Lost Colony: China's First Victory Over the West
Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory Over the West
Princeton University Press 456pp £24.95
Taiwan, once again a site of confrontation between China and the West, was for nearly four decades the pride of the Dutch Indies. Then, two centuries before the Opium Wars, a warlord called Koxinga kicked the Dutch colonists out. The Dutch blamed the defeat on their commander, Frederick Coyet. Having been subjected to a mock execution in Batavia, Coyet in turn pointed the finger at the arrogant neglect of his government. In Lost Colony, Tonio Andrade asks if the true explanation might lie in the might of Koxinga’s 150,000-strong army.
Andrade abandons an assumption of western military superiority over the armies of Asia, which has prevailed for three centuries. The Chinese, we now know, were the inventors of the gun – in the 1100s – as well as of gunpowder. The ‘military revolution’ ascribed to early modern Europe should, Chinese historians have shown, be seen as a Eurasian phenomenon.
The battle for Taiwan was a testing ground for Chinese and western armies’ relative strengths in the first age of European colonial expansion. The Chinese would salvage cannons from English and Dutch shipwrecks – at least 42 in the 1620s alone – and Koxinga turned them on the Dutch to devastating effect. Nor were his troops lacking in discipline, a quality said to mark out European armies of this period.
Although heavily outnumbered, the Dutch might have won. In two technologies they were clearly ahead: forts and warships. These factors might have proved decisive, but Koxinga’s leadership was superior to Coyet’s and the weather favoured the Chinese.
This book is an impressive exercise in historical reconstruction, using both Chinese and Dutch sources to retrieve a world distant from our own. As the subtitle implies, it is a story with contemporary resonance.
More importantly, it sheds fresh light on the question of why the West rose to global dominance. Andrade finds support for the view that Europe’s technological superiority was no more than marginal by the mid-17th century: only by 1800 was the great divergence between the West and the rest beyond denial.
The English suffered similar humiliations in this period, in Tangier and later in Bengal. Still, the English and Dutch presence across swathes of the globe was never built on military might alone. The two technologies in which Dutch superiority was evident in the mid-17th- century – the fort and the warship – were tools of a trading empire. When mixed with guile and diplomacy, rather than outright confrontation, these were at their most potent.
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