In 1882, the small Oxford College was established in the Tamsui suburbs of Taipei. Founded by one Rev. Dr. George Leslie Mackay, it was named after Canada’s Oxford County in the province of Ontario. The residents of this small Canadian municipality contributed generously to helping Taiwan establish its first modern institution of higher education.
Today, the college is part of Tamsui’s Christian Aletheia University.
Just who was this Reverend Doctor?
Nicknamed “Black Beard” by the Taiwanese, Mackay was a Canadian Presbyterian missionary whose work and compassion touched countless Taiwanese lives. “Mackay” is a household name on the island and the Taiwanese associate it with the provision of medical care, hospitals and the Christian faith.
Rendered in the Taiwanese language as Ma‑kai (Mǎjiē in Mandarin), the surname “Mackay” has been adopted in its shortened form Kai by a number of devout indigenous Taiwanese Christian clans who trace their own conversions back to Mackay’s mission.
Mackay studied for a time at Knox College (today part of the University of Toronto) before completing his theological training at the Princeton Seminary in the US. In 1871, the Canadian Presbyterian Mission sent Mackay to proselytize in the Far East. He settled in what was then a small and remote island outpost of the Manchu-Chinese Qing Empire.
Known at the time as Formosa, the island of Taiwan had been home to small Christian communities since the days of Dutch colonial rule in the early 1600s.
Under his guidance, Mackay’s Presbyterian Christian congregation grew steadily in Taiwan and would go on to become a small but resilient force for freedom and democracy on the island. Today, the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church is the leading Protestant denomination on the island and continues to be a major proponent for the preservation of the Taiwanese language, identity, liberty and unique heritage.
During his time in Taiwan, Mackay became fluent in the Taiwanese language, which enabled him to communicate directly with the Taiwanese people and to build a new community for Taiwanese converts.
In 1878, Mackay married Minnie Tiu, a Taiwanese woman, who faithfully supported her husband’s mission. Despite initial disapproval of intermarriage from both natives and Westerners, the match was ultimately accepted and Minnie came to be a prominent figure in her own right in Taiwan’s nascent Presbyterian Church.
By the late 1880s, Mackay and his family had established 16 chapels and had welcomed over 500 Taiwanese natives to the Christian fold.
Beyond the Church, Mackay also successfully opened clinics that provided basic medical and dental care to the Taiwanese. Notably, today’s Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei is a major Taiwanese medical institution that traces its origins directly to the old Mackay clinic in Tamsui.
Among Mackay’s other contributions in his three decades in Taiwan were the prolific writings he left behind.
His works include a careful anthropological study of Taiwan’s languages, customs, and ethnic groups titled From Far Formosa: The Island, Its People and Missions. A man truly ahead of his time, Mackay also wrote extensively in support of gender and racial equality.
O Formosa, so far away and so beautiful.My Final Resting Place
You are the love of my life. I love you all, each and every one of you, regardless of your origin and the past. To serve you with the only Good News I know. Here is my life for you, a thousand times and more…
Rev. Dr. George Leslie Mackay
In 1901, George Leslie Mackay passed away at the age of 57 after a battle with cancer. A poem titled My Final Resting Place written by Mackay shortly before his death captured the intense fondness he harboured for his adoptive home—Taiwan.
Mackay was buried near Taipei in the Mackay family cemetery.
His son, George William Mackay travelled to Canada and the United States to complete his own theological training before returning to Taiwan to carry on his father’s work—guiding numerous Taiwanese faithfuls through the turbulent years of Japanese rule (1895–1945) and beyond.
Some members of the Mackay family returned to Canada to serve in the Canadian Forces during the World Wars. The descendants of Rev. Dr. George Leslie Mackay are still alive and well today in both Canada and Taiwan.