The Taiwanese remember fondly the memories of a pirate king who ruled over their island in the 17th century. His David-versus-Goliath struggles were filled with legendary tales of battles against more powerful enemies. Today, he is known as Koxinga and numerous shrines honouring him dot the island.

In the 17th-century China Seas, there was a wealthy Christian Chinese merchant from Fujian. His name was Zhèng Zhīlóng (Tēnn Tsi-Liông in Taiwanese), but his European trading partners addressed him by his baptismal name Nicholas. The merchant dealt in Chinese silks and porcelains. From the southern Chinese trading port of Amoy, his goods were shipped to Japan and the European colonies in the East Indies. Under his command were not only trading crafts but also powerful warships numbering around a thousand vessels. Emboldened by his naval dominance in the region, he was not only a trader but also a notorious pirate.

In 1644, the Chinese “Ming” Empire, which overthrew the Mongol yoke nearly 300 years earlier, was once again at war against a nation of horsemen from the Eurasian steppes. That year, warrior hordes from Manchuria defeated the Ming dynasty of China—as well as neighbouring Tibetan, Turkic and Mongol kingdoms—to establish a vast Manchu empire, which would last until 1912 and is remembered in history as the Qing dynasty.

Zheng Zhilong decided to submit to this new regime and was rewarded by the Manchu emperor with a title. His son, however, continued to struggle against the Manchus. This continued defiance by his own relations would ultimately lead to the execution of Zheng Zhilong.

The name of Zheng Zhilong’s defiant son was Zhèng Chénggōng, but he is better remembered by the Hokkien honorific Koxinga. Koxinga’s hatred of the Manchus was personal, rather than political. He was of mixed heritage and had been born near the Japanese port of Nagasaki. His mother was a Japanese woman from a family that served the lord of Hirado and is remembered as lady Tagawa Matsu. On a visit to Nan’an in Fujian, the lady was killed in an ambush by Manchu forces in the area. Koxinga never forgave the Manchus. Neither did he forgive his father, who, he felt, had capitulated to his mother’s murderers.

Koxinga inherited the Zheng family’s fleets operating in the Formosa Strait and the South and East China Seas. His warships were powerful and relentlessly harassed the southern Chinese coast. In retaliation, the Manchus implemented a complete blockade of all Chinese ports in the south. The Manchus were aware that the Zheng family’s source of wealth came from maritime trade and the lockdown was designed to break the economic back of Koxinga’s naval insurgency. In response, Koxinga decided to leave China in search of a new base to continue his operations. He set his sights on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and, in 1661, he invaded the island.

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Taiwan, at the time, was a Dutch colony (known as Dutch Formosa) administered by the Dutch East India Company. After the island’s native Austronesian cultures, the Dutch were the first to successfully colonize Taiwan—predating successful Spanish, Chinese and Japanese attempts. By the time Koxinga invaded, Taiwan had become a thriving trade colony and commercial link between the 17th-century markets of south China, Japan and maritime Southeast Asia.

Koxinga’s forces landed near the Dutch stronghold of Fort Zeelandia in present-day Tainan City and began laying siege to the garrison. The Dutch governor of the island was forced to send requests for reinforcements to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The relief, however, never arrived. After nine months, the governor surrendered Taiwan to Koxinga’s forces, marking the end of decades of Dutch colonial rule over the island.

After the Dutch evacuation, the Zheng family founded in Taiwan the Kingdom of Dongning with its capital at Tainan. The kingdom, known to contemporary westerners as the Kingdom of Formosa, was the very first Chinese-style state in Taiwan’s history.

Despite a brief period lasting about a year when the Zheng family pledged nominal allegiance to the overthrown Ming emperors—due to political and diplomatic considerations, the Taiwanese-based realm operated fully autonomously. In 1672, when Koxinga’s son and successor, Zhèng Jīng (Taiwanese: Tēnn King), concluded an official treaty with the English East India Company (later the British East India Company), the English respected him as a sovereign in his own right and addressed him as the king of Formosa.

Koxinga’s kingdom promoted Han learning and established Chinese-style schools throughout its lands. Compulsory education was implemented and all boys were entitled to receive government-sponsored education beginning at eight years of age.

The kingdom exported large quantities of deerskin, sugar cane and rice to places like Japan and was a heavy importer of firearms from England. This was a state that, despite its small size, was highly centralized and militarized. Large amounts of resources were devoted to the defence of the island against Manchu and Chinese invasions from the continent.

The kingdom lasted until 1683 when forces from the continent finally broke through and defeated the island realm—leading to its absorption into the Manchu Empire. The year 1683 marks the first time in history that Taiwan became a part of a larger imperialistic state based in China.