Zheng Chenggong is known as one of China’s national heroes for his retaking of Taiwan from the Dutch in 1662. What is not so well known is that he employed numerous foreign legions alongside his own troops, and from their number, he appointed Africian soldiers as his personal bodyguards.
Between the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in the mid- to late-1600s, the powers in Europe were heavily engaged in colonialism. As a result, many foreigners came to China. Africans were included in the mix. Some came as victims of the slave trade, while others had joined expeditions hoping to spread Christianity to China.
At the time, Chinese acknowledged native Africans as skillful fighters, warriors who were fierce and loyal. African soldiers served in the armies of Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. They were essential to the colonial efforts of the European powers.
Zheng’s father, Zheng Zhilong, had become powerful and wealthy under the Ming Dynasty. He did not want to submit to the rule of the newly-established Qing Dynasty, so he enthroned himself in Fuzhou, a city on the southeast coast of China. With him, he had a troop of 300 African soldiers from various ethnic groups. The soldiers were Christians, and they were loyal to the Zheng family.
Stated in the Journal of Chihuahua Council in China:
“The African soldiers were recruited by Zheng Zhilong from Macao and other places. Their leader was Louis de Martos, a smart and sensible man.”
These soldiers were not only good at using muskets, they also were very good at making them. These troops provided the weapons and logistics for Zheng’s army.
Eventually, these elite soldiers fought for Zheng Chenggong. Among them was a unit he appointed as his personal bodyguards. This unit also fought in the battle to retake Taiwan and made great contributions in combat.
In February 1661, Zheng Chenggong sent 25,000 soldiers and hundreds of warships to attack Taiwan. His tactics combined military action and political maneuvering. Zheng sent his African soldiers in to stir up insurrection and defections among the African soldiers in the Dutch army, who had come from the slave trade. Many of them surrendered and became soldiers for Zheng.
On February 1, 1662, the Dutch army was defeated and the colonial governor, Frederick Coyett, surrendered. The Dutch evacuated Taiwan, ending their 38-year occupation of the island.
After that, there is very little coverage of the African soldiers in Chinese history. Records state that during the time when Zheng Chenggong’s son, Zheng Jing, ruled Taiwan, an African army served as guards and servants in the palace. Some Chinese women also married the soldiers and started families. All of these brave men eventually spent the rest of their lives in the foreign land for which they had fought.
Translated by Jean Chen