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

At the time, Macau hosted about 2,000 Portuguese, 20,000 Chinese and around 5,000 African slaves, brought by the Portuguese from their colonies in Angola and Mozambique. It was actually mostly the Africans who fought off the Dutch assault; a Dutch officer reported that “[o]ur people saw very few Portuguese” during the battle.

The defeat at Macau necessitates the Dutch plan B: The remaining ships and troops sail to Penghu, where they arrive on July 5, 1622. There they start to build a simple fortress, and even disassemble one of the Dutch ships in order to have wood and other material to build the buildings: the island is so bare that there were no trees that could be used for this purpose.

In December 1622 the fortress is finished, and the remaining Dutch ships sail to both the Chinese coast for trade, and to Manila in order to block Spanish and Chinese ships from entering the harbor. Ripon sails on a ship to the coast, but found that the Chinese had little inkling to trade with the Dutch.

After about a year of skirmishes back and forth between the Dutch, the Chinese and the Spanish, the Ming Dynasty authorities along the Fujian coast decide that they want to push out the Dutch: in early 1624 they land a large force of some 10,000 soldiers on the North side of the island, and start to threaten the small Dutch fortress.


It never came to real fighting: through the intermediary services of a disgraced former Ming official who had made his name in piracy, Li Tan (李旦, “Captain China”), the Dutch and the Chinese authorities come to an agreement that the Dutch will vacate the Penghu Fortress, and move “beyond Chinese territory.” In August 1624 the Dutch moved to a sandy beach at Tayouan, present-day Anping District (安平) in Tainan.

The interesting thing is that Ripon’s diary tells us that more than a year earlier, the Dutch had already set foot on Formosa: in October 1623, when the Dutch were still firmly established at Penghu, Ripon was sent out to Tayouan to build a small fortress there. He was thus one of the first Western observers to visit Aboriginal villages in the area.

He and his men first befriend the people of Bacaloan — present-day Anting District (安定) in Tainan — giving them small presents. He visits several of the surrounding villages, and describes the people, their customs, clothing, homes and daily activities. He also describes the headhunting, which went on from the time the harvest was in until the next planting season.

Interestingly, his friendship with the people of Bacaloan has a negative effect on the people of neighboring Mattau: they are jealous that they didn’t receive the same presents, and attack Ripon and his soldiers. The animosity with “the giants of Mattau” (these Aborigines were apparently quite tall) would last another decade until the pacification of the area in 1635.

Between October 1623 and March 1624, the small fortress, named Fort Oranje, withstands a couple of bad earthquakes, a typhoon, and a major attack by Mattau. However, at the end of March, the higher-ups decide to concentrate all Dutch forces at the Penghu Fortress, and Ripon is told to demolish the fortress at Tayouan and return to Penghu with his men.

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