How the fate of 17 Dutch sailors changed history

History is full of butterfly effects. The first voyage of the Dutch to China is no exception, thanks to the Portuguese.

During the Eighty Years’ War — the Dutch people’s struggle for independence from Spain — the Dutch were faced with increasing hostility in overseas trade. First, the Spanish closed all their ports to Dutch ships. After Portugal fell to the Spanish in 1580, all Portuguese ports were closed as well.

Why China?

As a result, the supply of spices to Amsterdam came to a halt. Driven by the love for spice and money (and probably also adventurous spirits of the Age of Discovery), the Dutch decided to find their own way to Asia, with China as one of the top destinations.

But why China? The tremendous fascination for the Chinese could be credited to two men who both had sailed to Asia while in service of the Portuguese: Jan Huygen van Linschoten and Dirck Gerritszoon Pomp.

Portrait of Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Image: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Van Linschoten, who stayed in the East Indies from 1583 to 1589, gathered as much information about the Asian countries as he could. Upon his return, he published his travel book Itinerario naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien. His reporting on China was, funnily enough, based on the work of a Spanish priest Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, who had never been to China and used information from Augustinian and Dominican preachers who did.

Nevertheless, it sang praises of the Chinese goods, spurring the Dutch’s interest in the Far East.

“Dirck China”

Dirck Gerritszoon Pomp had visited Macau several times and simply could not stop talking about its wonders after he returned home, spreading the words of the ridiculously lucrative trade the Portuguese were doing there. He even got a nickname for his enthusiasm for the “land of tomorrow” — “Dirck China”. He revealed that the most profitable trade in Asia was between Asian empires, with the Portuguese as the middleman.

Portrait of Dirck Pieterszoon Pomp. Image: Th. Matham/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The barter of Chinese silk for Japanese silver, in particular, yielded treasures: the Portuguese situated in Macau would stock up on Chinese silk and gold, which were in high demand in Japan, and exchange them for cheap silver in Nagasaki, then return to China to turn the silver into silk and porcelain for Europe.

READ MORE |Lost in translation: a hilarious history of Chinese porcelain in the Netherlands

The exchange of goods through the Asian ports yielded so much that the purchase of spices for Europe could simply be financed by the profit made along the way. Understandably, China became one of the top destinations for the Netherlands.

Finding the way

Seeing that the Portuguese were under Spanish rule and the Dutch were at war with Spain at the time, the Dutch wisely chose to avoid the Portuguese routes and find their own way to Asia.

It took some failed attempts, including the famous “Nova Zembla” incident where a crew tried to go through the Arctic but was stranded due to sea ice. Their story lives on in Dutch national history as an example of perseverance and heroism.

Heemskerck on Nova Zembla. Image: Herman Gouwe/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One voyage to the city of Bantam on the west coast of Java proved to be a breakthrough. According to Jan Huygen van Linschoten, Bantam — whose production of pepper attracted many Chinese merchants — had no Portuguese occupants. Upon arrival, however, the leader Cornelis de Houtman was greatly disappointed that there were already Portuguese merchants there, eyeing them with suspicion.

Still, a silver lining came in the form of wealthy Chinese merchants living in their own “China town” outside of the city walls. They treated the Dutch crewmen with hospitality and informed them about the Portuguese merchants’ animosity towards them.

Merchants of various origin in Bantam. Image: Anonymous, Cornelis Claesz (publisher)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Even though this journey resulted in heavy losses — both in human life and goods — the Dutch were proud that they finally found their own way to the East Indies. However, the sobering fact that there was too much competition in Asia meant that the Dutch needed to find a settlement as close to China as possible.

In the end, the Dutch set their eyes on Macau in the Pearl River Delta, where the presence of the Portuguese was, at best, tolerated by the Chinese Ming government.

Meeting in Macau

On June 28, 1600, under the command of Admiral Jacob van Neck — a fleet of six ships set sail to East Indies. Initially, they intended to send two ships to China after arrival in the East, but due to bad wind conditions in South and Southeast Asia, they decided to head straight for Macau, where they could stock up on provisions and gather information about their trade.

After some struggle with the notorious typhoon on the Chinese sea, Van Neck was, with the help of some Chinese fishermen, finally greeted by the sight of Macau — “a large city, built with Spanish fashion… on the mountain stands a Portuguese church with a giant blue cross.”

Macau in the late 1500s. Image: Theodor de Bry/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Shortly after arrival, a small boat carrying some sailors was sent to the city. The moment the crew set foot on Chinese soil, they were arrested. A day later, another boat was sent to find a better anchor point and was also captured. A total of 20 sailors disappeared into the mouth of Pearl River, never to be seen again. Except for one — Maarten Aap who returned to the Netherlands several years later.

Any attempt to get back the lost crew was futile. Van Neck was deeply frustrated and thought the Chinese were barbaric for imprisoning his men without any warning. The truth, however, as history has taught us time and time again, was never as simple.

The enemy of my enemy

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Chinese Ming government had somewhat of a “love-hate” relationship with the Portuguese. On the one hand, the speedy growth of the Portuguese settlement was seen as a threat. On the other hand, The Ming government needed the Portuguese for their “divide-and-conquer” strategy — the Portuguese received advantageous trading deals while other countries didn’t, leaving the Portuguese to deal with jealous competitors.

It was no surprise, then, that when the strange newcomers arrived at Macau, the Chinese officials and the Portuguese had opposite reactions.

The Portuguese, who arrested the Dutch sailors, wanted nothing more than to be rid of these protestants threatening their trade monopoly. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities wanted to speak with the new foreign merchants and offer them a piece of land elsewhere at the mouth of the Pearl River, turning them into enemies for the Portuguese and, hopefully, leading to greater conflicts in which both sides would lose.

Alas, the Portuguese were too quick to take action. When the local authority ordered them to hand over the Dutch sailors as soon as possible, 17 sailors had already been hanged by the Portuguese, while the remaining four were sent to Goa. Not even converting to Catholicism convinced the Portuguese to spare their lives.

Chinese officials’ attempts at communication with the Dutch ships were also sabotaged by the Portuguese, either through translation or bribery. On 3 October, Van Neck finally decided to turn back without the return of the imprisoned sailors.

A Dutch Ship Before the Wind. Image: Joachim de Vries/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Throughout the ordeal, the Chinese learned nothing of the Dutch except for their appearance, describing the event as such: “In September 1601, two barbarian ships arrived in Macau. Even the interpreters didn’t know from which country they came. People called them “red-haired devils.” Their hair is reddish and their eyes are round.

They stand at about ten feet, seemingly as strong as the barbarians of Macau (the Portuguese). Their ships were huge and covered with copper plates, sinking twenty feet into the water. The barbarians of Macau were concerned about these potential competitors in trade and drove the ships out to the Pacific Ocean by force. The ships were then blown away by a typhoon. There’s no way to know where they ended up.”

How the turn tables

Well… the first voyage to China turned out to be a complete failure. The ships returned with fewer goods, fewer men, and much more anger. It was a year later when the Dutch finally learned of the fate of the imprisoned sailors. In April 1602, Admiral Jacob van Heemskerck (leader of that Arctic exploration) captured a Portuguese ship off the Javanese coast and discovered documents detailing the murder of the 17 sailors.

Furious, Van Heemskerck swore to avenge the fallen sailors. He stayed true to his vow when he captured the Portuguese carrack (meaning merchant ship, “kraak” in Dutch), Santa Catarina, on February 25, 1603, which was fully loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain from Macau. The cargo was then auctioned off in Amsterdam and brought in over 2.5 million guilders. Since then, “Kraak Porcelain” has become a household word in the Netherlands.

The hijacking of Santa Catarina wasn’t simply a “good prize”, however, as it attracted international attention and set off a ripple effect in the course of global history. It marked the start of the Dutch–Portuguese War which would end in the Dutch overthrowing the Portuguese monopoly on trade in the East Indies, establishing colonies in Indonesia that served as bases for colonial advancement in China.

Unfortunately, news of the hijack wasn’t well-received in China. After the first encounter in Macau, the Portuguese told China that the Dutch “red-haired devils” were all barbaric pirates who didn’t deserve mutual trade. The Chinese were initially suspicious of their words but changed their mind when they caught wind of the hijack. Stealing by force? The Dutch were really barbaric pirates after all.

Dutch in battle against the Chinese near Macao. Image: Matthijs Balen/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Little did the Chinese know, they would be dealing with more “barbarians” than just the Dutch because of this hijack. The auction of Chinese goods was an eye-opener for many European merchants. Until that point in time, the Portuguese had kept their trading activities in Asia a secret.

The selling of the Santa Catarina’s cargo, however, made the Europeans realize the enormous profits that could be made in Asia, especially with China. Following this, foreign traders and colonialists plagued the coasts of China.

As for the Dutch, their bad reputation led to a century of conflict with China. Failed attempts at mutual trade resulted in invasions with twists and turns, which inevitably dragged both countries into the ever-growing monster that is the global trading system.

Did you know about this exciting chapter in history? Tell us in the comments below!


Blussé, L., & Van Luyn, F. J. (2008). China en de Nederlanders. Walburg Pers.
陈旭楠.(2013).荷兰商船来华事件——全球史视野下的中荷葡角力. 全球史评论(00),357-366. doi:CNKI:SUN:QQSP.0.2013-00-020.

Feature Image: Aert Anthonisz/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2021 and was fully updated in August 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Jianghan Chang
Jianghan has spent her whole life in China except for a one-year exchange program in Leiden University, which caused her addiction to Dutch dairy products. Now wrapping up her degree in Dutch Studies, she aspires to further her education in Europe. Aside from over-analysing film and literature, she also enjoys being an amateur artist whose inspiration is fueled by crippling obsession.

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