Mon, Dec 04, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan’s first Christians in the 17th Century

The first Dutch missionaries not only brought Christianity to Taiwan, but also made contributions in education, health and agriculture

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

A portrait of Reverand Robertus Junius, one of the first missionaries to arrive in Taiwan during the Dutch colonial era.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The last surviving written document of the Siraya language, once widely spoken by Siraya Aborigines (西拉雅族) in the area that surrounds present-day Tainan, is a translation of the New Testament’s Book of Matthew from Dutch.

Compared to later Scottish and Canadian Presbyterian missionaries James Laidlaw Maxwell and George Lesley Mackay, little is known about the earlier waves of Dutch missionary activity in the 17th century, which led to the conversion to Christianity of thousands of Siraya people. These missionaries not only played a crucial role in spreading Christianity, but also in establishing a rudimentary education and health care system as well as agricultural innovation, importing the water buffalo now common throughout Taiwan.


Not long after the Dutch established a foothold on the sandy bank of the Tayouan peninsula in 1624 and started to build Fort Zeelandia in what is today’s Tainan, the Dutch authorities conducted missionary work among the Aboriginal people. They assigned Reverend George Candidius, who arrived in 1627 but refused to live at the fort, and instead made Sincan in present-day Sinshih District (新市) in Tainan, his home. He learned the Siraya language, and was so successful that on Christmas 1628 said there were 128 locals “who knew the prayers and were able to answer in the most satisfactory manner with regard to the principal articles of our Christian faith.”

Candidius also traveled up and down the island and did a population survey. In 1628 he wrote a report about his travels, describing the life of the Aboriginal population of approximately 200,000 who lived in fortified villages, engaging in hunting, gathering and basic agriculture. Headhunting was still a common practice, while the village inips (female fortune tellers) wielded a lot of power. Candidius counted only a few hundred Chinese fishermen and traders from China’s Fujian Province along the coast.

In 1629, Candidius got reinforcement: Reverend Robertus Junius, who not only learned Siraya, but translated some books of the New Testament into the language. Junius stayed closer to Fort Zeelandia, living in the village of Sakam, near the small Fort Provintia in today’s Tainan. He was more closely involved with the Dutch pacification campaigns against hostile villages such as Mattau, present-day Madou District (麻豆) in Tainan, and even led a military expedition.

Around 1635, after the “Pax Hollandica” or Dutch peace, was established, more and more migrant workers from Fujian came and started growing rice and sugar, leading to abundant crops and their export to far-away places such as Persia and Japan.

Junius established the first school in Taiwan in 1636, teaching a class of 70 boys to write their mother tongue in the Roman alphabet. The system of schooling spread quickly and by the early 1650s, there were 40 schools in the region, some with Dutch schoolmasters, but many also hiring Aboriginal teachers.

During this period, the Dutch authorities hired four more ministers to do missionary work in the region, eventually resulting in some 5,000 converts among the Siraya population. Junius returned to his home country in 1644, became a pastor in Delft, and taught the Siraya language to aspiring theology students for many years.


There were two stand out missionaries among the second wave who arrived in Taiwan in the 1640s: Daniel Gravius and Anthonius Hambrouck.

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