Hans Putmans Rethinks His
by Jeff Provine
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October 22nd 1633,
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icon to follow us on Twitter.China faced a great time of turmoil in
the twilight of the Ming dynasty. Europeans from the West encroached on
imperial power while war with Manchuria emptied the coffers and piracy
limited trade that would produce tax-income. If Emperor Chongzhen
(pictured) were going to win the war in the north, he needed to secure the
seas to the south.
In 1628, the pirate Zheng Zhilong, leader and founder of the Shibazhi, a
powerful organization of eighteen pirates, defeated the Ming fleet. Zheng
had undergone an impressive life: he studied business in Macau at 18, was
baptized into Catholicism, translated among the Dutch, worked under famed
pirate Li Dan ("Captain China"), inherited the pirate's empire, and grew
it to an even more impressive stance.
Upon his display of mastery of the seas, rather than fight continual
losing wars against him, the Emperor took Zheng on as a major general. In
1633, Chongzhen promoted him to Admiral of the Coastal Seas and charged
him with establishing seas free from piracy.
"A Dutch Formosa would have been an interesting
place in a lot of ways. I still regret that I didn't make time to see the
old "Hong Mao" (Dutch) fort when I was there." - reader's commentsThis
event would be a boon for Chinese business, but the monopoly would
challenge the lucrative Dutch control of trade with Japan. Hans Putmans,
governor of Formosa (Taiwan), decided to end the Emperor's action before
it could be started and launched a sneak attack on Zheng's fleet in harbor.
On July 7, 1633, he destroyed much of the fleet.
Zheng reacted with a cunning plan to rebuild his fleet: use locals. He set
up recruitment with two pieces of silver for each man volunteering for
service, five if the battles with the pirates and Dutch went long. Though
not expert sailors, they were organized into 16-man fire-boats that were
easily maneuverable and sailed. For each Dutch ship destroyed, the boat
would be given a bounty of 200 silver pieces. Each Dutch head brought in
would be traded for 50 silver pieces.
With more than one hundred fire-boats on the prowl, Putmans and his pirate
allies faced gradual attrition over the summer and into fall. By October
22, Putmans' fleet of twenty warships had been dwindled to nine. When he
and his fleet spotted the Chinese warships approaching, Putmans made the
split decision to retreat to the safety and regroup. While he might have
won the battle, the war was against his favor.
Instead, Putmans decided to fight fire with fire: this was to be an
economic war. He took on volunteers at three silver pieces each and
promised bounties half-again as much for destroyed Chinese ships and heads
of Chinese crew. Through the rest of fall, the south sea turned into a
bloodbath, attracting pirates from as far away as Arabia. The Dutch East
India Company questioned Putmans' wild expenses, but the governor assured
stockholders that the small debt would be a valuable investment. By the
time shipping slowed for winter, the war had become a stalemate.
Putmans and Zheng both rebuilt their fleets and launched into one another
early in 1634. While the Chinese had English-made cannon, the Dutch ships
had been able to produce more firepower from their Formosan smiths. On
April 2, 1634, the fleets met in a decisive battle that ended with the
capture of Zheng. Rather than execute the enemy, Putmans offered to hire
Zheng away. Zheng said that he would only join the Dutch if given an
exorbitant ten million pieces of silver, but Putmans surprised him by
agreeing. The Company balked, but Putmans silenced them with promise to
pay out of his own earnings in addition to yearly installments.
Zheng came to dominate trade while Putmans worked to develop Formosa,
building plantations and settlements. He set up a "blood tax", forcing
natives to give up children as slaves, which produced profitable cheap
labor for the Company. In 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell to the uprising of
Li Zicheng, and Putmans made his move. Using Zheng's connections, the two
masterminded a Dutch invasion of the south of China, establishing a huge
new sphere of influence. Zheng was made the governor of the land, becoming
almost a king as he worked to improve profits for the Company.
The Dutch came to control the Far East, while the French and, especially,
English attempted to challenge their power, but fast alliances with Zheng
and his legacy of pirates made the Dutch all but invincible there. Over
the next century, great wealth poured into the Netherlands from the East,
which they in turn invested back into imperial growth. Despite attempts to
keep the locals under thumb, Japan would eventually come to their own
industrial revolution and challenge Dutch authority in the Dutch-Japanese
War through the 1930s. The carefully cultivated resources came under
Japanese control, though fleetingly as their choice of allying with
Hitler's Axis would end in surrender under atomic barrage.
says in reality Putmans' fleet met with that of Zheng Zhilong and was
destroyed. Zheng ordered his crews to focus on the more threatening Dutch
ships and, once those were defeated, to mop up the rest of the pirate
menace. Three Dutch ships were lost, forcing Putmans to retreat and
surrender the strait to Chinese control. He continued his governorship of
Formosa, developing the island at the cost of native lives. Zheng,
meanwhile, gained enormous wealth from his victory and would gain further
wealth by switching allegiances to the Manchu in 1646. He would later be
executed by the Qing.
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Today in Alternate History web site.
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