08 January 2006

Pirate vs. Pirate on the South China Coast, 1630s

The new governor of Taiwan, Hans Putmans, had inherited an island of surly, fractious natives, and a tenuous alliance with [Nicholas] Iquan's family. He was surprised to find himself dealing not with Iquan, who was inland quelling the bandits, but with Iquan's mother and eldest brothers.

Unlike Pieter Nuijts, Putmans learned a little about the history of the region before he waded in. From his later activities, it is clear that he placed no faith at all in Iquan's continued friendship; after all, Iquan was merely the latest in a line of opportunists extending back to the legendary Captain China. But Putmans was also greatly impressed with Iquan's career path--from henchman, to pirate, to privateer, to admiral. Trawling through the books and records of the previous few years, Putmans hit on a new plan.

It was common knowledge that the Dutch had long coveted a port of their own on the coast of China. Veterans still remembered the disastrous 1622 attack on Portuguese Macao that had indirectly led to the Dutch presence on Taiwan. But it had been some time since anyone in the Dutch East India Company had given much thought to how the Portuguese had first achieved their foothold in China. They had been granted the land by the Chinese, Putmans believed, because they had cleared the Pearl river delta of pirates. The answer to their problem, as far as Putmans could see it, was not to wage war on the Chinese, but to wait until the pirate problem in Fujian was impossible for the Chinese to deal with, and then offer to step in and clean things up--on the condition that the Dutch could have their own little port like Macao.

Jacques Specx [governor general of Batavia], who had heard it all before, diplomatically tried to talk Putmans out of the idea, since it had several critical flaws. One, which Putmans never seems to have acknowledged, was that there was a considerable difference between the relatively small area of a river delta, and the thousand miles of Fujianese coastline Putmans was proposing to patrol. More importantly, Putmans was offering to clean up a pirate infestation that was not actually there--Iquan had already pacified the region.

But Putmans had already thought of a way around this. If there wasn't a pirate problem off the coast of Fujian, then the Dutch could make one. Putmans had worked out how much the average Fujianese pirate earned in a year of plundering, and proposed that the East India Company hire a number of them, both to wreak havoc offshore, and then to sail in to the rescue under the Dutch flag. Although it sounded a trifle silly on paper, was this not essentially what Iquan had done himself? Had the Chinese not ended their recent pirate problems by picking the toughest bandit and making him an admiral?
SOURCE: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements (Sutton, 2005), pp. 73-74

More here: Tonio Andrade, "The Company's Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621–1662," Journal of World History 14 (2004).

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