Tainan’s Dutch connection
One of the briefer episodes in world colonial history was the Dutch occupation of a swathe of southern Taiwan in the 1600s, lasting a scant 38 years before disease, privation and a Chinese-Japanese pirate-king swept away their nascent administration.
Take a trip to the Anping district in western Tainan today and few sites remain to bear witness to the European (mis)adventure on Formosa. The most prominent of these is Fort Zeelandia (安平古堡; Ānpíng Gǔbǎo), built on what was originally a sandy bank isolated from the mainland in order to provide both access to the sea and defensibility from hostile parties on the mainland. Four centuries of silt washed from the highlands has bridged the original channel between the fort and the rest of Tainan, allowing today’s visitor easy access to stroll around and perhaps ponder on what life was like for the Dutch stationed on this remote outpost. It’s something of a disappointment to learn that these are not the original stones of the fortress – Formosa’s unpredictable weather accounted for the original structure when a massive typhoon swept it into the Taiwan Strait in the 1800s. What stands today is a reconstruction built in the 1970s, but it is apparently fairly faithful to the original, commanding views of the absolutely flat land that surrounds the battlements, along with cannon and exhibits of artefacts pertaining to the long history of the building.
As I stood at the wall, a salty breeze took the edge off the sticky heat and I tried to put myself in the place of the Dutch defenders in their last days. After being barred from mainland China and harried by Qing Dynasty troops, the maritime leader known to the west as Koxinga (鄭成功; Zhèng Chénggōng) fled first to Penghu, from where his raids established the vulnerability of the Dutch outpost. Any help for the colonists had to come from far-away Batavia (present day Jakarta) which was the administrative centre of the Dutch presence in East Asia. Knowing this, the defenders sent word when Koxinga’s war junks were sighted and determined to dig in to wait for help. Unfortunately for them, the authorities in Batavia refused to send aid, being weary of the expense of the unproductive outpost and accusing the governor Frederick Coyett of exaggerating the threat. For nine months the Dutch held out, their initial force of two thousand men dwindling to a little under four hundred – whittled away by assault, tropical maladies and the lack of available fresh water. I imagined being one of those last soldiers, having seen most of my friends sicken and die, looking on the countless campfires of the twenty-five thousand men Koxinga had under arms. Eventually Coyett negotiated terms of surrender with his enemy, allowing the remaining Europeans to sail for Batavia while the Chinese troops claimed their prize of the fortress and its hinterland. Even today it gives a little chill thinking about the unforgiving harshness of those distant times.