Taiwan, Military, Piracy; Continent: Asia

Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West by Tonio Andrade

  • A book about war for people who don’t like the dry who-blew-up-what style of most military history books
  • 431 pages (read at least up to page 334)

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company dominates trade outside of Europe, wealthy and influential enough to essentially co-opt the Dutch flag and much of its military. Its customers like Chinese tea, silks and porcelain, among other things, so it has established a presence in Taiwan. For the most part, the Chinese empire ignores Taiwan: China’s borders end at the ocean, and Taiwan is an island of farmers. One Chinese man wants Taiwan, however: wealthy warlord Koxinga. Koxinga is often called a pirate, but his outlaw status mostly stems from his loyalty to the displaced Ming dynasty. To expel the “red barbarians” (Dutch) from Taiwan, he and his thousands of soldiers lay seige to the Dutch renaissance-style fortress, Zeelandia Castle and its hundreds of occupants. Koxinga and his generals battle the Dutch by land and sea, and both sides face starvation and disease in the process. Treachery and torture have a role in this story, too, along with arrogance and even breathtaking stupidity.

An Author with a Goal

Books about warfare—particularly wars centuries behind us—have an unfortunate tendency to deteriorate into lists of generals, battles and casualties. Or worse, they become highly technical catalogs of the weaponry or defenses employed by the combatants. Strategies and objectives get lost in the expertly researched details, perhaps because the intended audience of devoted military history buffs starts with knowledge superior to my own about such things. Overall, I tend not to do well with military history books, which is why a book about the War of 1812 ended up on this year’s Reject Pile (what was I thinking?).

Fortunately for Tonio Andrade’s reader, this author makes clear at the beginning of his book that he has a larger objective than simply to recount the events of the Taiwan War. Andrade is examining this conflict to compare the relative military technologies of East and West during the Age of Exploration, a much larger topic. In decades past, textbooks often explained the spread of European civilizations to other contents and colonies as superiority with ships and weaponry. Other scholars have claimed that European military discipline made the difference. Andrade says that the few instances of armed conflict between East and West haven’t been sufficiently examined to allow these kinds of conclusions, and the story of how Chinese warlord Koxinga wrested Taiwan from the Dutch offers an important way to test these hypotheses. He tells a story with pertinent details and invites the reader to consider these questions.

Characters Drive the Story

Andrade does offer plenty of details because he needs them to support his argument that the two sides were closely matched. However, even though he has plainly done a great deal of research—into the available weaponry, the military discipline, and the naval strengths and weaknesses—none of the rich detail feels like the brain dump of an academic author trying too hard to establish his expertise. For example, he mentions several times that the Dutch ships had more complicated rigging than Chinese junks, allowing them to tack nearly fully into the wind. This advantage over the Chinese junks familiar to Koxinga and his generals proves critical to the story, but he spares us the details of which rope went where.

By managing his details, he creates a fascinating and well-paced one about a legendary figure in Taiwanese culture who deserves the exciting narrative Andrade creates. Both Dutch and Chinese sources inform this story, so we gain an excellent sense of conditions for the full cast of characters in this tale. They range from the besieged and scapegoated Dutch governor to Koxinga’s clever general Chen Ze to a host of defectors and prisoners for either side. Bookmark the Dramatis Personae at this book’s beginning if you are using an ereader to tackle this tale, as these people are not faceless and interchangeable soldiers. Andrade presents the story in terms of its characters: their motivations and biases, their strengths and weaknesses.

This author can choose the right point-of-view character for the pivotal moments of the Taiwan War, too, giving us the perspective of decision-makers when they needed to make some ugly calls. Even when he is foreshadowing the consequences of some colossal misjudgments, Andrade makes sure we can see how our principals could hatch a bad plan for a given situation. Spoiler alert: his rich descriptions of disgusting conditions within Zeelandia castle help the reader appreciate why someone might choose to surrender a beseiged fortress.

Ultimately, Andrade wants us to consider his most important theme: the idea that modernization required (and still requires) borrowing across cultures, both East and West. As his prime example, gunpowder was an Eastern innovation, but Western thinkers applied mathematics to make targeting guns and cannons a scientific exercise. When superior cannons arrived in China from Europe, the Chinese quickly copied the Western adaptations. Chinese willingness and ability to incorporate superior features when they saw them put Koxinga’s cannons and even his style of warfare on a par with technologies it had taken Europeans a couple of centuries to work out.

So Koxinga didn’t win over the Dutch with superior numbers or technologies because the two sides were technologically on a par by the end of the conflict. He won with superior leadership. Throughout this narrative, Andrade makes sure we see instances when Koxinga and his generals maintain order and take bold, coordinated action. By contrast, we also see the Dutch governor of Taiwan, his superiors in Batavia, and the naval commanders sent to assist him squabbling in perpetual mistrust and scapegoating.

Congratulations to Tonio Andrade, probably the only author to write about a military conflict that could hold my attention fully. I hope he’s got something else for us soon.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2011. Source: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

Note: This post appeared originally a while ago, but WordPress somehow ate it.

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