Leaving Taiwan, Economics, the Dutch VOC and the Rest of the Story

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Sunday August 07, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

What made the Dutch East India Company (VOC) leave Taiwan? Ask any Taiwanese school boy versed in his history and he will tell you that Zheng Cheng-gong (aka Koxinga and son of Zheng Zhi-long/Iquan) fleeing the Manchu takeover of China came to Taiwan with a force of some 25,000 men in 1661. After a nine month siege, he captured Fort Zeelandia (Anping) and thus forced the Dutch out of Taiwan. All well and good, but that rendering is not entirely accurate. True, Koxinga, who died that same year, did capture Fort Zeelandia in 1662, and true the Dutch left. But few books continue on and relate how the Dutch returned in 1664 and took Keelung. Once there they re-built the former Spanish Fort San Salvador, named it Fort Noord Holland and set up shop in hopes of establishing trade with the Manchu Qing. Ironically, it would be that same Manchu Qing government in Beijing and not Zheng's successors that would be responsible for making the Dutch decide to leave Taiwan for good in 1668. The Dutch side of how all that happened is brought out in greater detail in two recent books published in late 2010.

Those two books 1) "The Formosan Encounter: Notes on Formosa's Aboriginal Society, a Selection of Documents from Dutch Archival Sources Vol. IV 1," and 2) "A Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company VII: East Asia, Burma to Japan & Supplement" are the final volumes of two corresponding series. Both draw heavily from Dutch archive materials.

In reading these two works, one needs view the VOC as fundamentally a multi-national corporation involved primarily in mercantile trade. The VOC began with the initial grant from the then Netherlands of a 21 year monopoly on the spice trade and grew from there. It had powers for waging war and levying taxes and would employ over a million people in its lifespan (1602--1800) as well as ship and raid untold tonnage of goods before going bankrupt. Its very founding came about in response to the trade competition of the British East India Company (founded two years earlier) and though the VOC even had altruistic missionaries in its service it was at heart a profit-driven company answerable in the end to its stockholders.

With the above perspective, the details of the two volumes become clearer. The lucrative spice trade first brought this company to Asia; once there, many other venues of trade including silk from China opened up. The company's search for a base from which to do the Chinese silk trade brought the VOC to Taiwan. Ideally, the Dutch had of course hoped to displace the Portuguese in Macau. They tried several times and failed. Undaunted after their last attempt in 1623, they sought to set up a base for trade from Penghu (the Pescadores). Ming China did not want the Dutch that close and after a brief skirmish a treaty was made whereby the Dutch could colonize Taiwan (1624) and trade from that distance.

Fast forward past the Dutch driving the Spanish from Taiwan in 1642 to Koxinga's taking Fort Zeelandia in 1662. The Dutch still needed Chinese silk to exchange for goods and silver in Japan. Thus in the following years (1662--65), they participated in and aided the Qing in several sea battles with the fleets of Zheng's followers and even once captured Amoy (Xiamen). While these battles did not have decisive outcomes, they did force Zheng Jing, Koxinga's son, to abandon any hopes he had had of carrying out his deceased father's dream to take the Philippines. That dream had already by suspicion of collaboration cost the lives of thousands of Chinese living and trading in the environs of Manila.

"The Formosan Encounter Vol IV" sheds more light on the challenges facing the Dutch VOC as they re-took Keelung and brought back soldiers who had fled to Dejima Island (Nagasaki Bay) when Koxinga took Anping. The various documents read like business reports and assessments; the Dutch gather information, seek what happened to Dutch prisoners of 1661--1662, and try to pacify the indigenous tribes around Keelung. In 1666, Zheng's forces attack to dislodge the Dutch but fail. In turn however, the Dutch try but do not have enough manpower to re-take nearby Tamsui. A further problem is that the indigenous people are not as cooperative as they were in the south. Ultimately, however the crucial issue is that trade via the coast of Fujian is not developing. Hopes are finally pinned on a delegation sent to the Kangxi Emperor in Beijing in 1667-68 to get trade flowing from China. It would fail.

The second work, "A Comprehensive Atlas, Vol. VII" is a massive work in size as well as content, measuring and weighing approximately 12 kg. with pages 56 cm by 40 cm. It is primarily maps but these visuals provide a rich supplement to the Formosan Encounter volume. If one is tempted to think that the Dutch retaking of Keelung and establishing Fort Noord Holland was a whimsical, haphazard venture, the amount and number of detailed maps of the area from that period demonstrate that this was a serious affair. The supplemental text in this work, informs on the Dutch efforts in all of East Asia during that period as well as corresponding maps.

In the 1660s, a strange triangular relationship develops between the Dutch, the Qing, and the Ming loyalists on Taiwan. As was mentioned, the Dutch used their fleets to aid the Qing in sea battles with Zheng's followers. In the meantime, control of the coastline of the province of Fujian as well as Quemoy (Kinmen) and Amoy (Xiamen) were hotly contested for it was from there that trade with Europeans and other nations could proceed. Zheng Jing let it be known that as long as his forces were in control, they would trade with others even the Dutch. The Dutch of course found it difficult to trade with those who drove them out of Anping. The Qing on the other hand focused on consolidating control of the coast. On Taiwan, not all of Zheng's followers were happy; many found the island inhospitable. The dream of overthrowing the Qing faded and they were eager to make peace with the possibility of becoming a separate vassal state. A sticky point where their negotiations broke down was the Qing insistence that they adapt the Manchu queue of submission. It is no wonder then when Amoy was lost for the final time in 1680 and Shi Lang's forces took Penghu in 1683 that the capitulation of Taiwan soon followed. Zheng's supporters made their living by trade; they were not that committed to "defending Taiwan soil."

As regards the Dutch, their hopes died on April 30, 1668 with the failure of their last mission to Beijing to obtain the desired approval for trade. The Kangxi Emperor not only rejected the Dutch mission but forbade all overseas trade. The VOC's business venture of keeping a base in Taiwan was no longer economically feasible or reasonable. In August of 1668 it was determined to abandon Keelung. Other sources of silk like Bengal and Cambodia would have to be used as well as the continued raiding of Chinese merchants going to Manila. But as the Comprehensive Atlas indicates, Taiwan of course was only one of their many available ports of interest for trade in East Asia. Up north, the Dutch still had a favored status with Japan where from 1641 on they were the only Europeans allowed to live on Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay and to continue trade with a Japan. As for Taiwan, in December of 1668 Fort Noord Holland was dismantled and two ships took all remaining Dutch from Keelung. This thus closed the Dutch presence on Taiwan.

Could any lessons be learned from these experiences by Taiwan a country that is heavily dependent on exports for survival and one that seems to see ECFA as its only salvation? One lesson might be diversify, diversify, diversify. A country that depends on one market for trade and commodities will not last. The VOC had many other venues open and lasted for more than a century till it went bankrupt by other causes in 1800. Zheng's followers who also lived by trade and sometimes piracy capitulated as soon as their trade links to China were severed; Shi Lang did not even need a nine month siege. And present day Taiwan, which can control its own trade and economy? Well the ball is in its court.