By Natalie Everts
Formosa, the `beautiful island' as it was baptized by the Portuguese, was politically speaking for a long time a kind of no man's land in East Asia. Situated strategically in the China Sea and remaining just outside the jurisdiction of the Ming administration, it served as a venue for illegal trade between Chinese and Japanese merchants. Their rendez-vous was a sandbar in the bay of Tayouan, which eventually lent its name to the whole of the island. It was also on this spit of land that the Dutch built their headquarters in Formosa, Zeelandia Castle. This trade factory of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) served as an entrepôt where European merchants exchanged goods with Chinese seafarers and many of the other peoples of the China Sea world. As such it soon developed into an important trading post in the intra-Asian trade system and as a consequence it became one of the most flourishing establishments in the rapidly developing network of the Dutch East India Company. Gold, porcelain, and silk were export products from China, silver and copper were offered for sale on the Japanese market. Formosa itself exported sugar and deerskins. An important contribution to this development was made by Chinese settlers who were invited by the VOC authorities to establish themselves as tenants on the island to cultivate the fertile lands of the western plains. Many people, impoverished as they were by the horrors of the civil war that ravaged China in the 1640s, were eager to respond this call. In 1649 governor Nicolaas Verburch said of them: `The only bees who produce honey on Formosa are the Chinese, in fact the Honourable Company could not exist in this area without that nation'. The tragedy was that the VOC, while becoming economically increasingly dependent on the labour of Chinese immigrants, gradually incorporated them into a form of serfdom. This aggravated tensions among dissatisfied Chinese peasants, culminating in a serious revolt (September 1652). After having put down the revolt, the Company failed to provide for a more even-handed administrative system. During this decade it also became unmistakeably obvious that the Ch'ing Dynasty was quite successful in consolidating its sway over the whole of China. The victory of the Ch'ing forced Coxinga and his followers back into the coastal regions of the south- eastern provinces. Unable to continue their resistance much longer, they sought a refuge, which they found on the island of Tayouan.
An enormous collection of VOC documents, preserved in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague, contains the greater part of the original archival data related to the presence of the VOC on Formosa. Among these is the collection of Dagregisters van het kasteel Zeelandia, a series of day-to-day reports, which the governor and board of Zeelandia were obliged to send every year to their superiors, the High Government, in Batavia. This source describes the interaction between the Europeans in the service of the Company, the Chinese traders and settlers, and the indigenous peoples of the island.
The Dagregisters provide scholars, as well as the interested general reader, with an excellent gateway into the history of the presence of the VOC on Formosa. This is the reason why the editors of the Zeelandia project have chosen to make this significant source available to the public, seeing it in the light of a guide to future research. So far the following volumes have been published:
J.L. Blussé, M.E. van Opstall, Ts'ao Yung-ho (eds.)
De Dagregisters van het Kasteel Zeelandia, Taiwan 1629-1662.
Rijks Geschiedkundige Publicatiën series, Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 's Gravenhage.
Vol. 1 (1629-1641), 1986 and Vol. 2 (1642-1648), 1995.
The last two volumes (III: 1648-1655 and IV: 1655-1662) are scheduled to appear in 1996 and 1997.
Natalie Everts is co-editor of the Zeelandia project