Interview with Joyce Bergvelt, Lord of Formosa

Editor’s Note: When I call for diversity in Taiwanese American literature, or English-language works on Taiwan, I mean books like Lord of Formosa.

Taiwan, originally an Austronesian island, is colonized land. The hallmark of great literature about Taiwan, then, is perhaps sensitivity to this fraught crystallization of elements,  the way they arrived together under fire and pressure, and the complex ways they coexist today. Among these waves of colonizers were Dutch settlers, whose little-known occupation is today visible only in Fort Zeelandia (Anping Fort).

In the 17th century, their nearly 38-year hold on Taiwan was dismantled by yet another stranger: Chinese-Japanese pirate Koxinga, a refugee who would go on to claim Taiwan as Chinese territory. Again, Taiwan and her indigenous peoples would find themselves ripped in every direction but their own, forced to abandon one allegiance for another.

Joyce Bergvelt’s Lord of Formosa delves into Koxinga’s life, the 38 years of Dutch colonization, and their nine-month battle for Fort Zeelandia. Her book is a masterful work, creating a sympathetic and deeply human portrait of Koxinga, whose legacy has, until now, largely been written by his enemies.

We are so proud to share this comprehensive interview with author Joyce Bergvelt, edited lightly for clarity and length.

Leona: Though Taiwan is in contemporary times considered a de facto Eastern Asian country, its roots are Austronesian and its history, one dominated by waves of colonialism. What evidence of Dutch colonization still exists in Taiwan? How have these survived?
Joyce: Very little, I’m afraid. Koxinga was very thorough in eradicating all traces of everything Dutch that the VOC (Dutch East India Company) had set in place during the thirty-eight years of its rule. Churches, schools and seminaries were torn down. Names of places and people (also aboriginal) were all changed to Chinese ones, by force, if necessary. Sinification had truly begun. Fort Provintia (Chikan Tower, Tainan) was a ruin by the time the Dutch left; it was all but destroyed. Of the larger Fort Zeelandia (Anping fort in Tainan), all that remains today is one of its outer walls.
However, there is a story that goes around, that Olianpi (near Kenting) thanks its name to the Dutch word ‘Olielampje’, which means ‘oil lamp’, with reference to the lighthouse that was there. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a charming notion nonetheless.
Perhaps the heritage that remains of the period is the Dutch blood that possibly runs through the veins of those whose ancestors intermarried with the colonists. It would be interesting to find out how much Dutch DNA still runs through the blood of the people of Taiwan.

L: Conversely, does Formosa hold any significance in standard Dutch history?
J: Sadly, no. The Dutch lost Formosa partly because of their own neglect and a series of misjudgments. The loss of the lucrative colony was both painful and embarrassing, so it was best forgotten. It’s hardly mentioned in history school books today, and it if is, it’s only in a sentence or two. The name change is one of the reasons for this. The older generation (80+) does seem to have learned that Formosa was a Dutch colony in more detail, but they don’t always realize that Formosa and Taiwan are one and the same.  
However, knowledge of this episode has grown in recent years. I attribute this to a revival of interest in the VOC, the discussion on slavery and to our colonial history in general. Both the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum and the National Archive in The Hague held very good exhibitions on the VOC during the past few years, dedicating a section to Taiwan. Books on the VOC are now also elaborating more on the time it ruled Taiwan.
By sheer coincidence, Lord of Formosa appeared in Dutch translation (the original English version was published later) in the very same week (Oct 2015) as the Dutch translation of Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony, a good non-fiction book on the subject. The two ended up reinforcing each other. I’d like to think that I’ve made a modest contribution to bringing about more awareness in Holland of this very fascinating episode in our history, especially as Taiwan is increasingly in the news these days.

L: Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing Lord of Formosa?
J: I actually wrote it with Western readers in mind. Yet it was the Dutch public that I really wanted to reach. Most people in Holland have no idea that ‘we’ ever colonized Taiwan. I wanted to set that right, I really felt it was a story worth sharing as it is a pretty amazing one, and it has all the right ingredients for a novel.  
To be honest, I didn’t really expect people in Taiwan to be interested. Another book on Koxinga (Zheng Cheng-gong)? Old news. Written by a foreign woman? Oh, come on!
Until I came into contact with Camphor Press, a publisher specialized on books on the region with a strong focus on Taiwan. They believed in Lord of Formosa from the very start, and thought it would do well in Taiwan. It appears I underestimated the hunger for knowledge on Taiwan’s real history which seems to have been laid bare since the change of regime. I guess I had time on my side.

L: I saw that you were born in Holland, and spent time in China, Japan, and Taiwan. But this narrative doesn’t seem imbued with any sort of bias or fixed allegiance. You don’t pick a side. How do you maintain this objectivity and the empathy required to consider all perspectives? 
J: Thank you for the compliment! For one thing, it’s something that happened four hundred years ago, so that in itself creates distance between myself and the events that took place, and allows for more objectivity. Secondly, I had some training as a journalist, and one of the things that I learnt is that you keep yourself out of the equation. So, you give just the facts, and in the case of a novel, you insert emotion, but not your own: your personal opinions are irrelevant. Thirdly, I researched both Koxinga’s story as well as that of the Dutch, and found both stories to be equally fascinating. What really intrigued me, was the fact that the fates of Koxinga and the Dutch colony were strangely linked: the Dutch arrived on Formosa the year Koxinga was born, and (spoiler alert!) he died the same year, shortly after they left. That gave me the impulse: I wanted the story to be balanced: Koxinga’s on the one hand, and that of the Dutch on the other. I wanted to find the nuance. By aiming for this, objectivity came fairly naturally.  

L: In what ways was the objectivity important?
J: Because I chose to write the story in novel form, I had to portray the characters as real people, relaying their thoughts and conversations, and with all their faults and weaknesses. Over the past four centuries, Koxinga has acquired the heroic status of a demi-god. As a foreigner, I was able to take a more impartial view. It gives me the advantage in that I don’t have to take a political side or provide a ‘preferred’ interpretation of what might have happened. I tried to bring him to life as a man of flesh and blood. True, he was an exceptionally gifted military leader, but he did make some serious mistakes. He did not go to Taiwan heroically to oust the Dutch, as has often been suggested in 20th-century popular culture. He went there to flee the Manchu army to take refuge on the island -no prizes for guessing which figure in more recent Taiwan history has a parallel here- only to have to deal with the Dutch.

One might expect that, being Dutch, I would favor the colonists while writing their story, but I often found it difficult to admire or like them. They made some very stupid mistakes: in their arrogance they seriously underestimated Koxinga, as well as what was happening on the mainland with the invasion of the Manchus and the fall of the Ming dynasty. They should have seen it coming, but the Dutch merchants were too caught up in intrigues and rivalry amongst themselves, too busy trying to get rich. And even if there were those who did know what was going on, their warnings to the VOC headquarters in Batavia (present day Jakarta) went unheeded. At times the Dutch really were a bunch of bungling idiots. Some of the Dutch characters I liked and admired – such as Frederic Coyett, the last governor, he was not in an enviable position- others I considered to be big-headed bullies. I suppose that helped me stay fairly neutral!

L: Haha, big-headed bullies. Taiwan’s seen a fair share of those.
J: Exactly. And with regard to empathy: I believe that’s one of the basic requirements for a novelist. In the course of my research I felt I knew Koxinga and Coyett. I practically became obsessed with them, which is a good way of getting into their heads to write from their perspective.   

L: For a country with a recent history of martial law, what is the importance of historical literature? How does Lord of Formosa resist state-sanctioned histories and narratives?
J: I think historical fiction has a vital role in helping set the record straight where it might have grown awry. Non-fiction works that have been written by historians in Taiwan in past decades have possibly become colored by political views or circumstances, even by fear of a regime. The author might be wary of giving his views or drawing conclusions, whereas in fiction, the author has so much more freedom. He or she can always say “it’s a novel” in its defense, even if it is thoroughly researched and closely based on the truth. Readers will recognize it as such. That’s what makes historical literature, which is so much more widely, and easily read than non-fiction such a good vessel to tell a story to a broader audience. Non-fiction provides you with the facts, but a novel is about emotion. That makes it far more powerful. Look at books like Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island, Julie Wu’s The Third Son, or Vern Schneider’s recently re-released, long-banned 1952 classic A Pail of Oysters. These novels are centered around peoples’ personal lives. Readers re-live the events through their eyes, the emotions linger on. Books such as these helped create awareness of what happened during the White Terror, a dark period in Taiwan’s history that has been long kept hidden from the outside world. I lived in Taiwan during the early eighties while it was still under martial law, and I had absolutely no idea what was happening beneath the surface of Taiwan’s society to ensure that the truth remained covered up. These three novels certainly enlightened me. So yes, historical literature is of great importance in that sense, especially where the recent history of Taiwan is concerned.
In the course of my research for Lord of Formosa, I read diaries, memoirs, the VOC logbooks, old Chinese sources, searched the internet and read more recent literature on the subject, so I got a fairly good cross-section of what really happened.

As I said before, being a foreigner helps resist the state-sanctioned histories and narratives that you mention. It gives you the freedom to decide for yourself what you believe really happened.

L: In terms of craft, how did you conduct and distill your research? How do you qualify which events are essential to the story, and which aren’t? In the event of conflicting perspectives, how did you choose the surer truth?
J: The original research I did when I wrote my academic dissertation while I did my degree in Chinese Studies at Durham University (U.K.). The dissertation actually formed the backbone for the novel. Back then, I had to dive into the library and do a lot of background reading, including some very old, rare books in old Dutch. When I picked up the research again to work on the novel twenty years later, there was the internet, with an ever-increasing amount of invaluable information, sometimes too much. It can be very tempting to include every bit of interesting information I came across, which I did.
When I realized the manuscript had become far too hefty, I shed a lot of what wasn’t relevant to the story (‘killed my darlings’), and became stricter on sticking to the theme: Koxinga’s life story, his lifelong obsession with protecting the Ming dynasty, and finally taking Formosa from the Dutch. I believe I scrapped over 150 pages. Months of work, trashed. Argh! Metaphorically speaking, trimming a tree that has grown out of control into the shape I want works better for me than the other way around.
When it came to conflicting perspectives (and sources), I always choose the best documented and most likely scenario. One example would be the betrayal of Koxinga’s father, who negotiated with the Qing generals for a deal to save his own skin once he knew that the Ming dynasty was a lost cause. Chinese/Taiwan historians covered this up with the mantle of love, as he was, after all, Koxinga’s father. They generally stated that he was captured by the Qing. But his betrayal is documented and substantiated in many sources, and keeping in mind his background of a successful, wealthy merchant and a cunning, unscrupulous pirate (the two often went together in those days), it simply made sense to follow that scenario.   

L: Do you think your command of multiple languages and cultures helps your writing? How so?
J: Absolutely. I feel greatly privileged to have lived in Taiwan, Japan and England as a child. Living in various countries and being able to read in more languages gives you a far broader view. It makes you more sensitive to cultural differences, it allows you to see the nuance more clearly and enables you to look at things from different perspectives. And during my research, I was able dive into sources in three different languages. This may sound a bit odd, but I believe that, somehow, I was actually meant to write this book.

L: What was the translation process (to Dutch) like?
J: The original manuscript was in English as I was slightly unsure whether I mastered the Dutch language sufficiently at the time when I started. After all, I was ten years old when I left Holland, and I returned (for an interim period) when I was twenty-five. That’s a big gap. However, I am a linguist at heart, and I disciplined myself to catching up on quality Dutch literature, and I wrote for a Dutch magazine for three years. That experience made me confident enough to embark on the translation.
I just set straight to it, sentence by sentence, page by page. The advantage of translating your own work is that you know exactly which tone of voice you want to recreate, you know the characters -and the way they speak- inside out, and you have a lot of freedom, it doesn’t have to be literal, as long as you can tell the story, have the right rhythm and the sentences flow well. I must have done a fair job of it, as it was well received in Holland, by literary critics and readers alike.
There is one thing about the Dutch language, in that it is a lot more limited and less versatile than English, so translating into Dutch requires more words to get it just right. English is a hybrid language (Latin/Germanic) with many more synonyms that can nail exactly what you’re trying to say. It’s a well-known fact that Dutch translations often end up with 15% more words and pages than the original English.

L: Have there been any responses to your book that have particularly affected you?
J: The book received quite a lot of publicity in Taiwan when it appeared last April (2018). Within days, I was completely overwhelmed by reactions. On my Facebook book page , I received emotional messages from people who wanted to thank me personally for writing about their history, for telling the real history, and not the limited, one-sided interpretation that suited the political regime of the time which they had been spoon-fed at school. Quite a few people admitted not knowing much about it at all.
One woman wrote to me that she was moved to tears to see her teenage son reading my book. It shamed her that it had taken a foreign woman like myself to write it, and she expressed her heart-felt thanks. That really moved me.
In the Netherlands, too, I have had some heartwarming reactions. People, highly educated ones among them, told me they were embarrassed to admit that they had absolutely no knowledge of this period in our history, historians among them, and they thanked me for enlightening them.
The Taiwan Embassy in The Hague facilitated the book launch here in Holland, Ambassador Mr. Tom T.C. Chou received the first copy. He and his staff were absolutely lovely and they were a great help in launching and promoting the book. I have much to thank them for and I now cherish them as friends.

Editor’s Note: We are excited to hear that Lord of Formosa was shortlisted for the Asian Books Blog Book of the Year (2018) Award. To vote for Lord of Formosa, please do so at Asian Books Blog before February 15.

Lord of Formosa is available for purchase at:


Camphor Press:

Barnes and Noble:

This post contains affiliate links. participates in the AmazonSmile program, and we receive 0.5% of your shopping purchase if you select us as your non-profit beneficiary.

Leave a Reply