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Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West

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Lost Colony

The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West



456 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0691144559, HARDBACK

Reviewed by Robert Hoppens

book cover for the lost colonyIn Lost Colony, Tonio Andrade offers a highly readable account of the Sino-Dutch War of 1661–62 that resulted in the loss of the Dutch colony on Taiwan, which will be of great use for educators, their students, and general readers. Andrade treats the war as a case study to test competing explanations for the “rise of the West” to dominance in Asia, one of the largest and most controversial questions in world history literature. Andrade lays out the contending positions on this question between “revisionists,” who argue that the difference in technological, political, economic, and social development between the West and Asians was minimal before the Industrial Revolution; and the traditional explanation and its “counter-revisionist” defenders who hold that the rise of the West is attributable to the long historical development of unique and superior aspects of Western civilization. Andrade also tests a more specific explanation, the “military revolution theory” which holds that Westerners, even if not bearers of a superior civilization, enjoyed an advantage in military technology, organization, and discipline over other peoples.

Andrade, who is explicit about beginning in the revisionist camp, arrives at a compromise position. The Dutch in the seventeenth century did indeed enjoy superiority in certain military technologies, specifically in ship construction and in the construction of fortifications (what Andrade calls the “renaissance fortress”). These advantages, however, turned out to be marginal. In other areas, such as artillery, military organization, strategy, tactics, and discipline, Chinese forces were the equal of Dutch forces. Even in those areas that the Dutch enjoyed a technological advantage, the gap was not so great that these advantages could not be neutralized through adoption or strategic adaptation. Thus, Andrade’s account reveals neither an insurmountable Western technological or cultural superiority nor a kind of equality that omits historical distinctiveness but rather small differences that become more pronounced over time.

The counter-revisionists are correct that the Dutch had a technological advantage over the Chinese in warfare, but the revisionists are right that it was a slight one, easily made up . . . Perhaps we have not a sudden Great Divergence occurring around 1800 but rather a small and accelerating divergence beginning in the sixteenth century.(15)

This position is unlikely to satisfy partisans of either camp but is encouraging to those of us who, with Andrade, find ourselves in class “walking a tightrope” between Eurocentrism and “Europhobia” (to borrow from David Landes) (17). As one case study, Andrade’s work won’t settle the problem of how to account for the rise of the West, but perhaps it will inspire similar attempts at what Andrade elsewhere has called “global microhistory,” which focuses on the stories of specific individuals and events more than abstract theoretical explanations of world history.

The book’s greatest strength for educators is probably how Andrade’s larger argument is supported by an engaging narrative that is written in accessible prose that makes it suitable for use in high school or undergraduate university classes. Andrade lays out large themes and historiographical controversies in clear, understandable language. Perhaps more importantly, the engaging narrative will hold students’ interest. Out of Chinese and European sources, Andrade has pulled not only support for his broader thesis but also great stories, including the rise of the pirate-turnedMing-loyalist general Koxinga; political backstabbing and infighting among the leadership on both sides; the dangers of global travel and trade in the age of sail; and the vagaries of diplomacy and intercultural communication among a complicated multiethnic assemblage of Asians, Europeans, and Africans.

Even educators who don’t assign the book in their courses should find it useful background on topics such as world history historiography; the characteristics and limits of early European colonialism in Asia; maritime trade and travel in East Asia; and the history of the Dutch empire in the seventeenth century. In world history texts (and admittedly in my own lessons) the Dutch Empire tends to be lost between the Spanish and Portuguese conquests and the rise of the British empire.

Assigned for a course, the book would provide the basis for fruitful discussions of several important themes or topics. Andrade’s basic argument should generate plenty of discussion, and his narrative presents enough evidence to test his argument. Andrade’s account could also contribute to discussion of the use of historical sources and evidence, as Andrade is candid in presenting the problems and limits of the available sources. For example, Andrade explicitly comes down on one side of an argument regarding Koxinga’s loyalty to the Ming dynasty that could be profitably debated. What are students to make of the accounts of Dutch participants like Frederick Coyet and Jacob Cauw, who hated each other, competed for favor with officials in Batavia, and tailored their accounts to present their conduct in the best possible light?

Another fruitful discussion might interrogate Andrade’s characterization of the war as “China’s first great victory over the West.” Andrade stresses that his account is not one of a “clash of civilizations,” and his narrative does an excellent job of illuminating the complexity of the politics and strategy involved in the war, as well as the diversity of the players involved. Yet, the “West” here is represented by the Dutch East India Company, whose forces included other non-Dutch Westerners, missionaries, traders, professional soldiers, Chinese, and indigenous Taiwanese allies. The Chinese side likewise is represented by Koxinga, a half-Japanese pirate and trader loyal to the Ming, whose father sided with the Qing enemy of the Ming. The role of the Qing, especially, seems to complicate the picture of the war as one between China and the West. Ethnically non-Chinese, the Qing nominally allied with the Dutch against Koxinga (though apparently the horse-riding Manchus were not of much use to the Dutch in a war that depended largely on naval power). Yet the Qing conquest of Taiwan in 1683 is arguably as important to contemporary Chinese claims to Taiwan as
Koxinga’s victory over the Dutch (see early rumors that China’s first aircraft carrier would be named the Shi Lang after the Qing general who successfully seized Taiwan from Koxinga’s successors). Africans served on both sides of the war. In light of Andrade’s own evidence, does Koxinga’s victory represent a great victory of China over the West or an even more complicated story of competition to capture the gains from trade in an early modern world that does not necessarily conform to modern ethnic and national political boundaries? It is a testament to the detailed evidence Andrade presents that it can be used to question the subtitle of his own work. I look forward to using it in my own world history and Asian history courses in the future.