Historical story

Coxinga chased the Dutch from Formosa

Last updated:2022-07-25

He wore his hair in a long, shiny black ponytail. Reason enough for the Dutch regents to label him as an effeminate Chinese pirate. What a mistake! Kuo Hsing Ye, aka Coxinga, was a formidable freedom fighter and a man of honour. His name is still pronounced with respect in present-day Taiwan.

“You Dutchmen are conceited tassels. Instead of taking my mercy, you'd rather risk your neck. How come you so proud to think that with only a handful you can withstand my enormous odds? Didn't you see how one of your ships - of which you are always so proud and with which you think to perform so many miracles - was set on fire by my junks? Then your other ships fled. On land your Captain Pedel went down with all his men. Do I have to give another demonstration? Then I'll have Fort Provintia storm. That will shatter my men, so that no stone remains upon another. If I use my power, I can even turn heaven and earth. Therefore:quickly think about what you want to do or not do!"

It is May 3, 1661 and with bowed heads the Dutch envoys listen to Coxinga's scornful words. The latter, labeled by the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) as an 'ordinary pirate' who preyed on the Dutch possessions on Formosa, took maximum advantage of the humiliating situation. At first he had kept his visitors waiting for quite some time. He gave the reason that he still had to comb his hair. He apparently wore it for so long that the envoys were given ample time to examine his army. Only after they had seen one department after another pass by inspection troops were they admitted to the commander's tent. There, surrounded by his generals, Coxinga sat behind a table.

“Serene and most famous Prince,” murmured the envoys, bowing gracefully with their hats in their hands:“Frederick Coyett, who has been appointed governor of Formosa by the Governor-General and Council of the Indies in Batavia, let Your Highness very kind regards. Our governor would have been happy to meet you elsewhere and under different circumstances. But since you have so unexpectedly landed on our shores, attacked our fortresses, and now claim all Formosa, he is most astonished. What have we done that arouses your displeasure? Have we not always maintained friendly relations with your father? Perhaps our governor misunderstood your letter from yesterday? This is due to the lack of skilled interpreters. That is why he has instructed us to ask you again for text and explanation. In doing so, he politely asks you to restore the old friendship between the Company and Your Highness.”

Dutch frugality

They were beautiful, carefully chosen words, meant to spread syrup and to buy time. Because the Dutch had expected an attack from Coxinga on Formosa for much longer. Frederick Coyett had even urged his superiors in Batavia to further fortify the island. But the directors of the Company were supporters of the proverbial Dutch frugality. They didn't think of putting money into building more defenses. Instead, Coyett was accused of having to cope with those "bunch of effeminate Chinese pirates" with the current occupation.

But the government in Batavia had made a grave mistake. Coxinga wasn't "effeminate" at all. He may have had his hair in a long, shiny black ponytail, but he was a formidable strategist and fighter. Nor was he a pirate, but a cornered freedom fighter. In his fight against the advancing Tartars from Manchuria, he had to flee from mainland China. He needed the island of Formosa as a new base for his ships. He wanted the Dutchmen to leave unhindered. But they didn't want to hear about that and preferred a fight.

Hence the scornful language of Coxinga. “The Company must not think that it has to do with some Indian prince or potentate, with whom it can conclude all kinds of treaties. I know those treaties:they last only as long as it is of interest to the Company. But once more gains can be made, the feigned friendship no longer applies. Then nothing is left out to tie someone's head in a snare," said Coxinga.

Coxinga:what a strange name for a Chinese. And how did that man come to be so astute that he understood the practices of the VOC so well? When he was born, Coxinga was still called Cheng Sin. He was born on July 14, 1624 in the Japanese coastal town of Hirado (not far from Nagasaki). His father, Tsjeng Chi-lung, was a bookkeeper there and later a partner of the Chinese shipowner Li Han. Cheng Chi-lung had also been employed as an interpreter by the Portuguese. To them he was known by his Christian baptismal name Nicholas Iquan. He was married to a Japanese from the Tagawa family.

Nicholas Iquan was an outright pirate. Through his partnership with the shipowner, he controlled a large merchant fleet. He was just as easily concerned with piracy and with the so-called 'protection' of other ships. These practices made Iquan so powerful that the then-ruling, but weakened, Ming dynasty granted him an official title. Henceforth he was allowed to call himself 'Admiral in charge of combating piracy'. Thanks to that title, Iquan became the de facto ruler of the coastal province of Fujian (Fujian).

Classical training

When Ching Sin is seven years old, his father sends him to China. There he receives a classical education. At the age of fifteen he passed the exam of 'blooming talent'. That opens the mandarin career for him. He continues his studies at the Imperial Academy in Nanking and at the age of 21 is appointed Commander of the Guard, with the title of Earl. Later he rises to the rank of Marquis and Duke. The emperor also grants him a new first name:Ch'eng-kung. That means as much as 'success'. Cheng Ch'eng-kung will also be given an honorary name:Kuo Hsing Ye. That is, "lord, who bears the imperial family name." It is this honorary name that is corrupted by the Dutch into 'Coxinga'.

For twelve years, Coxinga defends weakened China against the invading Manchu hordes. Then the emperor is captured. His father defects to the winning Manchus, hoping to keep his 'coastal republic'. However, the Manchus distrust him and have him beheaded in Beijing. Coxinga's mother then commits suicide. This makes Coxinga so bitter that he vows to take revenge. He joins Ming pretender to the throne Prince Chu. He and the prince are trying to take control of the Manchu region from two sides.

In 1658, Coxinga's army stands in front of Nanking. However, when word comes that Chu's army has been defeated and that the prince himself has been strangled, confusion breaks out among his troops. Coxinga and his associates therefore have to flee to the island of Amoy. The Manchus burn the coastal area to the ground. He can no longer resupply on the mainland. All alone, Coxinga and his companions now face the rest of China. Because Amoy also does not seem safe in the long term, the decision is made to withdraw further to Formosa. From there, mainland China can be better threatened. For example, Coxinga lands on March 16, 1661 near Fort Zeelandia, not far from the current coastal town of Tainan.

Forced labor

Before that, Formosa had hardly attracted the attention of China. With the exception of a few settlements on the coast, the interior was also not populated by Chinese but by Malays. In 1622 the VOC ships landed on the Pescadores near Formosa. A fortress was built at Pei-hoe. Entirely in accordance with the VOC policy at the time, the Chinese were put to work as forced labourers. As a 'punishment' for the deaths of 17 Dutch sailors who were murdered by a Chinese privateer, they were given no more than a pound of rice a day to eat. Thirteen hundred of the fifteen hundred Chinese died. Pei-hoe must have been a first death camp.

With the construction of the fort, the VOC wanted to enforce a trade agreement previously refused by China. They succeeded, because by repeatedly attacking Portuguese and Spanish ships on their way to Macau and the Philippines, the Chinese trade collapsed. The then governor of Foekien had to allow the VOC to set up a trading post on the coast of Formosa. Then at least trade could be conducted.

When they moved from Pei-hoe to Formosa in 1623, the Dutch fleet landed on a sandy island that was part of a large harbor. The settlement that was established there was called Fort Zeelandia. Fort Provintia was added to the land itself. This created an excellently located trading post, with a roadstead on the open sea and the harbor as a safe harbor. In the following years Formosa was 'pacified'. In 1635, 'fighting minister' Robert Junius set out with a corps of musketeers. Later, more pastors and schoolmasters followed. Once Christianized, the population could be squeezed out better.

Colonization at its worst

“Rarely, if ever, has an Asian country been so brutally exploited by Western conquerors,” writes American historian W.G. Goddard:“Never before had the shield of Western honor been so shamefully smeared. It was colonization at its worst, forced labor in Dutch factories and on the rice and sugar cane fields of the VOC. Even the food the ill-fed farmer grew for his own family enriched the pockets of the Amsterdam merchants.” Only the people of the eastern, wild mountain country kept their independence. For the rest Formosa had become a Dutch colony.

When Coxinga sailed into the harbor in April 1661, he instantly cut off Fort Provintia. Attempts to be relieved by captain Pedel and later captain Aelders ended in a fiasco. After the envoys' interview with Coxinga, the Council of Formosa gave up Fort Provintia. The next day the tricolor was there as a sign of surrender. But the battle continued at Fort Zeelandia and the blood flag was raised.

That battle is a story in itself. As mentioned, Coyett had already warned against Coxinga several times. The government in Batavia eventually got so tired of this that they sent a certain Clenck to Formosa to relieve Coyett. But when Clenck arrived, Fort Zeelandia was already surrounded by 25,000 Chinese. Under those circumstances, of course, he had no desire to take over the governorship. He just sent a dinghy ashore with the letter of resignation for Coyett. After that he chose the wide sea and did not show himself again.

In the meantime, a ship that had fled from Formosa had reached Batavia. After the news of Coxinga's attack, Coyett's resignation was reversed and an auxiliary fleet led by Jacob Caeuw was sent. However, it also turned out not to be in the mood to fight against a force majeure, and returned with a major detour.

The battle for Fort Zeelandia lasted nine months. Then Coyett and his men had to give up. Very special was that Coxinga allowed the besieged to leave without hindrance. They were even allowed to take archival documents, personal belongings and savings with them. Only the Company's business properties, with a total value of NLG 471,500, had to be left behind. As a sort of tribute to their bravery, the Dutch soldiers were also allowed to march towards the ships under the command of their governor with flying banners, beating drums, burning fuses and loaded guns.


The surrender of Formosa was not appreciated by Coyett. Arriving in Batavia he was accused of treason. Despite the fact that he had warned of the danger and fought bravely, he was convicted. Coyett was banished to the island of Pulu Ai for life, his property confiscated and his civil rights stripped. The verdict was announced publicly, with Coyett standing on a scaffold and the executioner symbolically swinging the executioner's sword three times over his head. At the request of Coyett's children and friends in the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange finally took up this matter. It was thanks to him that Coyett was allowed to go to Holland after six months. But he had to swear never to leave the republic and to keep his mouth shut. In 1675 he therefore wrote a denunciation under a pseudonym. That booklet was a kind of forerunner of Multatuli's 'Max Havelaar':'t Verwaerloosde Formosa, written by C.E.S. (=Coyett et Socii, or Coyett and allies).

Unlike poor Coyett, Coxinga was, of course, the great liberator. He quickly won the trust of the people through his compassion and kindness. The natives, unaccustomed to such kindness, spread his fame far and wide. During a reconnaissance trip inland, Coxinga delivered a famous speech to his officers and officials:“If we want to establish our government on this island, the first thing we must do is ensure that our subjects have enough to eat. Even within a family, the family members will not live peacefully with each other if they lack food. There is plenty of land here, but too few workers. The chief weapon, even for the warrior, is his food. That is why the soldiers must not only protect us from the enemy, but they will also have to work to help the peasants.”

Coxinga herself has not experienced any of this. He died on May 1, 1662, some say of 'manager's disease', others simply of malaria. Shortly before his death, he put on his static clothes and exclaimed, "How can I look my emperor in the face above, as long as I have not fulfilled my task!" His son was also unable to fulfill the 'task' of restoring the Ming Empire in China. After his death in 1683, the governor of Fukien promised amnesty to all who wanted to submit to the Manchus. Formosa thus became part of the new Manchuria, and thus of China.

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