In the 1650s the best hope for Ming loyalists was the son of a pirate: the famous merchant prince Zheng Chenggong, who led the cause from his Ming Memorial Capital in present-day Xiamen. But by the end of the decade even he seemed doomed to fail. With Manchu armies closing in on all sides, he flirted with surrender. Then, deus ex machina, a man appeared at his court, a certain He Bin, an opportunistic ambassador of the Dutch rulers of Taiwan. He unrolled before Zheng a map of the island, "a vast land filled with rich and fertile soil, with revenues of several hundred thousand taels."1 He seemed to know all about the colony, including its military strength, and he told Zheng that "the red-haired barbarians who now control Taiwan have less than a thousand men in their fortress."2 The great warlord listened with growing interest, as he realized that his army "could take Taiwan with our hands tied behind our backs."3 He resolved to conquer the island and make it his new capital. With He Bin as a guide, he led his troops to one final victory, ousting the Dutch from one of their most profitable colonies. The Ming were able to struggle on, and Taiwan gained its first Chinese government.4 [End Page 1]
But who was this He Bin? How did he gain so much information about Taiwan? And why did he betray the Dutch and throw his lot in with Zheng Chenggong? Chinese records contain only scattered hints. Some suggest that he was originally a pirate who had roved the seas with Zheng Chenggong's father.5 Others say that he fled Taiwan after embezzling money from the Dutch "king" of Taiwan, or that he ran away to escape from debts.6 The few scholars who have written about him accepted these stories because they had few alternative sources of information.
It turns out, however, that He Bin was an important figure in the Dutch colony on Taiwan. He left traces in thousands of folios of Dutch documents. Indeed, he was one of the colony's foremost translators, working closely with the Dutch in all aspects of their administration: agriculture, trade, administration, taxation, and diplomacy. Thus, his life sheds light on the role of cultural brokers in colonial situations, a topic of increasing interest to historians. It also sheds light on the thousands of Chinese colonists who chose to make their fortunes under the rule of the "red-haired barbarians." But He Bin was no mere representative type. He was a uniquely colorful character. He may not have been a member of a pirate gang or an embezzler who stole from the Dutch "king," but he was nonetheless a scandalous fellow. He used his linguistic skills to cajole his way into the favor of Dutch officials, sometimes by underhanded means. Then he betrayed them spectacularly, earning for himself their epithet: "Scoundrel, Land-thief, Master-Traitor."
Translators and Middlemen: The Importance of Colonial Context
In 1624 the Dutch built a stronghold near today's Tainan City and called it Fort Zeelandia.7 They intended at first merely to trade Chinese silk for Japanese [End Page 2] silver, but they soon realized that the lands nearby were fertile and well watered. If developed properly, Taiwan could be made into "the breadbasket of the Indies," producing rice, ginger, indigo, tobacco, hemp, and especially sugar for sale throughout Asia. The inhabitants of Taiwan, however, were slash-and-burn agriculturists who generally planted only enough rice for themselves and their families. Where would the company find laborers and entrepreneurs who could establish commercial agriculture on Taiwan? The answer lay 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait, in the province of Fujian. Working closely with Chinese traders, the company worked to attract Fujianese settlers, offering free land, freedom from taxation, loans, the use of oxen, and, in...