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How European explorers discovered Ilha Formosa

The Renaissance kicked off a thirst for exploration and adventure, the result of which would see maritime European powers descending on ‘the Orient’ in search of land and riches

By Gerrit van der Wees  /  Contributing reporter

In fact, it was Portuguese sailors who, in 1544, first passed by Taiwan on their way to Japan, dubbing it Ilha Formosa, a moniker that would stick in the West until the early 1950s. But there are no records of the Portuguese landing and establishing a foothold here.

In 1571, Manila was established as the headquarters of the Spanish East Indies by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1502-1572), becoming a lively post for trading with the Chinese coast and the Spice Islands, in what is now Indonesia.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE DUTCH

However, Spain and Portugal’s trade dominance in the region didn’t last. In the late 16th Century a new power emerged: the Dutch. Actually, during much of that time, the Dutch were fighting for their independence from Spain.

By the end of the 16th Century, the Dutch had already been a seafaring nation for several centuries, mainly plying the waters of the Baltic and Mediterranean, and had thus built up experience with navigation and mapmaking. But at that point, they also made some significant technological breakthroughs in shipbuilding, using windmill power to cut wood for shipbuilding.

Around 1594-95, the Dutch wanted to find their own way to the East. The route around the Cape of Good Hope was dominated by the Portuguese and, via Central America, by Spain. So, they started to look for the Northeast Passage (north of Russia) and Northwest Passage (north of what is now Canada).

The most significant contribution to the discovery of the Orient was made by Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611), who as a young clerk at the age of 20 entered into the service of the Portuguese bishop of Goa in 1583. In this position he was able to collect much information on the Portuguese trade routes, which were considered highly confidential trade secrets by the Portugal.

But in 1592 he was able to return to The Netherlands, and started to write a book about his Portuguese adventures, in the process describing the trade routes in detail. The book, Itinerario: Voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huyghen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien (1579-1592), was published in 1596.

EXPANDING TRADE

The book was an immediate success, and in the subsequent years, hundreds of Dutch ships ventured out in search of the Orient. The situation got so chaotic that in 1602 the Dutch authorities prohibited individual ships from sailing out, allowing only fleets authorized by the newly-established Dutch East India Company to make the long journey via the Cape of Good Hope.

In the next two decades, the Dutch East India Company aggressively expanded its foothold in East Asia, in 1619 establishing its headquarters in Batavia, present-day Jakarta, establishing dozens of trading posts along the coastlines stretching from India to the Spice Islands.

By 1622, the Dutch expanded trade to the Chinese coast, and attempted to take the Portuguese stronghold of Macao. However, they were beaten back, which resulted in them establishing a fortress on the Pescadores, an island chain off the west coast of Taiwan that is also called Penghu, from where they conducted trade with the Chinese coast. At the same time, the Dutch tried to inhibit shipping by Spanish and Portuguese competitors (see “A Swiss soldier on Dutch Formosa,” Taipei Times, Oct. 4, 2018, p14).

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