Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Dutch in Tainan, then and now (Travel in Taiwan)

Even after the recent merger of Tainan City and Tainan County, Tainan is still only Taiwan's fifth-largest metropolis. Yet as the island's former capital, and the place where Han Chinese culture gained its foothold on the island, any attempt to understand Taiwan's history must address this bastion of culture and tradition.

Tainan's current population of 1.9 million is overwhelmingly of Han Chinese descent. But if you could travel back in time to the second quarter of the 17th century, you would find a multicultural, multilingual settlement.

In addition to Chinese migrants speaking Minnanhua (a language now known as Taiwanese), members of the aboriginal Tsou and Siraya tribes, Japanese pirates and traders, you'd see a surprising number of Europeans. That's because, between 1624 and 1662, parts of what's now Tainan were controlled by the Dutch East India Company (also known by its initials in Dutch, VOC).

The VOC was a privately-owned enterprise that by force of arms opened up much of Asia to European exploitation. The VOC's Tainan colony – like its outposts in Indonesia and Japan – was a commercial venture.

Sugar, rice, deer skins and venison were major exports. Significant quantities of spices, ceramics and silver passed through Tainan – then called Tayuan – en route to Japan and China.

Even though the Dutch occupation of Taiwan was brief and ended a long time ago, this period is crucial to the island's history. According to Lien Heng's General History of Taiwan, “As very early Taiwanese history has no written sources, the history of Taiwan was started by the Dutch...”

To read the entire article, get a copy of the January/February issue of Travel in Taiwan.

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