On this day in 1633, China’s naval forces decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company’s fleet in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay, the largest naval encounter between Chinese and European forces before the First Opium War more than two centuries later. The battle was part of a wider conflict against Dutch efforts to dominate maritime trade and colonize the Chinese coast.
Governed by the Ming Dynasty for nearly three hundred years, China was at the time perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful civilization: its population of 160-200 million was about one-fourth the world’s population; its GDP is estimated to have been a third of the global economy; and its governance is considered to have been “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”, with entrance examinations, a meritocratic philosophy, and several dedicated departments and ministries (such as for revenue, justice, and public works).
For its part, the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) was the world’s first multinational company and megacorporation, pioneering practices and organizational methods that presaged the rise of modern capitalism (such as issuing stock, directing foreign investment, and diversifying into commercial and industrial activities). It was also a de facto arm of the Dutch Republic, a commercial superpower that utilized the VOC to take on powerful empires in both Europe and Asia. The VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the right to maintain a powerful military, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, produce its own currency, and establish colonies.
The Battle of Liaoluo Bay was something of a last hurrah for the Chinese; while they would score several more military and diplomatic victories against European powers, and would maintain an advanced military, China would eventually be overtaken and dominated by its Western rivals—though never wholly colonized or controlled—especially beginning from the First Opium War with the British Empire, by then the world’s new superpower.