At the dawn of the seventeenth century Taiwan was an Austronesian island, inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Aborigines and largely removed from the wider currents of East Asian history. In modern Taiwan the Aboriginal peoples make up just 3 percent of the population, with most of the rest being ethnically Chinese. How this came to pass is the central theme of Tonio Andrade’s beautifully lucid account, How Taiwan Became Chinese. The subtitle, Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century, makes clear his thesis that ethnic Chinese dominance in Taiwan was sealed by the late 1600s.

The success of Andrade’s book comes from the combination of scholarly rigour and engaging prose. Too often in East Asia studies (and beyond) valuable insight is obscured by overly academic, stultified writing. Andrade, on the other hand, writes in an uncomplicated style that makes his book of as much interest to the general reader as to the Taiwan specialist.

Thomas Pedel was looking for pirates. It was 1640, and he was deep in the wilds of central Taiwan, an area not yet fully controlled by his employer, the Dutch East India Company. He found no pirates, but he did meet another company employee, who said he was searching for an arsonist named Captain Favorolang. Having failed with the pirates, Pedel decided to help.

Andrade is a professor of history at Emory University, with a doctorate from Yale. He specialises in “global history”, a cross-disciplinary approach that goes beyond traditional restrictions of culture and national or regional political units. In How Taiwan Became Chinese Andrade uses primary sources from the Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese of the era, as well as modern scholarship, to skillfully weave together a tale of distrust, avarice, brutality, and successive waves of political miscalculation. The result is both an engrossing chronicle of the competition between the powers in Asia and an intimate look at the lives of traders, village elders, ordinary soldiers, and farmers.

The established story of the 1642 Spanish withdrawal from northern Taiwan credits Dutch military might with forcing the Spaniards out. Andrade cites letters from Spanish authorities in Manila to convincingly argue an alternative view. According to this account, the Spanish were in the process of a staged withdrawal from their unproductive and costly outpost, and the Dutch merely took advantage of the reduced numbers of Spanish defenders to push them out a little earlier.

Describing the approach taken by the Company after the Spanish ouster as “co-colonization,” the author shows how the Europeans – who never numbered more than a few thousand – enlisted Chinese from Fujian as the workers in their colonial endeavour.

The company provided what would-be Chinese colonists had lacked: a military and administrative structure to support their efforts. It made Taiwan a safer place to move to and invest in, whether one was a poor peasant or a rich entrepreneur. It also provided free land, freedom from taxes, the use of oxen, and, moreover, loans, and sometimes even outright subventions. It even advertised.

The cooperation between Aborigine, Chinese, and Dutch was never total, however, and the pax hollandica created by the Dutch colonists was a frail and unsteady one. A constantly shifting web of alliances fought a low-level conflict through the whole era of Dutch influence, occasionally flaring up into bloodier confrontations.

How Taiwan Became Chinese is probably the best overview of the European colonial era in Taiwan. It is beautifully illuminated with maps and period illustrations, extensively referenced, and contains enough appendices to satisfy today’s data-driven mindset, including the accounts of the Dutch East India Company. The whole book is available for free online through the Gutenberg-e program, and should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in Taiwanese history.