I approached Lost Colony with scepticism because of the book’s overreaching subtitle: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West. While the story of the battle for Fort Zeelandia in 1661–1662 is little known to those unfamiliar with Chinese or Taiwanese history, it’s hardly untold. Nor can it be called a “great victory over the West” seeing as it involved a small Dutch outpost holding off a numerically superior force of battle-hardened Chinese troops for nine long months. In the acknowledgements, author Tonio Andrade, a professor of history at Emory College, explains that the title was the publishing team’s idea and one he agreed to only reluctantly after their insistence that it would give the book wider appeal.

At the end of the day, the title and cover of a book are the publisher’s call, so I can’t fault Andrade for backing down. However, the overreach in the title does extend a little into the analysis in the book itself. The problem for Andrade is that he is interested in comparing the military capabilities of Europe and China, but before the First Opium War of 1839–42 there are very few conflicts to gauge the relative strengths. This lack of Chinese-European military clashes raises the importance of the Zeelandia episode for comparative purposes and it’s tempting to read too much into it.

Still, the clash was a turning point for Taiwan, with the outcome – which was very much in the balance – set to determine whether the island would continue in the European fold or be absorbed into the Chinese empire. What stakes and dramatic episodes! What characters, none more so than Koxinga, son of a Chinese merchant pirate and a Japanese mother, a Ming loyalist who came to Taiwan to establish a base from which to keep resisting the new Qing dynasty.

In my opinion, the deadly fight for Fort Zeelandia is Taiwan’s single greatest story. Other events in Taiwan’s history are missing some narrative ingredients and a certain X-factor. Take, for example, the Japanese invasion in 1895, which was a result of Peking handing the island over to Japan as war reparations for events in Manchuria and Korea – the Taiwanese resisted fiercely enough but the drawn-out, one-sided fighting doesn’t lend itself to a gripping storyline; likewise, the end of the Japanese occupation was determined by events elsewhere – the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 – and the Nationalists didn’t arrive in Taiwan as liberating heroes. Furthermore, the Cold War defiance of communist China was a prolonged standoff with relatively few hot flare-ups.

Andrade starts the book trying hard not to be a dry academic. As in a historical novel, there is a profile of “characters” at the start of the book. This dramatis personae is useful, funny, and though sometimes the profiles are jarring in their flippancy, they do have the virtue of being memorable. For Chinese general “Chen Ze” we get: “Brilliant commander on Koxinga’s side. Defeated Thomas Pedel with clever ruse. Defeated Dutch bay attack with clever ruse. Was defeated by Taiwanese aborigines in clever ruse.” For traitor Hans Radis we get: “German sergeant who defected from Dutch to Koxinga with vital military advice. Liked rice wine.”

Three of the entries for the Dutch leaders end with a telling observation about the last governor, Frederick Coyet: “Coyet hated him. He hated Coyet.” History has treated Coyet kindly, portraying him as a courageous, dogged, and intelligent leader, a hero who was badly led down by incompetent Dutch leaders and then unfairly made a scapegoat. This picture was partly of Coyet’s own making as he wrote an influential memoir blaming the loss of the colony on Dutch political and military leaders. Historians through the centuries have accepted and repeated his accusations. Near the end of the book Andrade suggests the fault for the personal animosity and feuds – and the arguably important negative consequences that resulted from them – lay with Coyet. Though there’s no doubt what he achieved was remarkable, Andrade says the last governor seems to have been “a difficult man, indignant, quick to avenge perceived slights.”

Andrade is primarily interested in one of the big questions of world history. Not so much the why of Western military superiority but the when. Revisionist historians see the divergence between Europe and Asia as happening later (circa 1800 with the industrial revolution) than traditionally believed. Andrade was himself a revisionist, believing it was political will rather than technological prowess that was the driver behind European empire building in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries. However, through his research of the Dutch conflicts with the Chinese, he modified his views, realizing that “Coyet, with his twelve hundred troops, might well have won the war” and Dutch technology proved superior in several important areas.

Chinese cannons and muskets were just as good as the Dutch ones. Koxinga’s soldiers were well trained, disciplined, and experienced. Andrade says what gave the Dutch an advantage was “the renaissance fortress and the broadside sailing ship.” Koxinga had lain siege to Chinese cities with walls that dwarfed those of Fort Zeelandia, but he was thwarted by the Dutch fort’s ability to deliver deadly crossfire, and “it wasn’t until he got help from a defector from the Dutch side … that he finally managed to overcome it.”

Andrade says Koxinga won because of superior leadership:

His troops were better trained, better disciplined, and most important, better led than the Dutch. Bolstered by a rich military tradition, a Chinese “way of war,” Koxinga and his generals outfought Dutch commanders at every turn.”

Although this is a reasonable assessment, it’s important to remember we’re not comparing like with like; Koxinga was the experienced military leader of a large force – Coyett was a colonial administrator for what was essentially a trading company. Though “the Dutch” is useful shorthand – used in Lost Colony and this review – it would be more accurate to write “the VOC” (the Dutch East Indies Company). The VOC was the world’s first multinational corporation. Though it had pseudo-governmental powers, the focus was on profits. The Dutch were in Taiwan first and foremost to trade with China and Japan, not to conquer territory, and this fundamental point affected their will to fight (and the willingness to expend more effort – and expense – in defense of the colony).

The story of Koxinga’s fight against the Dutch is so immensely rich that no writer could cover everything in a single reasonably-sized work, and this one comes close enough. Lost Colony is a masterpiece, tremendously enjoyable and informative reading, an easy choice for my top-ten list of books about Taiwan. The account is gripping from start to end, filled with fascinating details and explanations, and punctuated with cliffhanger endings. Even in the sections covering the middle of the long siege, where you’d expect a lull in the tension, there are incredible side stories such as an epic sailing feat which almost turned the battle, or an amusing, equally “what if” accidental encounter which could have led to Manchu-Dutch cooperation against Koxinga.

Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West is published by Princeton University Press, and is also available from Amazon.com and other retailers.

You might be interested in reading Bookish Asia reviews of Andrade’s other two books: How Taiwan Became Chinese and The Gunpowder Age.