The great days of Macau


by Stuart Braga

First published in the Casa de Macau (Australia) Bulletin

The first Portuguese attempts to trade with China in the early 16th century ended in disaster when an embassy was despatched to the Imperial Court at Peking, led by Tomé Pires whose book Suma Oriental was an important reference work describing the Portuguese eastern discoveries. He seemed to be the ideal man for what proved to be an impossible task. After lengthy delays, the Chinese found that the communication to the Emperor which came, not from the King of Portugal, but his underling, the Viceroy at Goa, was not in the form of abject submission deemed proper for barbarian rulers. Pires and his entourage were seen as dangerous spies and were thrown into prison in Canton, where some were executed in 1524, while the rest died miserably some years later, still in prison. The Portuguese had discovered, as did other Europeans over the next three centuries, that dealing with the Chinese authorities was difficult, unpredictable, and could be dangerous.

This disaster halted Portuguese trade with China for a generation. Cautiously, others ventured back. It took some time to persuade the mandarins in Canton that the 'Western barbarians' (Portuguese) were not a threat, and that to do business with them was highly profitable for both the merchants and the mandarins. Business in the Far East has always depended on suitable gifts being made, and it is probable that the first Portuguese traders to arrive in the 1540s near Canton made sure that their presents were sufficient to gratify the mandarins. They sheltered and traded at several places before they found a small rocky peninsula at the mouth of the Pearl River with a sheltered harbour. Already well-known to the Chinese, this place was the location of a temple built in the late 15th century for the worship of the goddess A-ma. To the Portuguese the place became Ama-cao, eventually shortened to Macao or Macau. Within a few years a small settlement with a few mat sheds (temporary structures built of bamboo with rattan mats for walls) had grown up. In a few more years, this settlement had become far more permanent and costly, elaborate buildings had been erected.

How was this possible?

Macau and its merchants became, for about 70 years, the beneficiaries of a number of very favourable circumstances. The first of these was the decision made in the 14th century by the Ming emperors in China to forbid trade with the Japanese, who they contemptuously called 'the dwarf barbarians'. The Japanese for their part made it punishable by death to leave Japan. This meant that these two Far Eastern empires developed in the next three centuries along divergent paths. In Japan, silver was relatively cheap; in China, whose currency system was based on silver, it became an increasingly precious metal as the population and economy grew under the stable administration of the Ming emperors.

The second circumstance was the accidental discovery of Japan by the Portuguese. In 1542, Fernão Mendes Pinto and a companion who were trying to reach China were driven far north by a storm and reached Japan, where their arquebuses, early handguns, created a sensation. They were immediately copied by Japanese armourers. In the next thirty years, an amazingly profitable import/export business, referred to as the 'carriage trade', was set up, based on Macau. The Portuguese merchants found a ready market in Japan for Chinese silk, which commanded high prices, paid for in silver, by weight. Japan produced silk, but the Japanese much preferred Chinese silk, which was of better quality. Chinese silk was purchased in Canton for far less than it sold for in Japan. Seldom in human history can there been such a profitable trade, and for more than half a century until the early 17th century, the Portuguese held a monopoly of it.

Looking westwards, with the Praya Grande in the left foreground.
Click to see full image

In this period Macao became a boom town of fine houses, adorned with Chinese and Japanese furniture and art objects.1 They were inhabited by richly dressed people waited on by numerous black African slaves. People came from Portugal to enjoy the bonanza.

Looking eastwards, with Green Island (Ilha Verde) in the left foreground.
Macau about 1640, a reconstruction by Vicente Pacia.
J.M. Braga Pictures Collection, National Library of Australia.
Click to see full image

According to Fr Manuel Teixeira, a population of about 500 in 1561 grew to about 850 by 16352. No-one bothered to count the slaves, but an American estimate made much later, in 1835, estimated the number then at 800-900.3 Some 10,000 Chinese people had come to Macau by 1635, but few if any would have regarded it as their native place (heung ha), and no-one bothered to count them either.

Travellers to Macau in the early 17th century marvelled what they saw. Fr António Cardim, a Jesuit priest who lived there from 1632 to 1636, wrote that 'Macao is put together of very fair buildings and is rich because of the commerce and traffic that are transacted there by night and day; it has noble and honourable citizens. In fact, it is held in great esteem throughout all the Orient, inasmuch that it is the depository of those goods using gold, silver, silks, pearls and other jewels; of all manner of drugs, spices and perfumes from China, Japan, Tonkin, Cochin China, Cambodia, Macassar, Solor; and above all, as it is the headquarters of Christendom in the East.'4

There were wealthy families who became patrons of the arts, ardent supporters of the Faith and contributors to the life of the community. They supported a charitable brotherhood, the Santa Casa de Misericórdia (the Holy House of Mercy) and religious institutions such as convents and orphanages. A municipal council, known as the Senado, was established as early as 1585. Soon there were three parish churches, St Lazarus (the oldest), St Anthony and St Lawrence. In 1575 a new diocese was set up, based on Macau. Initially, the bishop was Bishop of China and Japan, for this was a missionary diocese. A fine cathedral was built, generally known as Sé. The main religious orders, the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians soon arrived and set up missions. Each had its own church, dedicated to the appropriate saint, while the Jesuits, first in the field, built and then after a fire in 1602, rebuilt the great church which came to be known as St Paul's. Besides these were two churches attached to the Santa Casa de Misericórdia and the Santa Clara Convent, and a chapel attached to the Jesuit seminary of Nossa Senhora de Amparo, where Chinese Christians were trained for missionary service in China. Besides all these was a small chapel attached to the Senate House. The presence of all these churches and chapels, and the sound of their bells, dominated Macau.5

If this great commercial and religious success seems too good to be true, it was. It all depended on two things: the continuing success of the hugely lucrative Portuguese monopoly of trade between China and Japan, and the willingness of the Chinese authorities in Canton to tolerate this wealthy place on their doorstep.

A warning of what was to come was the construction by the Chinese of a barrier wall between Macau and Chinese territory beyond in 1573, sixteen years after the first permanentPortuguese settlement. Portuguese were rarely allowed to go though its only door. Upon the door posts was a pointed inscription: 'Dread our greatness; respect our virtue'. Events would prove that these were no idle words.

There was no warning in Macau of the establishment in 1600 of the English trading business, the Honorable East India Company and its counterpart the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) in 1602. Both were to have a sustained and ruthless entrepreneurial drive that the Portuguese lacked. Even worse was a violent anti-Christian reaction in Japan which began in 1614 and by 1639 led to the horrifyingly cruel martyrdom of many thousands of Japanese Christians and a bloody end to Portuguese trade with Japan. At the same time, the Dutch were taking most of the trade westwards, and there was a violet upheaval in China as the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus. With all of its trade cut off, Macau faced certain ruin.

Stuart Braga

1 According to an amazed English visitor, Peter Mundy, in 1637.

2M. Teixeira, Os Macaneses, Macau, Centro de Informação e Turismo, 965, pp. 34-39

3Elijah Bridgman in the Chinese Repository, November 1834, pp. 292, 303.

4Fr. A. Cardim, I Relazione della Provinzia del Giappone, quoted by the architectural historian Michael Hugo-Brunt, 'The Macao Collegiate Church of "Madre de Deus", "Mater Dei" of "St Paul's" ' in Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, vol. 14, 1979-1980, p. 73.

5C.A. Montalto de Jesus Historic Macao, p. 58, pointed out that the eleven churches in Macau provided for a European population of not more than 1,000.