It was the Manchus and the Dutch who called Coxinga a pirate, the English and the Spanish who called him a king. His Chinese countrymen called him both, depending on their mood. But he saw himself as neither; instead, he wanted to be known as a scholar and a patriot, unexpectedly plucked from a privileged upbringing and thrust into the forefront of a terrible war. A child prodigy from a wealthy trading family in seventeenth-century China, Coxinga became a nobleman at twenty-one, a resistance leader at twenty-two, and was a prince at thirty. The last loyal defender of the defeated Ming dynasty, he was the invincible sea lord who raided the coasts for ten years, before leading a massive army to strike at the heart of China itself. Still plotting to restore a pretender he had never seen, he was dead at thirty-nine, only to be canonised by his former enemies as a paragon of loyalty.
In a China that shunned contact with the outside world, Coxinga was a surprisingly cosmopolitan individual. His mother was Japanese, his bodyguards African and Indian, his chief envoy an Italian missionary. Among his ‘Chinese’ loyalist troops were German and French defectors. His enemies were similarly international, including Chinese relatives and rivals, the Dutch against whom he nursed a lifelong hatred, and the Manchus who invaded his country. Betrayed and deserted by many of his own friends and family, Coxinga’s stubborn character was most similar to that of his most famous foe–the Swedish commander whom he defeated in his last battle.
Famous for his pathological insistence on justice and correctness, Coxinga was ever troubled by his shadowy origins. His father was an admiral and the richest man in China, but also a crook who had cheated, murdered and bribed his way to the top of south China’s largest criminal organisation. Though Coxinga grew up in a palace, his family had clawed their way to their fortune, and had made many enemies in the process.
This, then, is the man that was known to European writers as that ‘heathen idolater and devil-worshipper’, the mutilator of his enemies and a heartless brute who could execute a Dutch priest and ravish the man’s bereaved daughter on the same day. But Coxinga is also the loyalist lauded by the Chinese as the last son of a departed dynasty, who steadfastly refused to surrender to foreign invaders when millions of his countrymen submitted willingly. He was demonised in Europe, deified in China, and remains a contentious figure to this day.
This is his story. It is also the story of his father, Nicholas Iquan, and of his deals and double-crosses with the Europeans he despised. To the superstitious, it is also the story of the goddess of the sea, and how she granted fortune on the waters to one family for forty long years. Though it ends with saints and gods, it begins with smugglers and pirates.