1661: Antonius Hambroek, defying Koxinga

Missionary Antonius Hambroek was put to death on this date in 1661 as the warlord Koxinga wrested control of Formosa (Taiwan) from the Dutch.

In the 1620s, the running Dutch-Spanish war as projected into both countries’ colonial extrusions had resulted in the two dividing that South China island: the Dutch in the south, based at Fort Zeelandia, and Spain in the north. In 1641 the Dutch conquered Spanish Formosa to establish themselves as the apex predators on a rough and lawless island.


Fort Zeelandia.

But that’s before they ran into Koxinga.

Simultaneous with the Dutch advance on Formosa, China’s Ming dynasty was in the process of collapsing. From the 1640s, civil wars between the advancing Manchus (eventually victorious as the incoming Qing dynasty) and the remnants of the Ming would tear at the mainland.

Koxinga was the last great Ming commander. He’d been born on a Nagasaki beach to a Japanese mother. His family ran a commercial concern stretching across the South China Sea as far as Vietnam and the Philippines; its dubious legality confers the romantic sobriquet “pirate” upon Koxinga but think corporate raider here. “Some people call him a pirate, but he was a businessman,” said present-day Taiwan historian Chu Cheng-yi.

And in both commerce and war, Koxinga could flex.

The author of this book about Koxinga’s victory over Dutch Formosa describes his book in this video.

Paradoxically the Ming’s collapse launched Koxinga; his very name as history knows it derives from a title (“Lord of the Imperial Surname”) conferred by the executed Longwu Emperor in gratitude for staying loyal when even Koxinga’s own dad had gone over to the Qing. In one cinematic moment, with the Ming looking toast, Koxinga torched the scholarly robes he had earned studying for a respectable court career and swore he would don nothing bur armor until he’d expelled the Manchus from China.

This “Badass of the Week” post chronicles his scintillating military career; in the twilight of the Ming, Koxinga’s victories gave the foundering dynasty its last legitimate cause for hope and in the course of the 1650s his sword-arm established a Qing-defying state in the southerly province of Fujian. From this base in 1659 he launched a proposed history-altering attack on Nanjing that only narrowly failed.

Win or lose on terra firma, the pirate was nails on the waves. “Never before nor since was a more powerful and mighty fleet seen in the waters than that of Koxinga, numbering more than 3,000 junks,” Jesuit missionary Vittorio Ricci wrote of the armada he had once assembled to attack Xiamen. (Source) “The sight of them inspired one with awe. This squadron did not include the various fleets he had, scattered along neighboring coasts.”

In his reduced circumstances post-Nanjing, Koxinga managed “only” 400 ships to launch from Fujian with 25,000 souls … to arrive at Formosa and set up shop there. “Hitherto this island had always belonged to China, and the Dutch had doubtless been permitted to live there, seeing that the Chinese did not require it for themselves,” he remarked. “But requiring it now, it was only fair that Dutch strangers, who came from far regions, should give way to the masters of the island.”

To make the argument persuasive, Koxinga delivered his ultimatum via this post’s principle, Antonius Hambroek (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), a missionary whom Koxinga cautioned not to return with a displeasing answer at the risk of his life.

On May 25, 1661, Koxinga sent Hambroek to Fort Zeelandia with one of the Chinese leader’s letters demanding surrender. Hambroek had to leave his wife and children behind as hostages to assure his return. When Coyett refused to surrender, Hambroek was urged to stay at the fort as he and his family were bound to be killed because of the failure of his mission. The emotional pull to remain was intensified by the discovery that two of his daughters from whom the family had been separated during the chaos of the invasion were among the refugees in the fort. But Hambroek decided his duty was with his wife and other children. The two daughters, says, the fort daybook, “hung about his neck, overwhelmed with grief and tears to see their father ready to go where he knew he must be sacrificed by the merciless enemy.” The fate of Hambroek is recorded by Caeuw, the commander of the relief fleet. Two native boys got into the fort in October and said they had seen Koxinga fly into a rage the previous month and order the decapitation of all the Dutch male prisoners, Hambroek among them. The wives were given to Koxinga’s captains as concubines and the small children were sent to China. Koxinga himself took one of Hambroek’s teenage daughters — “a very sweet and pleasing maiden” according to Caeuw — as one of his concubines. In August there was also a killing of captive Dutch from the hinterland and Fort Provintia [a lesser outpost opposite Fort Zeelandia -ed.]; Koxinga believed they had been inciting the aborigines against the Chinese. The Dutch reports say five hundred men were either beheaded or “killed in a more barbarous manner.” Many women and children were killed too, but others were “preserved for the use of the commanders, and then sold to the common soldiers. Happy was she that fell to the lot of an unmarried man, being thereby freed from vexations by the Chinese women, who are very jealous of their husbands,” says the fort’s daily journal.

The results of these incidents are still evident in some parts of southern Taiwan. There are areas where the people have decidedly European features and even occasionally the red or auburn hair common among seventeenth century Dutch.

-Jonathan Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan

Koxinga’s siege delivered him Fort Zeelandia by February of the following year.


Antonius Hambroek taking leave of his daughters, by Jan Willem Pieneman (1810)

The fate of Hambroek, Zeelandia, the women, and all the rest make for literary pathos in Joannes Nomsz’s Anthonius Hambroek (1775). Koxinga lives on as an iconic hero celebrated in China and Taiwan and Japan, which is a complicated trick indeed. (A refugee prince from the ancien regime setting up a holdout state on Taiwan made him an obvious propaganda reference for Chiang Kai-shek.) For all his legend, his life remains a bit of a what-might-have-been: a few months after taking Fort Zeelandia, Koxinga died suddenly, perhaps of malaria, still well shy of his fortieth year. His son Zheng Jing, whom the violent-tempered Koxinga had nearly executed in his last hours, maintained an independent Formosa-Fujian kingdom that held out against the Qing until 1683.


Statue of Koxinga at the present-day remains of Fort Zeelandia.

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