SOAS University of London

Centre of Taiwan Studies

The Problem of Authority: Dutch Political Theories of Aboriginal Autonomy in Seventeenth Century Taiwan

Leigh Jenco (LSE)

Date: 12 October 2017Time: 7:00 PM

Finishes: 12 October 2017Time: 9:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: KLT

Type of Event: Talk

Leigh Jenco


In this talk I focus on seventeenth-century Dutch representations of life in Formosan aboriginal villages, including the observations of missionaries such as Candidius and Junius, and connect them to broader trends in Dutch political thought concerning colonialism and expansion. I argue that these representations turned on a presumed similarity between aboriginal and Dutch values that ultimately justified the exploitation, and in some cases extermination, of indigenous peoples on the island. In invoking ascriptions of similarity to justify deeper colonial intervention, these Dutch discourses contrast with more well-known European arguments from the nineteenth century, which tended to use similarity as a reason for contesting or mitigating the intensity of colonial rule of native peoples. Sankar Muthu has argued that only when imperialist writers began to see “savage” peoples of the New World as similar to Europeans in meaningful ways, specifically as culture-producing agents, did they begin to formulate arguments against their exploitation. I want to show here, in contrast, that the very assumption of a shared premise for action—namely, the Dutch perception of the aborigines as autonomous agents capable of giving consent and making informed choices—is precisely what enabled and justified their exploitation by the Dutch. Along the way, these Dutch accounts also offer examples of how the Dutch themselves constructed difference, what its consequences were for the economic and political order they hoped to establish on the island, and how Taiwan/Formosa figured in larger global imaginaries of territorial expansion and conquest.


Leigh Jenco (PhD and MA, University of Chicago, 2007; BA Bard College, 1999) is a political theorist at the LSE who works at the intersection of Chinese and contemporary Euro-American theories of politics. Her latest book is Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West (Oxford University Press, 2015). Her current research compares Chinese and Dutch colonial discourse on Taiwan, from the 17th century to the present. With colleagues at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Madrid, she manages a Humanities in the European Research Area grant for the collaborative research project “East Asian Uses of the European Past: Tracing Braided Chronotypes” (2016-2019). She is also associate editor of the American Political Science Review.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies

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