The Personnel Files

'Tidewaiter' Tait

The Takao


Archibald Tait and his beloved parrot, Takao 1912

     Archibald Phineas Tait, better known as 'Tidewaiter Tait', was born in Hartlepool, England on 22 May 1845 and died in Takao, Formosa on 19 October 1930. Tidewaiter Tait is generally considered to have been the true-life inspiration for the main character, Grosely, in W. Somerset Maugham's story 'The Mirage', which was set in Haiphong in French Indo-China. Although Maugham had passed through Tonkin in 1924, Tait would have been long gone, and Maugham must have learnt the story from French officials.
     Tait was born into a family that profited greatly from the new railway that linked the port of West Hartlepool to the Durham coalfields. The entrepreneurial family was involved in the import of Baltic timber and a relative, James Tait, was later to become famous as the founder of Tait & Co in Amoy (Xiamen) in Fujian, China, which was a dominant force in the 'coolie trade'. This trade in 'indentured' labourers replaced the slave trade and ran until 1920.

Hartlepool Baltic timber docks in 1872

     The young Tait won a scholarship to Sir Alfred Moyes' Grammar School in Durham in 1858. However, for unknown reasons, Tait abandonned his studies and ran away to sea as a cabin boy two years later.

     At first working on the Baltic boats, Tait soon found his way to Amoy, China, where he joined Messrs Tait & Company. By 1866 he had worked his way up to be a Third Officer on one of his relative's boats, called 'South Wind', that ran between Havana and Amoy. 

     In February 1867, the boat was caught in sudden storm and floundered on the sandbanks off the coast of (Formosa) Taiwan.

     The helpless ship was driven into the notorious shallows laying off the wreckers' village of Po-te-chui (today's Tung-shih in Chai-yi County) near the mouth of the Peikang River.

     Tait and two of the crew escaped from the ship as it was being boarded by the Po-te-chui wreckers. After a day and a half they managed to make their way to Takao (today's Kaohsiung), whereupon they reported the case to the British Acting-Consul, Mr Neil MacPhail. 

     The following day Tait and Mr William Pickering, a Scotsman fluent in Hokkien, set off to Po-te-chui to claim the cargoes. A story then emerged from Pickering's interviews with the crew and wreckers that Tait had apparently held the captain at pistol point and ordered the release of all the coolies, before abandonning ship. Although the ship itself was recovered almost intact, the captain had perished in the assault and the human cargo was gone. Tait was obliged to remain in Formosa.

1870 photograph of Takao

     Tait was now unable to return to the mainland Chinese Treaty ports lest he face charges of mutiny and more. Fortunately, Pickering sympathised with his plight and found him a job as a tidewaiter for the Chinese Maritime Customs in Takao on the more free-wheeling Formosa.

     Tait prospered in this job and, by 1882, had amassed a considerable fortune by trading and abstinence. At that time the trade in opium, camphor and 'permits' offered plentiful opportunities for the sober man.

     Tait decided that he had made his fortune. In the same year he embarked upon a clipper bound for Liverpool, England. 

     However, the ship was detained in the French port of Haiphong under suspicion of contraband, and when the ship sailed again in January 1883, Tait was not on board. He had decided to remain in Haiphong.

 Canal at Haiphong, ca. 1900

     Tait remained in Haiphong from1883 until 1889. The reasons given for his remaining in Indo-China are several. As related by Maugham, Tait had relaxed his self-discipline, becoming not only beguiled by a young Tonkinese girl but also by the insidious pleasures of opium, or 'the pipe'. However, there is another explanation which is more intriguing. The French in the 1880s were locked in a struggle with the British for influence in the area between India and China. A trade route into south-western China was a prized goal for both countries. There is evidence to suggest that Tait was involved in a scheme to assess the navigability of the Red River to link by rail to Kunming in Yunnan, China.
     In 1889 Tait returned to Takao to take up the position of Tide Surveyor in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. This office included residence at the Harbour Master's house, which can be partially seen, with a telegraph antenna, at the extreme left of the 1870 picture of Takao above.
     Tait was no longer interested in returning to England and was determined to use his knowledge and saved funds to a worthwhile end.

     Tait married Li Su-ling, a daughter of Li Chang , the comprador of Elles & Co, in 1892. Although interracial marriage was almost unknown at this time, the arrangement was suitable for both Tait and Li Chang. Tait was then aged about 48 and had reasonable riches as a result of shrewd investments in US railway bonds and the nascent celluloid industry.

Tait and Li Su-ling, Takao 1894

     In 1895 the Japanese Imperial Army landed on Taiwan to take control of the island under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Although there were disturbances around the island, the Formosan merchant class was welcoming of the new rulers.

 Indeed Tait was even allowed to remain in the old Harbour Master's house, and worked with Japanese engineers to expand the development of the port which had commenced under the last Ching Governor, Liu Ming-chuan.

     In 1905, after the massive new Shin-hama (' Hamasen') project (see plan on left) was completed,  Tait was allowed to rebuild the old house at Shosen (Shao-chuan-tou) in his own name.

     'Tidewaiter' Tait's house still stands today and is shown below in a 2000 photograph taken from the old British Consulate.

     Tait's great grand-daughter was reportedly still living in Taiwan in 2002.

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