Friday, 15 February 2013

The Taiwanese exception: or not

In the work I've been doing recently on early Protestant missionaries, one point has consistently emerged: there weren't any. Or hardly any. You can list the ones who were serious about it quickly: Baldaeus in Jaffna, Eliot and Mayhew in New England, Campanius in New Sweden (I was very excited about New Sweden for a while). Once you're into the 18th century, things change: but before then, Protestants just didn't do missionary work.

So I thought. Then I stumbled across the Dutch missionary effort during their time in charge of southern Taiwan (which they called by its Portuguese name, Formosa), from 1627-62. This was on a different scale. It seems largely to have been two dedicated individuals who got it moving, George Candidus and Robert Junius, both of whom set themselves seriously to learn the languages. But they created enough institutional momentum that the effort survived their departure, however haltingly. There was a genuine mission there, with all its problems; and with some real support from the Dutch East India Company and from the church back in the Netherlands, albeit never as much as the missionaries on the ground wanted.

Which is all very interesting, but it does leave all my explanations for the lack of missionaries holed below the waterline. When you read the accounts of the Dutch mission in Formosa carefully assembled (and, mercifully, translated into English) by the Victorian missionary William Campbell, it seems like it was all going well. Despite the stringent tests imposed for baptism, thousands of candidates were being admitted. Large numbers of converts were being employed as schoolmasters, and as such were being made pivotal to the whole conversion effort. The Dutch openly admitted that these indigenous Christians were better at their job than many of the Dutch incomers. Being good Calvinists, the Dutch were also setting up 'consistories', quasi-courts to oversee the morals of the people: they ensured that there was a good indigenous representation on those too, avowedly so that we may accustom them to manage the churches’. In the final years of the Dutch presence, they were actively planning a seminary in order to train indigenous boys as ministers. To involve so many of the native population in church leadership was unparalleled either in the Protestant or the Catholic world.

But then you read more closely, and discordant details keep hitting you. It is not simply the casual reference to the Dutch schoolmaster whose loose living was setting a bad example to the natives, and whom the government therefore had decapitated. The plan for the seminary suggested siting it in a valley enclosed by swift-flowing rivers, to prevent the students who have been taken from their families absconding to return to them, which seems a little less like a university and a little more like a prison camp than is usual at such institutions. The discipline which was imposed across the whole island - whipping or banishment for 'idolatry', for example - shocked the Dutch authorities in Indonesia when they heard about it. And when the Dutch were expelled from the island in 1661-2, by a Chinese adventurer and his army, their converts did not defend them. Quite the opposite: one observer mournfully noted that the native church-elders ‘now speak with much disdain of the true Christian faith which we had endeavoured to plant in their hearts, and are delighted that they have been exempted from attending the schools. Everywhere they have destroyed the books and utensils, and have again introduced the abominable usages and customs of heathenism.’

So it looks like it wasn't really working. It was chiefly a matter of main force, and in the end that wasn't enough. I am still trying to work out whether this makes Taiwan an exception that proves the rule, or simply a unique and bleak story in its own right.

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