429 How to convert indigenous Formosans to Calvinism

A buildup for a lecture that I gave online for the National Museum of Taiwan History, now on YouTube. It’s about an extraordinary painting of a Dutch minister who in the 1630s and ‘40s converted thousands of Formosans to the true Christian faith. The painting shows 121 men and boys and 110 women, children and infants in the thrall of the teachings and ruthless ministrations of Robertus Junius.

On the second of October 1643 a delegation of mercantile-military and ecclesiastical functionaries of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) visited the Formosan village of Soulang. (Formosa was then the name by which Europeans knew the island now called Taiwan.) There, the members of the recently Christianized community and their fourteen teachers were quizzed on the 360-item catechism in which they had been instructed by Minister Robertus Junius, and the two scribes trained by him took dictation to see if they could. All passed to the satisfaction of the delegation. The visit was the last stop on a tour of Formosan villages on the eve of Junius’s departure from the island. During his stay there, from July 1629 on, he conducted the most successful missionary campaign of any Protestant divine up to the nineteenth century.

An adulatory publication on Junius’s success, from 1650, was so highly regarded that it was republished in 1889 as a model for how such things could be done.

And how were those thing done? When Junius landed on Formosa, his mission was faced with an existential dilemma. His predecessor, Georgius Candidius, had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants largely on a transactional basis. The many villages on the island were in constant war with each other. For help from above in waging their battles, they relied on female priestesses called Inibs, who to the Dutch looked like witches. Candidius offered something better: troops with firearms, coupled to belief in the Christian savior. The successes he was able to achieve for the villagers of Sinkan, in their headhunting forays, made such an impression that more and more Formosans came to believe that the Christian god was a lot better than the Inibs.

Then the mission was derailed. In July 1629 the VOC head man Pieter Nuyts led a detachment of sixty Dutch musketeers to attack the village of Mattau, which had given safe haven to Chinese pirates. The warriors of Mattau withdrew and let their women and children wine and dine the soldiers. When they left to return to base, drunk and sated, the Dutch soldiers walked into a fatal trap. Coming to a narrow bridge across a river, the Mattau hostesses accompanying them kindly offered to hold onto their guns and swords, so they could cross safely and keep their weapons dry. In what must be one of the stupidest moves in the annals of warfare, the Dutch thankfully went along with this proposal, whereupon the warriors came out of the woods and slaughtered them to a man. (Nuyts had left early.) The Mattauers then proceeded to ransack the Dutch buildings in Sinkan, including the church, and burn them to the ground. In this rampage they were joined by forces from other villages, Soulang among them. Jesus was no longer the best God.

To regain purchase on the souls of the Formosans, Junius had to re-establish his street creds, and for that he needed troops. It took until 1635 until he got them, but he was then able to mount retaliatory campaigns against Mattau, Soulang and other enemy villages. The real fighting was done by Sinkan warriors, backed up by Dutch firearms. Junius couldn’t help it that when Formosans fought they were inclined to chop off the heads of vanquished enemies. And so this zealous young theologian, a few years after graduating from a Calvinist seminary in Leiden, found himself heading a thousand man-strong headhunting battalion into battles that looked like this VOC encounter in Ambon:

D. Jongman, Hostilities on Ambon, from François Valentijn, Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën…, vol. 2, Ambonsche zaken, 1724, p. 40
Engraving on paper, 11 x 15 cm

Whatever our own judgment of events, Dominees Candidius and Junius were right that their show of force would bring the populace around. By 26 December 1635, after  Junius could write that “we had no doubt that [villages we threatened] could be frightened [call it terrorized] to the point that they would soon come and beg pardon.” “On 31 January the Soulangians came to acknowledge our sovereignty over their village and lands.” Out came the baptismal font, as well as useful advice on land use and basic technology and administration of hunting rights. Those five thousand nine hundred conversions followed.

The predikants were also right about the profits and prosperity that would follow on successful conversions. For twenty years Formosa flourished as never before. The new income came from the bulk production of sugar and rice, cultivated by Chinese agricultural laborers brought over from the mainland. This was the start of a development toward the present demography of Taiwan, where ninety-eight percent of the population are Han Chinese and the aboriginal inhabitants are marginalized. If the Chinese government regards Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic, it is due to the Dutch.

What is the art-historical reason I am telling you this? It is amazing. The year Junius left for home, this painting was made:

Oil on canvas, old relining, 95.2 x 128.2 cm. Click to enlarge and view details.

with this inscription:

Vertooninge. Vande. habijten. Gestalte. ende. vergaderinge. /der. Nieuwe Christenen op. Formosa. Int. Dorp. Soulang. / soo. als. Gods. woort. In Hare Taale Is Gepredict/ vanden. E.D. Roberto. Junio. Anno 1643. Door een/ chinees. Aldaer geschildert. (Display of the clothing, figures and assembly of the New Christians in Formosa, in the village of Soulang, the way in which the Word of God [the Gospel] was preached in their language by Minister Robertus Junius. In the year 1643. Painted there by a Chinese [artist].)

This is the only seventeenth-century painting known made by an Asian artist and – for the portraits of Junius in the middle – a European. Above, it shows Junius preaching to male Formosans, and below baptizing the babies of females. The dedication and trust it shows was not a true picture of Dutch-Soulang relations, sorry to say. A year before it was painted, this report was filed by the VOC: “On last July 26th, three persons in Soulang who had committed several murders on little children were strangled to death on a pole and left there at a crossroads to serve as an example to others.” The “persons,” I suspect, were Inibs, who exercised extreme forms of birth control. What they did may have been seen by the Formosans as a post-term abortion. Soulangers were considered by the Dutch to be a recalcitrant tribe, on whom further “polishing” was called for.

The painting is on view until next week, ending on 30 June, in the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan City, Taiwan, in the exhibition Transcending 1624: Taiwan and the world. In connection with that display, the museum asked me to give a lecture about the painting. Rather than doing it on site, I made a video to which the museum added Chinese subtitles and put it up on YouTube. To watch it, click here.

© Gary Schwartz 2024. Published on the Schwartzlist on 23 June 2024. With thanks to Cliff Schorer, Anthony Crichton-Stuart, Dickie Zebregs, Guus Röell and Leonard Blussé.

Of all the miserable things happening in the world, the one closest to home is the formation of a cabinet for the Dutch government. Because enough parties thought that the success of the xenophobic PVV party of Geert Wilders in the parliamentary elections meant that they had to govern with the PVV and stepped into a coalition, we are threatened with a new government with ministers who adhere to the Grand Replacement theory; deny that climate change is due to human behavior; show continued admiration for Vladimir Putin; lobby for agro-industry interests; threaten political adversaries with judgment before a “tribunal”; call the incumbents from other parties “fake” parliamentarians; and have other sickening features. Legitimacy is being confirmed on this monstrosity by the centrist-right parties VVD and NSC. May they all be punished by the voters in the elections I hope will soon follow.

Otherwise, my bubble has not yet burst.

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7 thoughts on “429 How to convert indigenous Formosans to Calvinism”

  1. Thank you Gary for an enlightening read! As for politics, it’s just as bad here in the US. I had wished that Bernie Sanders had become president of the US. In my humble opinion, he is the only one that has the moral and ethical fiber to run a country. Those two other clowns running is a travesty!

    1. Amen!

      I said that too quickly. Biden is not a clown. What I would say about the two of them is that they are both displaying an unwarrantedly egotistic belief in their own indispensability.

  2. After the Good News, the bad news. If this is how the good guys operate–then as now, basically–what can we expect from the bad guys, and how bad are they really?

    1. I have made a confidential démarche, Jean-Marie, to upend the new cabinet before it is installed. So if a certain parliamentarian leaves a certain party in the coalition to form a party of their own, out of protest, and is followed by enough others to rob the coalition of its majority in the Tweede Kamer and subsequently withdraws from proceedings, you may give me some of the credit.

      1. I was not referring to present-day Dutch politics, Gary, but to the historical circumstances surrounding the painting you discussed and loosely to contemporary versions of colonialism/imperialism.

  3. Hello Gary, the painting now is at Taiwan. But who bought it and will it stay at Taiwan or return to The Netherlands?

    1. It was bought by a Dutch individual, Dingeman, who wishes his or her identity not to be known. I suppose, but do not know, that after the exhibition in Tainan closes on Sunday, 30 June, it will come back to the Netherlands. I have written a short book about the painting, which will probably be published later this year. Subscribers to the Schwartzlist will be the first to know about it.

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