be surrounded by wet soil to create convection that would vent the cave. Around the camp area were some outdoor barracks if there were additional troops. These were complete with bunk beds, kitchens and toilets. Adjacent to the camp is a water storage area that drains rainwater into the basin. It uses sedimentation and filtration to produce clean drinking water.
The outer perimeter surrounds the whole fort along the east, north and south. This perimeter is made of stone walls and foxholes designed to repel any infantry assault. The inner perimeter has a turret area for up to four guns, three ammunition depots and and observatory. The turrets in this area was designed to repel enemy ships as well as amphibious troop landings.
In a nutshell
While all these forts offer a fantastic tour of history and a fun walk through nature, they’re admittedly hard to get to. If you have an International Drivers Permit, then visiting all the forts around Keelung will be a lot easier. Otherwise, you’re limited to slow buses or taxis which can slowly take a toll on your budget. One of the easiest ways is to join a private tour with Keelung for a Walk! They’ll show you the forts firsthand and provide an even more in-depth historical walk-through.
2.劉敏耀著 . 基隆砲臺手冊 . 基市文化 , 1989.