The first Europeans to land on Formosa did so in 1624, on the sandy Tayouan Peninsula. It was here that the VOC erected its first trading post on the island. The VOC planned to use it to strengthen their trade in China and with Japan. The Japanese in particular; the hide of the Sitka Deer was sought after by samurai for use in constructing their armor. The VOC would pay the natives for the deer hides and trade them to Japanese warlords in return for silver. VOC operations on the island expanded with the establishment of Fort Zeelandia in 1635. Before then, the Company saw the island and its operations important enough to appoint a Governor-General in 1627; one Gerald de With, who carried out this office until 1636. VOC control of the island was not uncontested; during the 1630s, Spanish attempts to establish trading posts and missions on the island failed, usually by means of the VOC attacking the Spanish, slaughtering them and burning down their post.
Twenty years after first establishing themselves on the island, the VOC soon found the Sitka Deer population in decline, and were forced to pay more and more for the hides. With this trade venture turning unprofitable, the company introduced both sugar cane and mulberry trees to the island for cultivation. Over a hundred colonists from Liege arrived in Fort Zeelandia in 1644, and each had lots of land parceled out to them to establish plantations of sugar and orchards of mulberry. The mulberry alone was of little commercial value; however, the silk worm thrived upon it. Labors were brought in from China to work these plantations, and even their own rice paddies. Some specialist silk cultivators were lured from their ancestral lands by high paying Company contracts.
Not all the locals were so pleased by the Dutch presence on the island. Pirates plied the China Sea, and in 1641, made the mistake of preying upon a VOC ship. The VOC, over the next three years and at great expense, combed the Sparely Islands, and rooted out every single pirate nest they found. It has been estimated that over thirty thousand pirates were killed during this period. Even the natives of Formosa were not always as cooperative as the Company would like. Opposition to VOC attempts to unite the tribes of the island under their rule lead to a punitive expedition against Bakloan and Mattau, near Tayouan, which ended in both villages being razed to the ground.
Finding themselves effectively governing the island, the VOC levied a head tax on all the natives six years of age and older. This hit the natives hard, for they never had to pay taxes before the Dutch arrived. The VOC used this tax to finance the building of roads to improve the island’s non-existent infrastructure and in harbor improvements. The tax also paid for Company schools that sprang up across the island, where the natives learned to speak Dutch, the only language the VOC would do business with the natives.
The largest threat to VOC rule on the island came in 1660, when Ming Loyalist, Koxinga, lead an army on four hundred ships to invade the island. Thousands of Chinese soldiers besieged Fort Zeelandia. Defending the city was Governor-General Frederick Coyett, several hundred Company men along with a thousand natives. Such a threat was Koxinga, VOC forces were drawn from Java and even as far as Ceylon, to combat the Ming. From Ceylon, the King of Kandy sent four thousand soldiers to aid his allies in their fight. The Siege of Fort Zeelandia was lifted by the arrivals from Ceylon and Java. For two years, the VOC fought Koxinga for control of the island, finally cornering the General on Formosa’s western coast, where he was executed by the VOC, along with the survivors of his army.
VOC in Hainan
Hainan was the last of the “Big Four” in the VOC’s possession (Ceylon, Java, Formosa and Hainan) to be colonized. The VOC captured the island from the China in 1664, following the generalized chaos caused when the Manchu invaded and overthrew the Ming. Unlike the Ming, the Qing Dynasty had no overseas ambition. After half a century of operating in the Orient, the VOC had the leverage to cut off China from trade. In the brief war, lasting only a matter of months (in fact, it was fought and over with a treaty signed before word even reached the United Provinces) the VOC forced the Qing to cede the island of Hainan and grant the Dutch trade concessions, such as a monopoly in China’s tea trade. This was partly business and partly a slap in the face of the English and the humiliating peace they imposed upon the United Provinces following the First Anglo-Dutch War. Since the English restricted trade in England, the Company had no qualms in taking over the tea trade.
Hainan was used as the VOC’s primary trading center in the South China Sea, where commerce between the island, southern China, and Vietnam was moderately prosperous. Colonists from the Provinces arrived on the island just as the Second Anglo-Dutch War erupted. These colonists, like those on the other three of the Big Four, were interested in making their fortune on plantations. Sugar plantations were started on Hainan, but the company decided to limit the amount of sugar it produced to keep the prices from bottoming out. Instead, the Company started tea plantations on Hainan, overseen by Dutch colonists and worked by laborers brought over from the mainland of China. The higher pay of the VOC over that of feudal lords of the Qing caused a flood of immigration. This threatened to precipitate another war in China, for which the VOC was not equipped to fight while fighting the English. The Company negotiated another treaty with China establishing tight quotas for the flow of labor.
Following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the VOC had a stranglehold on the tea market. After losing the war, the English were forced to buy much of their tea from their former enemies and now new allies, the Dutch. This arrangement continued until the English, and later British, began to operate their own tea plantations out of the Philippines and Malaysia. By the start of the 18th Century, the VOC had expanded its operations on Hainan beyond tea into mulberry plantations and even mining. Deposits of silver on Hainan were tapped by the Company and used to further finance the VOC’s expansion in the East Indies. Though there was ample room for colonization, most Netherlanders preferred Ceylon, followed by Java, then Formosa, over this fourth island.