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Book reviews: Reimagining the Dutch colonial era through fiction

The Dutch colonial era is significant because it left many written records by officials, ship captains and missionaries. These two books are valuable contributions to the understanding of life in Taiwan during the 17th Century

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

Formosa voorgoed verloren; historische roman over de VOC op Taiwan, by Joyce Bergvelt.

It is rare that writers in other nations write a book about the history of Dutch and Spanish rule in Taiwan, with only a few foreign scholars — Leonard Blusse at Leiden University, Tonio Andrade at Emory University, or Jose Eugenio Borao Mateo at National Taiwan University — focusing on the era.

So it is thus quite remarkable that in The Netherlands recently, two writers each published a novel (in Dutch) about events in Taiwan during the period of Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1662. The first is Formosa voorgoed verloren (Formosa lost forever) by Joyce Bergvelt, and the second is Niet zonder tranen; het strijdbare leven van Arnoldus Winsemius (Not without tears, the combative life of Arnoldus Winsemius) by Pieter Winsemius.

Bergvelt became interested in the nation’s history in the early 1980s, when her father served as an executive with the Philips company in Taiwan, and she decided to join her parents and attended National Taiwan Normal University for a year. She became fascinated by the island’s history and wrote a thesis about it during her later studies in the UK. Out of her scholarly work evolved a novel, based on historical facts, to which she added her imagination in order to arrive at a fascinating read, juxtaposing the life of Ming-dynasty warlord and pirate Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga) with those of his adversaries on the Dutch side, in particular Swedish-born Frederick Coyett, the last Dutch East India Company governor of Formosa.

Winsemius came to writing his work from a very different background. He served as a minister for urban planning and environment in the Dutch government in the 1980s, and both before and after worked for the consultant company McKinsey. In his free time and after his retirement he was an avid researcher into his family history, and at some point became intrigued by a distant ancestor who was educated as a church minister at Leiden University in the early 1650s, and who at the young age of 22 became a missionary in faraway Formosa, making the long trip by ship to the Far East with his young wife and newborn baby.

His curiosity peaked when he ran into an article by a former Dutch diplomat, Jan Vixseboxse, who related that in 1948 in the archives of the Catholic Cathedral in Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-controlled Beijing he had discovered a 17th century Bible, which contained a personal diary by Reverend Arnoldus Winsemius. Vixseboxse was able to take a few pictures of key pages, and many years later published an article about it. The archives and the bible were subsequently lost in the chaos that engulfed China during the Cultural Revolution.

Based on this new evidence, and on long hours of research in the archives of the Dutch East India Company from both Batavia and Formosa (which are available at the National Archives in The Hague), Winsemius pieced together a new diary of his ancestor, based on historical facts, to which he added a highly personal interpretation of what happened in the everyday life in the small village a day’s walk from the Dutch fortress Zeelandia (present-day Tainan).

Both works give a fascinating insight into the life and times of the main protagonists. Bergvelt covers Cheng Cheng-kung’s life from his birth in 1624 to a Japanese mother in Nagasaki, through his education and training in China, the betrayal of the Ming cause by his pirate father Cheng Chih-lung (鄭芝龍), his increasingly bitter fight against the newly established Qing dynasty, culminating in his escape across the Taiwan Strait where he laid a nine-month siege of Dutch-held Fort Zeelandia, and his short-lived victory over the Dutch: he died less than a year later.

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