Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Book review: A Swiss soldier on Dutch Formosa

Elie Ripon kept a diary of his adventures in the East, including China, the Dutch East Indes and Taiwan

By Gerrit van der Wees

Een Zwitsers leven in de Tropen (A Swiss life in the Tropics, in Dutch: The adventures of Captain Elie Ripon in the service of the Dutch East India Company).

The Swiss in the 17 century were known as Europe’s foreign legionnaires: in the many conflicts and wars within Europe, one was bound to find Swiss regiments that fought for the highest bidder. The current Swiss Guard at the Vatican still reminds us of those days.

At the time, Switzerland consisted of a number of poor land-locked cantons, with very little economic activity, so young Swiss men traveled to other countries in search of a livelihood and adventure, selling their military prowess.

One of those men was Elie Ripon, a French-speaking Swiss soldier from Lausanne, who in 1617 traveled to the Netherlands to try his luck. He initially served on a whaling expedition to Greenland, but took a serious dislike to the activity, so the next year he signed up with the Dutch East India Company, and was sent to the Far East.

Ripon wrote a diary in French, which collected dust in an attic for a couple of centuries until 1865, when the manuscript was discovered in an old home in Bulle, in the Swiss canton of Gruyere. In the 1980s the researcher Yves Giroud published the French manuscript, while the Dutch version, on which this review is based, was published in 2016 by Leonard Blusse of Leiden University and Jaap de Moor.


In his diary, Ripon gives a colorful description of the trip from The Netherlands via Cape of Good Hope to Batavia (present day Jakarta, Indonesia), which lasted about half a year. There he is immediately engulfed in the fighting between the Dutch — who in 1619 had just built a small fortress near the entrance of the harbor — and the British, who together with the local Javanese sultan try to push the Dutch out.

Publication Notes

Een Zwitsers leven in de Tropen (A Swiss life in the Tropics, in Dutch: The adventures of Captain Elie Ripon in the service of the Dutch East India Company)

By Leonard Blusse and Jaap de Moor

304 pages

Prometheus Publishers

Paperback: Amsterdam

The siege of the small fortress lasts some four months, but then Dutch governor-general Jan Pietersz Coen returns with reinforcements from the Moluccas, and with a large contingent of soldiers is able to defeat the British and the Javanese. Ripon is quickly promoted and is soon a captain in the army of the East India Company.

After the pacification of the area around Batavia, Ripon is sent to various locations in the Moluccas as well as to the islands to the East of Bali. He describes the local population and its customs, as well as exotic plants and animals.


For Taiwan, the most interesting part of the diary is the period 1622 to 1624, when Ripon is sent to the Chinese coast with a fleet of 12 ships under Commander Cornelis Reijersen. The purpose of the trip is to establish a trading presence there.

And if taking Macau is not successful, they are to establish a fortress on Penghu to trade with the Chinese coast from there, and at the same time inhibit the trading operations of both the Spanish, who had established themselves in Manila in 1571, and the Portuguese, who had established a stronghold in Macau in 1557.

The Portuguese had been the earliest Western explorers and traders in the East Indies, but in the late 1500s they were gradually overshadowed by Spain. However, in the early 1600s, the Netherlands — which was fighting its own war of independence against Spain (1568-1648) — came up as a major trading power, and fought the Spanish and Portuguese wherever they could.

The arrival of the Dutch fleet off Macau doesn’t end peacefully: the Dutch land, and attempt to push out the Portuguese, but the attack is unsuccessful, and the Dutch have to retreat: Ripon gives a lively description of the fighting that took place. He himself just barely escapes.

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