Friday, September 21, 2007

By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements weaves a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Zheng clan. This is several histories in one: that of a Chinese family, the rise and fall of empires, the colonization of Taiwan, the rise of Western colonialism, missionaries in China, and the economic history of the Pacific Rim.

While the title promises a biography of Coxinga, the “Pirate King”, it is just as much a biography of his father, Nicholas Iquan. Clements describes Iquan’s rise from disgraceful scamp to disgraceful scamp ruling a massive confederation of smugglers and pirates. Iquan was the sort of lad to seduce his stepmother (Chinese families wer polygamous in those days) and was exiled to be a trader in Macao. He came under the tutelage of “Captain China”, and was instrumental in running elaborate swindles on the Dutch and English traders based in Japan. Clements describes Iquan’s hustles with frank admiration and gleeful comic timing. Iquan battled his way into succeeding as Captain China’s successor and grew powerful enough that the imperial authorities bought him off with high titles in return for his political and military support.

Clements also lays out the decline of the Ming dynasty. In 1644 a horde of bandits actually captured the capital precipitating an invasion by the Manchu hordes. Compared to the bandits, the Manchu were civilized. They swept south smashing the poorly led Ming armies. A crafty old sea-dog like Iquan knew which way the wind blew and he surrendered to the Manchu.

But he hadn’t counted on his idealistic son, Coxinga (a latinization of Koksen'yua, one of his titles). Coxinga refused to surrender and fought a sixteen year rearguard battle against the Manchu, holding out on his remote coastal lairs. Though the Ming claimant was little more than a fugitive, Coxinga led a formidable rebel fleet whose smugglers were a major economic power and whose marines came within a hair’s breadth of seizing the capital.

Pirate King examines the role of the Dutch. Iquan and later Coxinga prospered as the intermediaries who smuggled goods back and forth to the Dutch. The Dutch in turn sought a trade port in China, but were blocked by the desire of both the authorities and the smugglers to maintain their respective economic strangleholds. The irony is that Coxinga made the break with the Dutch. As the Manchu grew more powerful, he needed a safe base offshore. The Dutch colony on Taiwan would be perfect. Thus Coxinga inaugurated the strategy of using Taiwan as a place of refuge for representatives of defeated Chinese regimes.

Pirate King is filled with fascinating characters such as Wu Sangui, the general who gave up his loyalty for love of a woman. There is Adam Schall, the Jesuit who became the chief astronomer of the Manchu emperor and handled a cannon to defeat the Dutch. Clements tells the story of Reverend Hambroek, who gave his life to carry a message of defiance to Coxinga. Pirate King is a gripping, fast paced, and often funny story of a real-life pirate warlord and the world he lived in.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Definetly sounds worth picking up.

Dave Hardy said...

I'd rate it higher than "When China Ruled the Seas". Clements is a more dramatic story teller. Both are of course readily available from the library.