Formosa, the Treasure Island in the Age of Discovery
Competition in the Blue Sea
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Europeans fleets frequently sailed the seas near Africa, Asia, and the Americas, looking for new trade routes and partners. During their journeys, Europeans discovered a large number of lands previously unknown to them. This period, therefore, was referred to as the Age of Exploration and Great Navigations or the Age of Discovery. By the 17th century, Europeans had explored 90% of the world’s oceans and new sea routes were added to the map. Cultural exchanges and trade between the East and the West significantly increased along with the emergence of colonialism and free trade. One by one, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England rose as major sea powers.
A VOC coin (VOC, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, is also known as the Dutch East India Company.)
(Source: Taritsi National Digital Archives Program)
The Wanted Island
In the late Ming Dynasty (c. the mid-16th century), pirates and the Portuguese, among other visitors, passed by or stayed on the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. The stays were temporary, and initially there was no attempt to colonize the island. At this time, Formosa was mainly inhabited by indigenous tribes. It was not governed by any regime, nor was it an official country. However, later in the same century, this beautiful island began to receive more attention for its strategic military and commercial location. One after another, the Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, and Chinese began to set their eyes on the island, ushering Formosa into the Age of Discovery.
In 1644, the Manchus invaded the Ming Empire and left China in chaos. Zheng Chenggong was among the Ming remnants in the south who rose to fight the Manchus,. Zheng, also known as Koxinga, was the son of the former Ming admiral Zheng Zhilong. Starting in 1646, Zheng Chenggong began to lead his own army against the Manchus. The Dutch noticed the increasing power of Zheng and worried that he might try to take Taiwan if defeated by the Manchus.
In 1659, Zheng Chenggong was defeated at Nanjing and fled to Kinmen and Xiamen on China’s southeast coast. Zheng planned to take Taiwan as a base for his "Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming" mission — that is, overthrow the Manchus. Rumors of Zheng’s planned attack spread like wildfire. In 1660, Frederick Coyett, the Dutch governor of Tayouan sent a warning to the Dutch East India Company's headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta) about Zheng’s possible invasion. However, the commander of the reinforcements, Jan van der Laan, saw no sign of Zheng when he arrived in Formosa and was unwilling to stay in Tayouan for long. In February 1661, the commander left with his reinforcement troops; in April the same year, Zheng began his attack.
The two forces collided at the Taijiang Inner Sea, a lagoon surrounded by sandbars extending from Tainan's coastline in the 17th century. These sandbars were also called "kunshen," which literally means “whale's back.” The biggest sandbar, which extended northward from the south of the island, was Tayouan — now the Anping District of Tainan — where the Dutch built Fort Zeelandia. This fortress is rectangular with inner and outer forts connected to each other. On each of the four corners are protruding bastions, armed with canons.
A plan of Fort Zeelandia: The rectangular-shaped structure is the outer fort and the square-shaped one is the inner fort. The semicircular structures of the inner fort are a distinctive feature of Fort Zeelandia.
Source: Photo taken at Fort Zeelandia Museum, Tainan (edited)
Although the Dutch used Tayouan only as a transit point for trade, it brought unprecedented development to the region. In the Age of Discovery, Taiwan received attention from the international community for its strategic importance and business advantages. After the Zheng family defeated the Dutch and set up a Chinese regime, however, cultural exchanges and trade between Taiwan and the rest of the world decreased and European influence diminished.
Hundreds of years have passed. Now Fort Zeelandia is nothing more than a few broken walls in the city of Tainan.
(Source: Taiwan e-Learning and Digital Archives Program ─ A History of Taiwan Architecture)