China’s great pirate, Zheng Zhilong, takes on the Dutch

Society & Culture

In 1633, Zheng Zhilong, one of the Ming dynasty’s leading admirals, commanded a large pirate fleet. His ships were microcosms of globalism, manned by sailors from Africa to Japan. And in this newly interconnected world, he found himself up against a great foreign power: the Dutch.

Battle of Liaoluo Bay - Oil painting on canvas, "A Battle between Dutch Ships and Chinese Junks, The Blockade of Amoy, 13 July 1633," by Simon de Vlieger
Oil painting on canvas, "A Battle between Dutch Ships and Chinese Junks, The Blockade of Amoy, 13 July 1633," by Simon de Vlieger

This Week in China’s History: October 22, 1633

“How,” Zhèng Zhīlóng 郑芝龙 wrote to his Dutch adversary Hans Putmans on the evening of October 21, 1633, “can a dog be permitted to lay its bitch head on the emperor’s pillow?” Having gotten the European’s attention, the Chinese admiral made his challenge explicit: “If you want to fight, bring it to us here in Xiamen, where the high officials of China can watch our victory over you.”

The European, indignant, was unimpressed by his opponent. “If they come attack us,” he wrote in a letter, “let God help us achieve victory in His Holy Name over this devious nation of sodomites.”

Historian Tonio Andrade lays out these dueling insults in his book Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Victory Over the West. This Week in China’s History goes back to the 17th century, when the Ming and Dutch empires did battle in the waters of the Taiwan Strait.

In his book (just one of several excellent ones he has written), Andrade examines the competing claims over technological flows and innovation in the 17th century, a scholarly debate that tries to get at the cutting edge of what Ken Pomeranz called “The Great Divergence.” What was the role of military technology in the growing economic and political gap between China and Western Europe that opened between the 18th and 19th centuries? Andrade deftly introduces the “conventional” European view, that European technology overwhelmed its East Asian opponents from the moment of maritime encounter, with a “Revisionist” view, that Asian technology was on par with what the Europeans had until relatively late in the colonial encounter. And then a still newer school of thought which argues that the revolution in military technology that eventually led to European superiority began, in fact, in China.

Let’s return to this historiography later. First, back to the two sailors hurling insults across the waters off Fujian.

Zheng Zhilong was one of the Ming dynasty’s leading admirals, but in 1633 he was just five years removed from fighting against them. Before that, he had been operating as a pirate, controlling much of the trade off the southeast coast with his junks. Zheng’s ships were themselves microcosms of globalization in the age of sail: Chinese vessels, armed with Chinese and European cannon, crewed by sailors from Africa to Japan. When the Dutch arrived in these waters, around 1600, they found Zheng a difficult obstacle to surmount, so they enlisted him. In their 1623-24 war against the Ming, Zheng Zhilong worked with and for the Dutch as a fighter, translator, and go-between.

In truth, neither the Dutch nor the Ming could manage Zheng Zhilong. In the 1620s, Chinese officials regularly asked the Dutch to help them defeat Zheng and his men, offering the trade agreement the Dutch sought (and in any case, without subduing Zheng, the Ming would be unable to ensure the safe passage trade required). In 1628, while the Dutch considered one such offer, Zheng landed at the city of Xiamen, burning ships in the harbor and houses on land. Convinced that cooperation was a better option than conflict, the Ming persuaded Zheng to join them by offering him a rank and a title, and the task of clearing the coast of pirates. He accepted, and established a base at Xiamen.

In the sheltered harbors of Xiamen Island in the summer of 1633, Zheng set about building a state-of-the-art fleet. Uniquely situated at the intersection of Europe and Asia, Zheng’s new fleet would have 30 ships at its core. Each, as Andrade describes them, would have “two reinforced cannon decks and could mount thirty or thirty-six large guns — as many as a Dutch warship — whereas most Chinese junks had six or eight.” The new ships would have the latest technology in their weaponry, and would make Zheng an even more formidable adversary against whoever opposed him.

The new fleet wouldn’t last, though. Hans Putmans was growing impatient, trying to maintain his country’s colony on the nearby island of Taiwan and expand trading opportunities that had drawn the Dutch to China in the first place. Seeing the new fleet under construction, Putmans decided not to wait for this new piece to be placed on the board. In the summer of 1633, he launched a sneak attack — unexpected since relations between Zheng and the Dutch had recently been cordial — and burned the fleet at anchor. Hundreds of Chinese sailors died and all but three ships were destroyed. The Dutch suffered just one casualty: an arsonist who died putting Chinese ships to the torch.

After the attack, the rest of the summer and early autumn was calm. Putmans ranged freely along the coast. Scouts suggested that Zheng was rebuilding a fleet, but Putmans declined to act on that intel, perhaps encouraged by a string of conciliatory letters from Zheng which seemed to imply the new status quo was acceptable.

Which was part of why Zheng’s challenging insult was such a surprise. In retrospect, it seems that maybe he intended to bait Putmans into acting rashly. If that is the case, it was well-calculated.

Putmans moored his fleet in Liaoluo Bay, an almost perfect crescent on the seaward side of Jinmen Island (the same Jinmen that would be the focus of the 1954-55 Taiwan Straits crisis). At dawn, on October 22, Zheng Zhilong’s fleet rounded a cape and approached the Dutch.

Putmans was not alarmed. This was not the fleet of warjunks that Zheng had been preparing. This was a ragtag fleet barely worth the name. And Zheng was no fool, but an experienced tactician. He knew well that his handful of ships were no match for the Dutch in a pitched battle, so he made plans for subterfuge.

Fireships have been a feature of Chinese naval warfare for millennia, back beyond the famous Battle of Red Cliffs in the third century CE. This was the tactic Zheng employed, but to carry it out he relied on deception. Instead of the small, maneuverable boats usually used as fireships, Zheng made his largest warjunks into floating bombs. Before Putmans could react, the Chinese vessels sailed headlong into the Dutch line.

As an historian, one of the rare goals is to find an event with multiple perspectives in the primary sources. Andrade has such a find here, and he describes the encounter richly. From the Chinese side, “the great cannons and fire machines were all going off at once, but our people advanced bravely on the decked ships”; Dutch sources described the Chinese sailors not as brave, but as “insane, forsaken, crazy, desperate men, who had already given up their lives.”

By the time Putmans realized that the Chinese ships were intending to set the Dutch fleet alight, rather than defeat them in conventional battle, it was too late. His losses weren’t appalling — three warships lost and a hundred men killed — but he was run off of the Chinese mainland and to Taiwan; was that colony now in jeopardy?

The aftermath of the Battle of Liaoluo Bay defied easy prediction. For Zheng Zhilong, it was an enormous victory, but consistent with his behavior throughout his career, he leveraged that victory for personal gain as much as anything else. His success enabled him to fend off rivals within the Chinese bureaucracy, enhancing his power, wealth, and autonomy on the southeast coast. He augmented all of these through trade…with the Dutch! As Putmans tried to consolidate his colony on Taiwan, Zheng found it in his interests to keep the Dutch beholden to him, and he did this by allowing trade with the island. Zheng collected tolls on this trade; by some estimates, Zheng earned as much through these as the Dutch East India Company did in all its dealings. Soon, Zheng Zhilong was governor general of Fujian, and one of the richest men in Asia.

Not quite the usual story of European colonialism in East and Southeast Asia, but the Zheng family was not a typical clan. And there was another chapter to be written…but that is for another week in China’s history.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.