‘The shameful fall of fort Zeelandia’

At about the same time, some 5000 kilometres away, the Company was facing another military debacle on Formosa. The VOC had originally come to the island off the Chinese coast in 1624 as a way into the Chinese trade. An attempt to simply take Macao, the Portuguese gateway into the Chinese trade, in 1622, had miserably failed, after which the Company had limited itself to structurally blockading the Macao harbour. Negotiations with the Ming government in which the Company tried to present itself as a tributary country to China, which would allow them to trade with China directly, failed. The Company then had no choice but to look for a settlement from where to start indirect trade with China. In 1624, Fort Zeelandia, on the southwest coast of Formosa, was erected in the hopes of being able to lure the Chinese junks there and get a foot in the door of the silk trade.[1]

Whereas, particularly in the 1640s, the trade at Taiwan (which means “terrace bay”, now the name for the entire island, then only for the small bay and the islet on which fort Zeelandia was situated) had become rather successful, in the years leading up to our period of study, the harbour at Fort Zeelandia was once again becoming less prominent. The most important reason for this had nothing to do with trade systems or political developments: in the decades since the founding of the Dutch settlement, the channel that gave access to the bay had silted up so badly that it could no longer be navigated by any but the smallest of vessels. Ships therefore had to anchor in the open sea in front of the harbour, and could subsequently only be loaded and unloaded with specifically designed flat-bottomed boats. In addition to being highly unpractical, anchoring in the open sea was simply very dangerous in this typhoon-plagued part of the world. The China trade, which had been the sole reason for building the fortress, had therefore steadily moved away from Taiwan harbour.

On the political front, however, the China trade was also becoming more complicated, as the Chinese mainland was being ravaged by war. In 1644, Manchu armies had driven the Ming dynasty from Beijing, but this in no way meant the end of the war. In the area around Fujian, just across from Taiwan, troops had remained loyal to the Ming dynasty, and were continuing the war against the Manchus. The VOC now had to navigate a precarious course between the two warring parties: on the one hand, it immediately attempted to build up relations with the new dynasty, for one by sending out an embassy to Beijing in 1656.[2] On the other hand, the Company was trying to keep up relations with the Ming-loyalists fighting on just across the Chinese Sea, under the general Zhen Chenggong, known in the Dutch sources as Coxinga.[3] The latter had never hidden the fact that he felt that Formosa belonged to him, but the Company still hoped for a solution by negotiation. The fact that Coxinga’s war efforts on the mainland were quickly unravelling and he had fallen into discord with several of his generals, did not improve the chances of such a solution being reached, as Coxinga was looking for a place to retreat his army to. Just like the Kwo Min Tang some 300 years later, he let his eyes fall on Formosa for this purpose. The governor of the fortress, Coyet, who had feared an invasion by Coxinga for years, saw these fears confirmed in the beginning of 1660, when several intercepted letters made clear that Coxinga was about to make the jump to Formosa. On the 10th of March, he sent out a junk against the monsoon asking Batavia for immediate reinforcements.

In the last chapter, the laconic attitude with which Maatsuiker responded to Coyet’s cries for help was already pointed out. In an anonymously published pamphlet called ‘t Verwaerloost Formosa (Formosa neglected), Coyet would later give utterance to his frustrations over the fact that he had hardly been taken seriously in Batavia. Not only was this expressed in Maatsuiker’s rather lukewarm response to Coyet’s warnings about the invasion: he had also pointed out to Batavia that Fort Zeelandia was a rather troublesome fortress. It was protected by a redoubt, Utrecht, which was in fact built on a hill, and should it be taken by an enemy, Fort Zeelandia would become a sitting duck to artillery bombardment from there. The defensibility of Fort Zeelandia was thus entirely dependent on the fate of a small redoubt, but Batavia had never given permission to change this situation. The bickering over matters like these had already soured the atmosphere between Maatsuiker and Coyet before the latter sent out his cry for help in March 1660. Developments were about to worsen their mutual dislike quite severely.

In July, responding to Coyet’s letter, Maatsuiker sent out a fleet to come to his aid, commanded by Johannes van der Laan, the same who had been the right hand of Van Goens in several of the campaigns in the Western Quarters. After his attack on Macao had failed to materialize,[4] he arrived before Taiwan harbour in September. Coxinga’s attack had not come, and Van der Laan was eager to immediately return to Macao with his eleven remaining ships (one had been wrecked in a storm while headed for Macao.) However, on a council meeting on the 20th of October, Coyet decided to cancel the Macao expedition. He was retaining the soldiers brought to Taiwan by the fleet to strengthen his garrisons. Most of the ships had orders to continue to various destinations in the Indies, and the fleet was dispersed by next March. Van der Laan, furious at being robbed of his chance to attack Macao, left for Batavia in February 1661.

The complete dispersal of Van der Laan’s fleet was apparently what Coxinga had been waiting for, and with the onset of the northern monsoon, his fleet had set sail. Herport, being one of the soldiers who had been transferred from Van der Laan’s fleet to strengthen the Fort Zeelandia garrison, describes the arrival of the huge Chinese fleet as follows:

“In the morning of the 30th of April, as in the entire preceding night, there was a very thick mist, due to which one could not see into the distance. As soon as the mist had cleared, however, we saw such a fleet of ships, to wit Chinese junks, lie before the harbour in front of Baxemboy, that we could not oversee them, let alone count them. There were so many masts, that it looked like an arid forest. We looked at this, all of us equally awestruck and puzzled, as no-one, not even our Lord Governor, had expected anything like this, and we did not know, whether they were friend or foe.”[5]

The Lord Governor, however, probably did have a vague notion whose fleet was lying before the coast, and must have been less surprised than Herport, although probably as appalled. Coxinga had arrived, bringing 25.000 soldiers on hundreds of warjunks.

Map of the Terrace Bay
Map of the Terrace Bay. From Struve.

Taiwan island, on which Fort Zeelandia was situated, was in front of the bay. Coxinga presently sent several of the smaller ships into the bay through the Lakjemeuse Channel, slightly further north, and started landing his forces on the Formosan mainland as well as the island of Baxemboy, which was only separated from Fort Zeelandia by the narrow silted-up channel. At the mainland Coxinga’s soldiers were aided in their landing by the local Chinese population, which was happy to see Coxinga arrive and sped up the landing by providing small boats.

Fort Zeelandia was now isolated from the mainland, and thus also from Fort Provintia, a smaller fortification providing cover for Fort Zeelandia from across the bay. Van der Laan’s fleet now being almost entirely dispersed, Coyet only had four ships at his disposal. Only one, the Hector, was a large vessel, the other three were small vessels. Coyet thus had to look on helplessly as his fortress was surrounded on all sides. After the initial shock, however, resolve grew to defend Fort Zeelandia as well as possible. For this purpose, Baxemboy should be reconquered, and Sakkam, the settlement in which Fort Provintia was situated, should be occupied, so as to keep open lines of communication between the two fortresses.

The next day, on the first of May, these plans were put into effect. Three of the four ships, the Hector, ‘s Gravenlande and Vink, first having provided cover for the landing on Baxemboy, subsequently made for the Lakjemeuse channel in an attempt to destroy the Chinese fleet guarding it, about 60 vessels strong.[6] The last ship, Maria, which was a practically unarmed flute, meanwhile sped out to sea, making use of the chaos to escape and bring news of the attack to Batavia. At first, the attack at the channel seemed successful, as the Hector, a 600 ton vessel well-equipped with artillery, blew several large Chinese junks out of the water. Soon, however, it became clear that the three ships were too severely outnumbered. The Hector was closed in. Coyet would later describe what subsequently happened:

“Heated by the fight, five or six of the bravest junks attacked the Hector from all sides; whose warriors, in trying to save it, caused such a dense smoke by firing its cannon from below, above, front and behind, that neither the Hector nor the junks could be observed from the castle, from which this battle could otherwise have been easily watched. During the smoke, such a terrible explosion was heard that it caused the windows of the castle to shake: and when the smoke had cleared away, neither the Hector nor the junks which had been nearest to it could be seen. Unfortunately the Hector had been blown up [...]”[7]

The loss of the Hector convincingly tipped the scale to the advantage of the Chinese. The ‘s Gravenlande and the Vink now made a run for it, heading out into the open sea, fighting off Chinese all the way, who actually succeeded in entering the ‘s Gravenlande but were beaten off the ship again, and avoiding fire-ships let at it, one of which actually brushed the ‘s Gravenlande but did not destroy it. Having cleared the Chinese fleet, the two ships headed north for Japan.

Taiwan Herport
Impression of the siege. From Herport's Reise.

The two actions on land, meanwhile, had also both failed. The attempt to reconquer Baxemboy, under the command of captain Pedel, had been undertaken with 240 soldiers. The Chinese had by now landed 4000 soldiers at the small island, but a heated-up Pedel, out for revenge as his son had lost an arm in the first clashes with the Chinese the day before, just went ahead and attacked. Pedel himself died in the initial clash, along with half his soldiers. The others fled back to the boats and crossed the water to Taiwan in disorderly retreat. Herport, who took part in the action, describes how some of the boats were overcrowded and several of them sank, many of the survivors arriving back on Taiwan swimming. The other action, an attempt to reconquer Akkam and reach Fort Provintia, also failed: the commander of the small army, Aeldorp, realised the hopelessness of the situation and retreated back to Zeelandia almost as soon as he had made contact with the enemy. The next day, two messengers from Fort Provintia managed to reach Coyet, informing him that Fort Provintia’s water supply was insufficient, and the fortress would not be able to hold out for very long. Coyet decided to abandon the fortress and just retreat the entire force to Taiwan. Even this failed, however, as in the first negotiations with Coxinga the next day, he did not receive permission from the latter to evacuate the force to Zeelandia. Fort Provintia surrendered to Coxinga unconditionally on the 4th of May.

The Company army was now entirely surrounded on Taiwan. The negotiations of the previous day had yielded nothing, other than a good look at the Chinese camp, which housed about 12.000 soldiers by Coyet’s estimates.[8] His council now unanimously decided to defend Fort Zeelandia to the utmost, and on the same 4th of May, the blood-flag was hoisted over the fortress. There would be no surrender. That same night, the Chinese moved into the settlement on Taiwan, and many of the civilians from the settlement sought refuge in the fortress. It was decided to evacuate the entire city and set fire to it, so as not to provide cover for the Chinese. An attempt from the fortress to go into the city and set it ablaze two nights later succeeded only partially, and the entire settlement fell into Chinese hands, including large amounts of rice and sugar still in the warehouses there. The positions still in Dutch hands were now only Fort Zeelandia, and the small redoubt Utrecht up on the hill.

At first it seemed that Coxinga was content to just wait it out and starve Fort Zeelandia. In the night of the 24th of May, however, after three quiet weeks, the Chinese threw up a battery near the fortress. Two days later they started a massive bombardment from this battery, and a large Chinese army approached the walls of the city. Coyet, seeing how the storm attack on the city was rather rash and disorderly, had his soldiers and bus-firers hold fire until the Chinese army was quite near and he had the best shot. Then he had a massive barrage unleashed on them. The Chinese commander leading the attack, however, had promised Coxinga to take the fortress on the forfeit of his head, and kept on bringing in reinforcements, until some thousand Chinese soldiers had been killed. Only then did the army go into retreat, also abandoning the cannon on their battery. Coyet immediately organised a sortie to spike (i.e. sabotage) these cannon. Just as these had arrived back from their mission, Coxinga had the castle stormed two more times, but both attacks failed.[9]

After these rather bloody attempts to storm the fortress, Coxinga decided not to try such a thing again and just be patient. As he had landed on Formosa just as the southern monsoon had started, he was confident that news of the invasion would not reach Batavia for months, and that he could comfortably wait the whole thing out. The flute Maria, however, which had escaped on the first of May, had beaten its way right against the monsoon via the Philippines, and had arrived in Batavia after fifty days, bringing the tiding of the attack. Interestingly, only two days before, Maatsuiker, hearing Van der Laan’s somewhat biased version of how Coyet had behaved, had just decided to have him sent up to Batavia and replace him as governor of Formosa. The new governor, Hermanus Clencke van Odesse had just left Batavia two days ago, sailing to Formosa with two ships, and a yacht sent out to cancel his instructions failed due to adverse winds. Clecnke would therefore be sailing into a very interesting situation. By July 5th, then, Batavia had managed to organise a succour fleet of ten ships carrying some 700 soldiers. Its commander, Jacob Caeuw (reportedly a rather incompetent and presumptuous figure), carried a letter with instructions to retain Coyet as governor.

Apart from some gruesome executions of Dutch prisoners by Coxinga within sight of the fortress[10] and disease which had broken out inside the fortress and left only 400 men fit to fight, the siege had continued rather uneventfully, when Clencke’s two ships arrived on the 30th of July. In the end, the letter that Caeuw, who would be arriving a few days later, had with him was not even necessary: assessing the situation, Clencke was quite ready to just forego the honour of becoming governor. In fact, he did not enter the fortress but stayed on his ship, until after a few days he sailed out to sea on the pretext of bad weather, and continued to Japan.

Only days later, on the 12th of August, Caeuw’s fleet arrived within sight of Taiwan. Fate, however, was apparently not on the side of the Company: just as the fleet had started unloading reinforcements and supplies, a great storm put up. Now, the danger of the access to the bay being silted up made itself felt. The fleet had nowhere to safely anchor, and had to sail out to sea to ride out of the storm. Only 28 days later, on the 8th of September, did the weather calm down and did the fleet return to aid the beleaguered fortress. The same storm gave Coxinga time to put his defences in order. The arrival of the fleet had woken him up from his rather complacent attitude towards the siege, and in the four weeks that the fleet spent out at sea, he now closely sealed in Fort Zeelandia and prepared his troops for more serious resistance.

When the reinforcements and supplies had finally been brought on land, it was decided in a council meeting on the 15th of October to retake the initiative and attack the Chinese in Taiwan to reconquer the settlement, and to destroy as many of the junks as possible with the ships. The attack took place on the following day, but backfired terribly. Adverse winds prevented the larger Dutch ships from coming within range of the city of Taiwan. The smaller vessels, meanwhile, did attack but, without the support of the large vessels, were repulsed. Two of the larger ships actually stranded due to the unfavourable wind and were subsequently destroyed by the Chinese. As support from the sea was therefore less than convincing, the land attack also failed, and the army lost 128 soldiers. The next day, the Company army attempted another sortie, but this was also beaten back by the Chinese lines.

Incredibly, in November, the Company army managed yet another offensive move of sorts, this time to some degree successfully. It succeeded in erecting a wambuis, a wooden bulwark, outside the main fortress, on the shore right opposite the Chinese battery on Baxemboy, from where they successfully bombarded it.

The moves which were to finally draw the curtains on the defence of Fort Zeelandia, were, ironically, all to be made by Company personnel. On the 6th of November, a letter from the Manchu governor of Fukien reached the besieged Dutch fortress. It offered assistance to the Dutch against the common enemy, in return for which the Dutch would temporarily provide some ships. On the 26th of November, the council decided to accept the proposal, and send out three ships to the Chinese mainland. This might force Coxinga to send part of his force back to the mainland, and would at any rate ensure Manchu cooperation. Jacob Caeuw, the commander of the rescue fleet who had until now done virtually nothing, volunteered to lead the fleet to China. On December 3rd , three ships left the harbour. Caeuw, however, had never meant to go to Fukien: as soon as he reached the Pescadores, he set sail for Siam, and from there to Batavia. It would appear that he had only volunteered to command the fleet to have a ticket out of the whole mess. In doing so, he had taken three good ships and a considerable number of men with him, which were now lost to the defence of the fortress.

In the meantime, many Company soldiers, convinced that the situation was hopeless, were deserting to the enemy. Among these deserters was sergeant Hans Jurgen Radis. He finally pointed out to Coxinga that the conquest of the redoubt Utrecht, which was still bravely holding out, would make Fort Zeelandia indefensible. Coxinga took his advice to heart and concentrated his efforts on the redoubt. Coyet, painfully aware of what was afoot, concentrated his resources on the defence of the redoubt, but to no avail. In the night of the 25th of January, after two abortive storm attacks on the redoubt and a massive bombardment of 24 hours which had left the redoubt to be no more than a ruin, the Company forces withdrew from there to Zeelandia, leaving a booby-trap in the ruins, which killed quite some Chinese as these took the redoubt the next morning.

With the redoubt taken, it was only a matter of time before Fort Zeelandia would fall. Coyet decided not to await that moment. On a council meeting on the 27th of January, he found a majority of the council members to be in favour of opening negotiations on the surrender of the fortress with Coxinga. On the 1st of February, Fort Zeelandia surrendered, after a nine month siege.

Charles Boxer, in his article on the siege from which I have extensively drawn in this paragraph, concludes with a rather moralizing yet very interesting passage in which he assesses the roles of the various Company officials in this entire drama. He fells rather harsh judgments on all involved except for Coyet, who held out in a gruelling siege for an improbable nine months, both against a vastly superior power and the ultimately fatal cowardice of those that were supposed to come to his aid. Incredibly, Coyet, upon his return to Batavia after the surrender, was immediately imprisoned, tried on rather ridiculous charges, and banished to the Banda Islands, only returning to the Netherlands in 1674. Caeuw and Clencke, by contrast, who had both effectively deserted from Taiwan leaving Coyet to fend for himself, were never tried and in fact promoted. It would seem that Maatsuiker, who was after all Governor-General and had clearly wrongly assessed the entire situation, had in this case simply used power politics to shut up Coyet who was now a serious threat to his position. When Coyet finally returned to the Netherlands, he attempted to find justice by anonymously publishing ‘t Verwaerloost Formosa, in which he rendered his account of what happened at Taiwan.[11]

It is of course doubtful whether Fort Zeelandia would have held out against such a vastly superior force, should Maatsuiker have liked Coyet more and heeded his warnings. The fortress, after all, was facing a professional Chinese army, 25.000 strong, well-equipped with artillery and bent on wiping the Dutch off Formosa. To this was added the impossible strategic situation of the siltedup bay, inaccessible to the large Dutch ships, in the region of the world most visited by typhoons. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that in this instance, when the Company for once did not command the field, self-preservation reflexes in people throughout the chain of command prevented an adequate response from materializing. Coyet was the notable exception, and as a reward became the scapegoat for the entire drama.

List footnotes

Blussé, ´De Chinese nachtmerrie´, 209-226.
Generale Missiven, III, 122-123; Daghregister 1657 (Den Haag 1903), 69-70.
The name Coxinga is probably a corruption of the Minnanese pronunciation of Guoxingye. Lynn A. Struve, Voices from the Ming-Qing cataclysm: China in tiger’s jaws (Yale 1993), 206n. The latter work is a fascinating study, of which chapter 13 sets off Coyet’s rendering of the events with that of Coxinga’s revenue officer, Yang Ying.
Boxer writes that Van der Laan went straight from Batavia to Macao merely to boast his fleet to the enemy in their plain sight, and then continued to Formosa, only planning to take the fortress on his way back from there. He does not disclose his sources in this passage, but does not mention the storm or the dispersion of the fleet. As Van der Laan might have been self-righteous and rash but certainly not stupid, it seems unlikely that Van der Laan merely dropped by Macao to warn the Portuguese that he was going to attack them in a few months. More probably, he was earnest in attacking Macao, but the chaos caused by the storm finally made him call off the attack. It wouldn’t, after all, be the first time that Van der Laan attacked without orders on the basis of his own judgment, witness his solo action before Tuticorin. (See above, paragraph on Jaffanapatnam) Boxer, ‘The siege of fort Zeelandia and the capture of Formosa from the Dutch 1661-1662’ in: Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society of London (24:1926), 16-47, there 24.
Herport, Reise, 52.
This sounds more grave than it was: these junks were rather small, and each only equipped with two guns, whereas a ship like the Hector would have carried a few dozen.
Coyet, ‘’t Verwaerloost Formosa’, quoted in Struve, Tiger’s Jaws, 213. Boxer wonders whether the explosion was accidental or not, i.e. whether the powder-chamber had been struck by enemy fire or some precursor of Van Speijck had been at work, resolving to blow up the ship and taking the junks around it with it. Boxer, ‘siege’, 27.
The other half of the army was spread out over Formosa by now, to occupy the rest of the island.
Boxer, ‘siege’, 31-32.
For one, Coxinga had had several Christian missionaries executed by crucifixion, forcing other prisoners to watch.
Boxer, ‘siege’, 44-46.