Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550–1700 is a treasure chest brimming with the finest jewels scoured from the East Asia Sea. It’s simply impossible for anyone interested in the region to read more than a few chapters without discovering wonderful subject threads begging for further exploration, whether that takes the form of a book or a dissertation to write, or just follow-up reading. 

The richness of material was a curse when it came to me writing this review. It took so much longer than normal. After taking notes on only the first half of the book, I’d amassed an unwieldy six thousand words, which is about four times the length of a typical Bookish Asia review. I had to raise the white flag on my initial idea of giving both a detailed overview and a detailed look at each of the sixteen chapters; instead, I’ve chosen a more scattergun approach of highlighting a few themes and nuggets. 

Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai focuses on the fascinating history of maritime trade in East Asia during what the editors call the long seventeenth century (1550 to 1700). Despite the chaos of war and political change – the arrival of European powers, the Japanese invasions of Korea, and, above all, the change of Chinese dynasties with the Manchu Qing supplanting the Ming – the scale of maritime commerce experienced a dramatic increase over this time. The diversity of players in this trade is bewildering; from national courts to minor fiefdoms, large companies to smugglers and pirates. And, of course, the relationships between these players ebbed and flowed from competition to cooperation and back as circumstances changed. 

The book chapters use a variety of lenses to examine the complex history of the region on its own terms. East Asian maritime history doesn’t fit with that of the Mediterranean or Indian oceans – the uniqueness coming from China’s long dominance and also the degree of maritime prohibitions and government regulations. The book has a strong Taiwan flavor, with about half of the chapters related to it. If there’s one thing I would like to have seen is a chapter dedicated to the Ryukyus, a vital middleman in trade to Japan, especially between China and Japan when direct contact was prohibited. 

Western histories of East Asia have tended to give European mariners top billing as the agents driving globalization. The role of China’s maritime traders – in particular the Zheng trading empire of Fujian – deserves greater attention; their ships carried more cargo, whether measured in volume or value, than the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Dutch. 

In the introduction it is explained that the wokou (“Japanese”) pirates which plagued the East China sea in the sixteenth century were, in fact, predominantly Chinese. And as well as Japanese and Chinese there were also crew members from distant shores.

It was a hybrid maritime culture, which is evident in the very structure of the vessels used. A typical ship from this period might have a Chinese-style hull and rudder and incorporate elements of European rigging (which tended to be much more complex than that used in East Asia, whose monsoons generally allowed for predictable winds). It might be armed with Western cannons and carry a contingent of Japanese swordsmen and Portuguese arquebusiers. The navigator could be Chinese or Portuguese, and he would use Chinese and Portuguese charts with place names marked in Japanese and Chinese. In the crew’s quarters, Japanese, Spaniards, Dutchmen, Chinese, Siamese, and Ryukyuans might live side by side. It was like a multicultural dorm—only with scurvy and beatings.

That fun last line is classic co-editor Tonio Andrade, a fine writer and the author of three excellent works: How Taiwan Became Chinese, Lost Colony, and The Gunpowder Age. We see several such touches in the introduction, as well as an editing hand that doesn’t take the colour out of the contributors’ writing. 

The wild 1500s show how prohibition – in this case the Ming restrictions on trade – drove activities underground. When the Ming authorities moderated their trade policies, we see piracy decreasing. From the 1620s to the 1680s trade in the region was dominated by the Zheng clan of southern Fujian, and more than half of the chapters in the book cover facets related to the Zheng enterprise. Most readers with an interest in East Asian history will be familiar with the pirate warlord and Ming loyalist, Zheng Chenggong (more commonly known as Koxinga) who resisted the Manchus and ousted the Dutch from Taiwan, but his father’s story is a more impressive one. 

Zheng Zhilong progressed from poor youth to become the most powerful pirate in the world. He was so successful that the Ming court gave him official sanction to carry out his trading activities. His skilful mediations between the Fujian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese mariners, which lay at the heart of his success, was something his impetuous, aggressive son could have learnt from. 

Long tainted as a traitor for surrendering to the Manchus, Koxinga’s father is now seen in a more balanced, favorable light. Koxinga’s eldest son, Zheng Jing, is another underappreciated figure. In fact, as historians and writers broaden their focus from the Koxinga story to that of the extended Zheng family, I look forward to learning about previously neglected players in the drama.

In chapter ten, “Shame and Scandal in the Family: Dutch Eavesdropping on the Zheng Lineage,” Leonard Blussé gives us a fascinating look at Zheng Jing, Koxinga’s eldest son and successor. It’s impossible not to compare and contrast Zheng Jing’s reign, 1662–1681, with Chiang Kai-shek’s first decades of rule over Taiwan. Zheng Jing sought to develop and transform the island in the image of China. He was not a fervent retake the mainland guy, however, and wanted his followers to accept Taiwan as their new home. This caused tensions with the more ardent Ming loyalists. Blussé writes of a literati called Shen Guangwen, who wrote a poem critical of the shift in goals. Fearful of the fallout, he “disguised himself as a monk and fled into the mountains north of Tainan, where he lived for years in exile among the local aborigines.” What a great story! It would make for a terrific novel, or at least an episode in a novel. 

As part of Zheng Jing’s moving away from ambitions to restore the Ming, a series of negotiations with the Qing court took place between 1667 and 1669. He wanted to acquire recognition for his regime as a foreign entity rather than as a part of China. He was willing to act as a tributary state – but not to go so far as shaving the forehead and wearing cues in the manner of submission the Manchus required from their subjects. Talks broke down and nothing came of them. However, the Qing mostly left Taiwan in peace, until 1674, when China was wracked by rebellions that looked like overthrowing the new dynasty. This was an opportunity that Zheng Jing could not resist. “From 1675 to 1680, Zheng Jing launched a massive offensive on the mainland that saw his forces occupy most of Fujian and Guangdong.” 

The Qing managed to hold on and snuff out the rebellion. Qing admiral Shi Lang, formerly one of Koxinga’s commanders who had defected years earlier, won a major naval battle over Zheng, who once more fled to Taiwan. “Crushed and forlorn, Zheng retired to a mansion on the outskirts of Tainan, whiling away his days intoxicated with wine and women.” This took its toll on his health and he died in 1681. 

Chapter twelve,“The Burning Shore: Fujian and the Coastal Depopulation, 1661–1683,” by Dahpon David Ho describes what has happening on the China coast while the Zhengs were in Taiwan. The chapter is outstanding – the whole book is worth buying for this alone. The subject is the forced depopulation of coastal China, most harshly enforced in Guangzhou and Fujian provinces, which is the most devastating maritime prohibition the world has ever seen. More than just a tale of misery and bloodshed, there are several unexpected nuances and twists to this story, but I’ll leave it for readers to discover these by themselves. 

In “Zheng Regime and the Tokugawa Bakufu: Asking for Japanese Intervention,” Patricia Carioti describes Zheng relations with the Tokugawa regime in Japan. During their resistance against the Manchus, the Zhengs made numerous appeals to the Japanese court for help. Ultimately, little came of it – no troops were sent – though some money, supplies, and weapons were given. The subject of Japanese support was dramatized in a famous Japanese play The Battles of Coxinga, which was first staged in 1715. In this fictional counterfactual history, Zheng Chenggong is successful in defeating the Manchus and restoring the Ming. 

In chapter eight, “Determining the Law of the Sea: The Long History of the Breukelen Case, 1657–1662,” Adam Clulow recounts an episode that challenges some of the assumptions commonly made about the eastern seas being lawless areas where might was right and the Europeans could – because of superior firepower – do pretty much as they wished. “In June 1657, a Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship called the Breukelen attacked and seized a Chinese junk in the busy shipping lanes running along the coast of Vietnam.” This encounter led to a drawn-out legal dispute in court thousands of miles away; incredibly in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki. “After five years of acrimonious wrangling, Japanese officials eventually forced the organization to pay full compensation to the Chinese plaintiffs for the Breukelen’s actions.” 

 The European gunned vessel was a formidable weapon fully capable of wreaking havoc on Asian shipping, but it did not operate in a political vacuum, a fact proven time and time again to Dutch administrators and captains. They were forced to confront a complex legal landscape filled with overlapping jurisdictional boundaries whenever they sought to run out their guns. If the strength of European cannon and sails could swiftly end an encounter, it could also spark a long-running legal battle in which the power conferred by technological innovation faded away. In this way, the gunned vessel did not, for all its power, ensure European mastery over Asian waters. 

For me, the most intriguing chapter was Weichung Cheng’s “Admiral Shi Lang’s Secret Proposal to Return Taiwan to the VOC.” It contains several fascinating what-ifs and contains revelatory information – political dynamite because of its relevance to the sovereignty of modern Taiwan. 

In the early summer of 1683, the Kangxi emperor of the Qing dynasty ordered Admiral Shi Lang to subdue the Zheng regime in the Pescadores (Penghu Islands) and Taiwan. Shi Lang’s attack on the Pescadores devastated the Zheng forces – they lost near two hundred junks and the garrison of 1,400 men surrendered. There would be no need to attack Taiwan now. On July 31, Zheng Keshuang, successor to Zheng Jing, sent a letter of surrender to Shi Lang. He passed it on to Yao Qisheng (1624–1683), the governor-general of Fujian, who in turn sent it to Beijing. The slow back and forth of communications in those days gave commanders in the field plenty of time for private schemes. And Shi Lang certainly had some scheming in mind. Shi Lang wanted to establish himself as a regional sea lord, in effect replacing the Zheng regime with his own. To make this happen, he had a devious, complicated plan – and a very dangerous plan, too, as it involved lying to the emperor. His machinations – which, with multiple simultaneous scams being worked, read like a heist novel – didn’t play out as he hoped. Yet, they still set events in train that shaped the future history of Taiwan. 

Shi Lang worked hard to convince the emperor about the need to keep Taiwan, as the emperor’s initial instinct was to abandon Taiwan after evacuating the Chinese living there back to the mainland. At the same time, Shi Lang wanted the Dutch back in Fujian and Taiwan in order to boost trade in the area, of which he was going to take a healthy slice. And to remove competition from Chinese merchants in other areas, especially those in Guangzhou, he wanted maritime trade restrictions along the coast to be kept; this would ensure his Taiwan operations greater profitability.  

When Shi Lang was in Taiwan to oversee the surrender, he enlisted the aid of a Dutch prisoners remaining from 1662, Alexander van Gravenbroek, to ask the VOC in Batavia to come back to Taiwan. 

Unbeknown to Shi Lang in all of this, Yao Qisheng, governor-general of Fujian, had actually made similar secret manoeuvres earlier on. Without permission from the Kangxi emperor, he had dispatched a mission of ninety people to the Dutch headquarters in Batavia in 1679. He hoped to get VOC help in driving out Zheng; in return they would get trading rights and could reoccupy Taiwan. As Shi Lang would find out for himself, the Dutch weren’t interested, being more focused on the Japan and India markets. Anyway, when it came to the China trade, Guangdong was now a better option than Fujian or Taiwan. 

Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550–1700 is a must-read work for anyone involved in East Asian studies. At a time when academic publications are increasingly becoming more about career advancement rather than scholarship or reaching readers, and with publishers complicit in producing little more than reheated dissertations, it’s a pleasure to come across such a fine book. Praise is deserved for the all contributors and also the editors. Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai is published by the University of Hawai’i Press, and is also available from Amazon.com and various other retailers.