This is the story of how the Dutch East India Company arrived in Taiwan, named it, yanked it from its slumber and pushed it upon the world stage!
In 1624, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) made landfall on an obscure island in the Far East. The island was known by some as Formosa and possibly Líuqíu by others. Despite no one agreeing on its name and many overlooking its worth, the European newcomers saw its commercial potential.
That island came to be called Taiwan, and the Dutch actually deserves some credit for this name (more on that later). Taiwan’s location between China, Japan and the VOC’s Southeast Asian colonies seemed strategic. The VOC would set in motion a series of transformative events for this neglected island. It would thrust Taiwan into the centre of geopolitical rivalries between Asian-Pacific giants for centuries to come.
Forgotten Pirate Bay
Taiwan’s story before the VOC’s arrival is murky, at best. It was a mysterious, unknown frontier populated by stone-age Austronesian (Formosan) tribes—ancestors of today’s Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples.
Chinese civilization frequently overlooked the island. Their empires were much more interested in Central Asian expansion. Taiwan was an insignificant and savage backwater—beyond the light of continental civilization. Premodern Japan had tried to colonize Taiwan on a number of occasions in the 1500s and 1600s. However, they were all unsuccessful.
Asian rulers saw Taiwan as a poor, lawless land dominated by headhunters and pirates. It didn’t even have its own name—often vaguely associated or confused with the former Ryukyuan kingdom (in modern-day Okinawa). Taiwan was just another barbarian island out there, somewhere.
Original Corporate Raiders
The 1600s saw the height of the Dutch Golden Age. The Netherlands was the commercial centre of Europe. The Dutch scoured the world in search of spices and other goods to trade. They developed the world’s first stock market and founded the first modern corporation—the VOC. From famed Netherlandish paintings to Holland’s financial innovations, the VOC’s warlike capitalism bankrolled the Netherlands’ creative energy.
As historian Niall Ferguson put it, “with 40 warships and a private army of 10,000 soldiers, the directors of the East India Company were the original corporate raiders.” The VOC established a string of colonies in Southeast Asia. They landed on Taiwanese shores in 1624 and, after driving out the Spanish in northern Taiwan, the VOC’s Taiwanese division was open for business.
Fort Zeelandia, Tayovan and Changing Taiwan’s Demography
Few traces of Dutch Formosa remain today. However, one notable relic is the old Anping Fortress—or Fort Zeelandia, which is now a major tourist attraction in southwestern Taiwan. It commemorates both the Dutch colonists as well as the pirate king who eventually expelled them from the island.
The fortress served as the centre of VOC operations in Taiwan. The company introduced modern coinage to the island and both traded with and battled Taiwan’s indigenous kingdoms. Dutch activities also reshaped Taiwan’s demographic makeup. The VOC enticed and employed numerous Chinese immigrants who mixed with the island’s lowland indigenous peoples to produce the modern Taiwanese population.
Another product of Dutch colonization is the name Taiwan. Originally a southwestern indigenous tribal name, the Dutch wrote it down as Tayovan or Tayouan (not to be confused with Taoyuan—a city in another part of Taiwan). This became the Dutch place-name for the area around Fort Zeelandia, and it entered the Taiwanese language as Tâi-oân. Later, in its Japanese and Mandarin form—Taiwan—it became the name for the whole island.
The Dutch Legacy
The Dutch evidently had a hand in shaping many aspects of Taiwan’s destiny. But perhaps the most remarkable was how they changed the attitudes of Taiwan’s neighbours toward the island. Originally a sleepy, forgotten place beyond the pale, Dutch rule ushered in a period of active engagement from the outside.
After the VOC, China’s Qing Dynasty ruled Taiwan for two centuries—after thousands of years of Chinese disinterest—before ceding it to the Empire of Japan in the late 19th century. The contest for Taiwan continued throughout the geopolitics of the 20th century, from WW2 through the Cold War and beyond.
For better or worse, such intense interest in Taiwan never seemed to have existed prior to the Dutch East India Company’s arrival. So, perhaps above all else, this bringing of Taiwan from its gentle slumber to the centre of Asian-Pacific awareness might just be the VOC’s most remarkable and lasting Taiwanese legacy. The effects of this particular Dutch legacy is still very much felt by the Taiwanese people themselves to this day.