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Descendant of British diplomat Swinhoe travels back in time

2019/01/23 16:35:49

Christopher Swinhoe-Standen (right) / File photo (photo courtesy of Kaohsiung City government's Bureau of Cultural Affairs)

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

For biology lovers in Taiwan, Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877) is arguably the most famous name in the island's history, as one can literally find his name in hundreds of indigenous animals, birds and insects.

There's Odorrana swinhoana, a species of frog, Nesiohelix swinhoei, a kind of land snail, and Rusa unicolor swinhoei, the Formosan sambar deer, to name just a few.

All told a staggering 227 species of birds, nearly 40 species of mammals, 246 species of plants, over 200 species of terrestrial snails and freshwater malacofauna, plus over 400 species of insects, were named or systematically categorized by Swinhoe, according to Taiwan's National Museum of Natural Science.

It's a legacy that has carved out a special place for Taiwan in the world's biological history.

To Christopher Swinhoe-Standen, the name Swinhoe has an even deeper meaning because he is Swinhoe's "first cousin four-times removed," and he recently concluded a trip to Taiwan in search of his ancestor's footprints.

Speaking to CNA in a phone interview Monday, the 58-year-old Swinhoe-Standen said that while he never came across Swinhoe's name in U.K. textbooks, he grew up hearing the story of his ancestor from his mother, the family's historian.

Among the stories his mother told him were those involving Swinhoe's adventures in Asia, where he mostly lived from 1855 to 1875.

Swinhoe-Standen was hoping to learn more about those adventures in Taiwan, and clarify the scattered and limited impressions he had from "childhood bed-time stories" and "Wikipedia pages."

His five-day trip in Taipei and Kaohsiung gave him a broader picture of the magnitude of his ancestor's achievements, Swinhoe-Standen said.

"To have done such a volume of work as a naturalist alongside his role as consul at such a young age showed him to have been quite a remarkable person," he said.

"It was a pleasant surprise to find that Swinhoe appears so prominently in textbooks in Taiwan."

Rich history

According to documents, Swinhoe was born in the British colony of Kolkata, India. He showed an interest in zoology while in school in England and contributed a collection of birds, bird nests and eggs to the British Museum.

After passing an examination for the British consular service in 1854, he left for Hong Kong to work and learn the Chinese language.

In 1856, he made his first trip to Taiwan, observing and collecting samples around northern Hsinchu County.

He circumnavigated Taiwan on board the British ship Inflexible in 1858, before taking up the post as British vice-consul in Taiwan in 1861 and later as consul in 1865 before leaving for China in 1866.

That meant Swinhoe detailed records of the island's natural and cultural conditions in the mid-19th century and articles on Taiwan's mammals and birds were based on observations over only a 10-year period, part of which he spent engaged in diplomatic duties.

Late British zoologist P. L. Sclater described Swinhoe as "one of the most industrious and successful exploring naturalists that have ever lived."

Later, U.K. naturalist A. R. Wallace wrote "due to Mr. Swinhoe's own exertions...there is probably no part of the world (if we except Europe, North America, and British India) of whose warm-blooded vertebrates we possess fuller or more accurate knowledge than we do of the coast districts of China and its islands."

Swinhoe-Standen called his ancestor an "extraordinary individual," praising him for his determination to explore the natural wonders of Taiwan and many other parts of the region and even sending many of these specimens back to the U.K. to be carefully preserved.

"Back then it was very difficult to get around and it was an extraordinary achievement itself just to send these specimens back to the U.K.," he said.

Swinhoe-Standen's journey of exploration in Taiwan first took him to the National Taiwan Museum in Taipei to learn more about Robert Swinhoe's time in Taiwan.

He then traveled to Kaohsiung to visit the site of the former British Consulate where his ancestor was stationed.

From the consulate, Swinhoe-Standen made his way to a wax figure of Swinhoe on a nearby trail that symbolized his ancestor's biological research, including into macaques and true frogs.

Upon his return home to England, Swinhoe-Standen happily showed his 91-year-old mother the news reports covering his Taiwan tour.

"She was really pleased about these reports, and I also showed her the photographs we took in Taipei and Kaohsiung," he said.

For Swinhoe-Standen, who makes his living as a flight instructor west of London, the trip was extremely rewarding.

It was interesting, he said, "how a small beginning turned out to be something extraordinary."

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