Edward Harrison Taylor; The Pioneering Mindanao Herpetologist (and a Spy!)


Reading recently through some older scientific journals on Mindanao fauna I kept seeing citations for Taylor (1934). This it turns out is Philippine Land Mammals: a monograph published in Manila by the Bureau of Science.



While an invaluable early scientific document of Philippine mammal species and their distribution, it’s full of things like cranial measurements of rats and bats and is rather dry reading. This monograph however led me to an absolute gem of a book by the same author published in 1975: Edward H. Taylor: Recollections of an Herpotologist. An anecdotal account of his early career and life in the Philippines, it’s a quick, witty, and colorful read indeed.


He moves quickly through his younger years collecting wildlife but does relate the opportunity he had to show Teddy Roosevelt, a house guest, his prized snake collection during dinner one evening.

Having recently graduated from the University of Kansas, Ed Taylor seems to have stumbled across an advertisement in his local post office to join the Civil Service in the far-off Philippines. He shortly found himself in 1912 on a boat from San Francisco to Manila via Hawaii (where he met the elderly Queen Lil) and Japan (where he discovered an oriental copperhead snake in a jar of alcohol in a Nagasaki apothecary shop).

Upon arrival in the Philippines, Taylor was appointed as a school teacher in Bunawan, then a small village of the indigenous Manobo people in the province of Agusan in Mindanao. Bunawan has been more recently in the headlines for the massive 1,075 kg saltwater crocodile Lolong captured there in 2011 and which sadly died in captivity in 2013. Today it’s not a difficult journey but Ed Taylor had to make the trip from Butuan to Bunawan on a large purpose-built bamboo raft.

“The school was to be built in Bunawan and the curriculum was to be chiefly baseball and corn-growing.”

E.H. Taylor was to be remarkably successful over the next two years in indoctrinating the local Manobo schoolboys in both of these wholesome Midwestern pursuits.

“In the late afternoon we played baseball. I scarcely need say this was not a regulation game of ball. A temporary bat was made from a branch, and the ball, also temporary, was fashioned from the fibers of the abaca plant,which were wrapped about a small stone and covered with strips of hide. My players were rookies. Most could throw rather well, but they would have done better with the javelin, having already had considerable experience in throwing spears. Later on, we did acquire a baseball and bat from Manila.”

Mindanao Distribution of Races, 1900

Despite the threats of raiding war parties of head hunters, Taylor wasn’t deterred from recruiting additional pupils from sometimes hostile villages in the area and soon construction of his new school was under way.



His first recruiting trip was however delayed by a green dove and a priestess:

“Antonio awakened me at dawn and told me we could not start the water journey.When I inquired what the trouble was he said,”Manobo grumetes no go water journey. Limocon talk,no go.Bibilan say no go.”The green dove had forbidden it and the priestess had relayed the message. After my breakfast of millet, jackfruit, and coffee I crossed the river to town to find out why we were not to make the journey.It was as Antonio had said, the limocon had announced to the bibilan that nobody could go on the water journey that day and all of my own efforts to convince the grumetes to the contrary availed nothing. We would go on the following day. If we went today perhaps Mandalingan, their god,would make us die. It would seem that Mandalingan and his limocon were endeavoring to thwart my efforts.”

This limocon ‘green dove’ here was undoubtedly the emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) and it’s interesting to note I’ve encountered superstitions related to this dove and travel plans on Mindanao just over a hundred years later!

Wikipedia image of the emerald dove

A committed herpetologist and admittedly not an ornithologist by training or interest, Taylor always comes across as a bit vexed by the bird life of the Philippine archipelago. Here’s his take on the (to me) majestic hornbills of Mindanao:

“Occasionally the great ugly callaos (hornbills) were heard as they flapped noisily from tree to tree, squalling their unpleasant call in voices that make the crow’s seem musical by comparison.”

Speaking of crows, some corvids which he identifies as ravens were to prove a nuisance and hindrance to corn cultivation at his new school:

“On Sunday I took my usual jaunt into the forest. Three days later the boys reported that the waks were stealing the corn. When we visited the field a large flock of ravens rose and flew to the other side. We drove them away, but the next morning at dawn they congregated again and were following the rows of seed. The birds had been clever enough to discern the exact places to find the planted grains. Theboys said theywould make traps,and a large number were put in the field. But the ravens were smart birds, and not one was caught. Finally, we placed a series of guards in the field for two-hour periods during the day to keep the birds away,and all day long they could be heard scolding from the forest trees bordering the cornfield.”

The avian plague on Taylor’s and his students prized white corn crop wasn’t over yet though. The abukay, the Philippine cockatoo, would make an appearance later in the story:

“The corn grew superbly, all but hiding the unsightly stumps.The ears began to grow fat. One morning shortly after dawn the reappeared flocks of cockatoos (Cacatua), great white members of the parrot family, each with a large greenish-yellow crest on the top of the head, scolding and shrieking their delight. They alighted on the corn and began tearing open the ears to get at the soft, luscious grain full of milk. The boys and I ran to the field and drove them away, but more and more of the birds arrived. Men were stationed in every part of the field, and with shouts and sticks the cockatoos were scattered.”

Scientific collecting, especially of snakes, was never far from his heart though and during  interludes in establishing his school and its farm he was able to explore large swaths of uninhabited territory:

“I began to take short jaunts into the great forests surrounding the school farm. The forests spread out to the east and north for thirty to forty kilometers in each direction, and in this territory there was not a  single known human inhabitant. Presumably the area was taboo and no one could, or at least no one would, live there.

When I tried to find out why, nobody seemed quite certain. It may have been that in the past the blackwater fever or smallpox had killed any inhabitants,but the people at Bunawan just shrugged their shoulders and said many gods and devils lived there. And it was impossible for me to tell whether the forest had ever been cleared. At any rate I foresaw being able to explore this region of three-hundred square miles without the risk of a chance encounter with a headhunter; and I had regained enough of my arrogance to think I could easily outwit the gods and devils.

One or two of the local Manobo boys I had chosen for the school were allowed to accompany me to carry my specimen sacks and a bolo, to help me turn over logs, and what was more important, to warn me of traps. They brought along the weapons, blowguns or a bow and arrow or, perhaps, only a spear. At first they did not like the idea of my catching serpents; they would run away each time I caught one and I would have to coax and plead to get them back.”

At this point in the narrative we see Taylor starting to report to the governor in Butuan on the disposition of hostile chieftains and taking part in a conference on their ‘pacification’. He also notes the presence of Japanese on the waterways of Mindanao who seemed to be on scouting missions:

“I was aware of the outside world only through newspapers from the United States, which told of the newly elected president, the Democrat named Woodrow Wilson, of the unrest in Europe, and oft he Japanese preparation for war. There were Japanese in the Mindanao territory whose presence was unexplained and I occasionally saw them passing up and down the river. I had written to the governor of their activity,as it was obviously a “spying out of the land,” and their reports were subsequently intercepted by Manila.”

Then, at what seems to be his great surprise and poorly-disguised chagrin, he’s fired from his position by the “Great White Father” who must only have been Dean Worcester, the then Secretary of the Interior.

Worcester had long experience in the Philippines before becoming Secretary, having first arrived in 1887 on a scientific research trip and ending up his career cattle farming in Bukidnon and Malaybalay until his death in Manila in 1924. His was not a career without controversy and seemingly Taylor the herpetologist was more than pleased when Worcester got fired in turn from his government post.

Worcester’s account of the Philippines and his years there can be found in three books, most notably:


The Philippines Past and Present

But getting back to our herpetologist/school teacher/spy E.H. Taylor:

After his abrupt sacking in Mindanao, he furthered his education back in Kansas, got married, got promoted and worked and researched on the Philippine island of Negros before becoming Chief of Fisheries for the colonial government on the archipelago. In this capacity he was supplied his own craft to carry out his duties between looking for reptiles, locating minerals for the war effort, investigating suspicious deaths, interacting with Swedish intelligence and a wayward baron on the run. He was later to pose as a typhoid researcher with the Red Cross in Siberia after the Russian revolution while collecting intelligence there. The Second World War had him working for the OSS teaching jungle survival to Allied personnel in the staging area of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There’s also some indication that that war also found him back in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, but in what exact capacity it remains unclear.

Taylor was to have a long and storied career in herpetology as both a professor and field researcher all the way up to the 1960’s in Thailand. Oddly this memoir ends somewhat abruptly with the conclusion of his Philippine years but those early years seem to have always have held a special place in his heart. Despite the cholera, dengue fever, typhoons, earthquakes and head hunters Taylor always maintained a great affection for the Philippines.

Anyone with an interest in Mindanao, Philippine natural history, the American colonial era, or the indigenous people of the country will find much to like in this charming and vivid memoir of a time gone by. Edward H. Taylor: Recollection of an Herpetologist can be downloaded from the link above and is highly recommended.

Washington: National Geographic Magazine, 1902









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