Koxinga was a brilliant and sadistic 17th century leader you may not know.

Koxinga (real name Zheng Chenggong) was born in 1624. The son of the self-made man who was the head of a East Asia commercial-pirate empire (at the time, things were nuanced) larger than the English and Dutch East India Companies and later recruited as an officer by the Ming Empire. He was born near Nagasaki, Japan, in fact his mother was Japanese (his father also traded in Japan) and lived there until he was seven years old.

In 1644, the Manchu, a population from more or less present-day Manchuria (outside China at the time) defeat the Ming and found the new Qing dynasty. In the south of China, Ming loyalist groups emerge, Koxinga leading one of these. The father in 1646 surrends to the Qing and wrote to his son to do the same. The son says: not a chance. The Qing attack Anping, his family’s town. His mother (who had left Japan) kills herself so as not to be taken prisoner. This is now extremely personal for Koxinga.

At first, Koxinga’s numerous victories against the Qing are so important that it seems as if they are about to abandon Beijing and take refuge in Manchuria. Koxinga is an outstanding commander. However, even he is not without his flaws; like that he has a soft spot for executions. There are frequent cases in which he has his subordinates executed for even the smallest mistakes. Besides that, he has a really shitty character: irascible, bossy, temperamental. After many victories, Koxinga makes a mistake. He announces the ‘final battle’ of Nanking too early and gives the Qing time to organise themselves. He then fails to conquer the city; if he had succeeded, the Qing would probably not have been the last dynasty of the Chinese Empire.

In 1661, in order to secure safe territory from which to launch attacks on the Qing, Koxinga attacked the Dutch (more precisely the Dutch East India Company, VOC) in their colony of Taiwan. Taiwan had been a VOC colony since 1624. When the Dutch arrived, there were already about 20000 Chinese and indigenous peoples. It was an island unclaimed by any state and a good point for trade with China and Japan, so they thought why not? It is the Dutch who favour Chinese immigration to Taiwan, to develop the island’s agriculture and economy. On 2 April 1661, Koxinga arrives in Taiwan, near present-day city of Tainan, with about 25000 soldiers. On 4 April he conquers the smaller fort, Fort Provintia. On 7 April he begins the siege of the main fort, Fort Zeelandia. The Dutch set off boldly, as they “only” had the Chinese in front of them, not an army of “civilised people”. With time, however, things start to go wrong, not least because no reinforcements seem to arrive from Batavia (present-day Jakarta, the centre of the VOC).

Dutch reinforcements, on the other hand, arrive twice, in July and October. Except that it is a disaster for the Dutch both times. Koxinga’s army defeats them 2-0. Now at Fort Zeeland the mood is very bad.Cases of barbaric conduct, fuelled by the length of the siege, are to be found on both sides. A Dutch doctor vivisects Chinese prisoners, Koxinga’s troops mutilate Dutch prisoners while they are alive (genitals, ears, etc etc) and catapult the pieces into Fort Zeelandia. Among Koxinga’s many prisoners is the missionary Antonius Hambroek, his wife and two daughters. Hambroek is sent into Fort Zeelandia to mediate the surrender, but he fails. When he returns to the camp, he is beheaded and his daughters become concubines. In general, many Dutch prisoners, including children, become slaves or if they are women, concubines. Others are crucified or starve to death.

The turning point: in January 1662 a German defector arrives at the Koxinga camp and gives valuable advice on the weaknesses of the fort. As a result, on 1 February the Dutch are forced to surrender. They can leave with their possessions and leave the island. The Dutch period in Taiwan comes to an end. Immediately after the conquest, Koxinga, not lacking in bravado, aims at the Philippines (a Spanish colony). He sends the Italian friar Vittorio Riccio to negotiate with the Spaniards; of course the Spaniards say no and the friar prepares to return knowing that his head will roll. However, in June 1662, while the friar is travelling, Koxinga dies of malaria, at the age of 37, while probably already suffering from insanity possibly due to syphilis. He only enjoyed the conquest of Taiwan for a few months.

The Koxinga family held the island until 1683 when they surrendered to the Qing, who had finally eliminated the Ming loyalists. The Qing reluctantly took over the western half of the island, not even the whole island: the eastern part would remain an area controlled by the indigenous peoples. So, when you hear the Chinese say that Taiwan has been part of China since ancient times, what the reality is in practice is: partially from 1683 to 1895 (when it became a Japanese colony) and in a chaotic way a few years after WWII until the Chinese nationalist government fled to the island.