By the Skin of its Teeth

by Stuart Braga

Article originally published in Casa de Macau Bulletin

The Portuguese authorities in Macau between September and December 1808 faced the most serious challenge to Portuguese rule since the Dutch attack in 1622. This time, a powerful British force landed and remained for three months, though, curiously, the Portuguese flag still flew over the forts they occupied. How did the Portuguese authorities get rid of them? Macau survived by the skin of its teeth.

The old phrase, 'by the skin of your teeth' is seldom heard these days because we all live more secure lives. It was not always so, especially in Macau. As well as the daily uncertainties of life, there was the constant possibility that things might go badly wrong with China. The governors of Macau always knew that they had to tread warily in their dealings with the local mandarins. Following the glory days of the 17th century, there was a long period of slow decline in Macau's economic fortunes and from the middle of the 18th century, a rapid increase in the numbers and economic influence of British merchants. The peremptory demand in 1803 by the Governor General of Bengal, Lord Wellesley, for the Portuguese to surrender Macau could easily have spelt the end of nearly 250 years of Portuguese rule. Macau's survival was due to a number of factors.

  1. The British wanted Macau, but not badly enough to risk a major military confrontation with China, still a powerful empire.
  2. The Chinese authorities at Canton were firmly opposed to any change in Macau's status despite British blandishments to the effect that it would be good for business.
  3. The remarkably astute diplomacy of able administrators in Hong Kong, notably Miguel de Arriaga, who had little to fight with apart from their wits.

We need to remember how tiny Macau was at the beginning of the 19th century. The total Portuguese population was about 4,000, and about double that number of Chinese1C.A. Montalto de Jesus, Historic Macao, p. 261.. They were protected by Monte Fort, supplemented by a few small fortresses along the shoreline. The built-up area lay south of the city wall, which ran roughly from present day So Francisco Garden up to Monte Fort, down again to the Porto Interior and south towards but not including Penha Hill. Guia was outside the wall, high on its dominant hill.

Macau narrowly escaped British occupation in 1803, but in 1808, a far more serious threat emerged. Once again, events in Europe precipitated the crisis. Napoleon invaded Portugal, and the king fled to Brazil, not yet an independent country. The British sent an army to Lisbon to repel the French, and after a protracted struggle, the French invaders were thrown back. It became a renewed excuse for Britain to safeguard its interests in China by occupying Macau.

So on 11 September 1808, a British force arrived at Macau under Rear Admiral William Drury with three hundred troops. As in 1803, the pretext was that that they were there to defend Macau from a possible French invasion. The economically powerful British merchants in Macau at once concluded that Macau was about to become a British possession, and were delighted at the prospect. The governor, Bernardo Aleixo de Lemos Faria, may well have privately agreed with them that Macau would fall to Britain. He had only a few third-rate garrison troops, and he walked a knife-edge. He could not prevent the British from landing, though the Leal Senado angrily swore to fight to the death. Its members allocated themselves places in each of the forts where they would lead the defence. Had there been armed resistance, the puny Portuguese force would have been wiped out, and Macau would at once have become British. However, wiser counsels prevailed. Miguel de Arriaga, the Ouvidor (Chief Justice), became the man of the moment2The position of Ouvidor was a Crown appointment by the King of Portugal, which gave the holder a degree of authority beyond what might usually be expected of a judge.. He counselled caution. If the Chinese claimed that Macau really belonged to them, let them get rid of the British3A. Coates, Macao and the British: Prelude to Hongkong, pp. 94-100.. Lemos Faria and Arriaga must have had their work cut out to restrain the militants.

So Admiral Drury was welcomed ashore with every outward show of courtesy. He occupied the forts of Bom Parto on the waterfront and Guia high on the hill above. He had come, said Drury, only to assist in the defence of Macau, so Lemos Faria persuaded Drury not to fly the British flag, but to land his men under the Portuguese flag. This he did, while the Portuguese governor withdrew from the governor's palace on the Praya Grande to the safer heights of Monte Fort. He wrote to Drury defiantly: 'As I have already told you and now repeat: of the Macanese, not a single one but gives his allegiance to the House of Braganza.'4i.e. the Royal House of Portugal. C. Guillen-Nuez, Macau, p. 41. With one hand he warned Drury of Chinese hostility to his presence, and with the other, wrote to the Heungshan magistrates, effectively stirring up just such a reaction. He impressed upon the mandarins the fact that the British had moved into India and subjugated the people there and made it clear that they would attempt to use Macau as a base to do the same thing to China.

The ploy succeeded, and the mandarins in Heungshan told Lemos Faria that British troops were totally unnecessary for the defence of Macau. They would look after that. As a warning to the British, they suspended all trade in Canton and cut off food supplies. The British merchants there had to flee to Macau for protection. Drury had lost the initiative.

Meanwhile, military discipline was poor. This was still an age when soldiers were allowed to plunder, virtually at will, and the British soldiers got drunk, ran riot, destroyed property, and - worst of all - desecrated Chinese tombs. As a result, some were killed. They behaved like foreign barbarians who must be brought under control, and the Chinese authorities planned to do just that by means of passive resistance if possible, and by force if necessary. The Governor of Kwangtung province let it be known that as soon as Drury left, trade would be resumed. Naturally, the British merchants, who a few weeks before had welcomed Drury, now wanted to see the back of him. Drury had ranged against him the Chinese authorities, the British merchants from Canton, the Portuguese authorities in Macau and the local Chinese population. He had alienated all of them, and had no choice but to withdraw. Three months after he had landed, the British admiral sailed away on 20 December 1808, following an ultimatum from the Heungshan magistrate5Montalto de Jesus, p. 228, gives a bibliography of Portuguese sources published up to 1926 on p. 230.. In vain did the British later seek Arriaga's removal from office as a bit of petty revenge.6S. Henders, 'Macau and Hong Kong: Anglo-Portuguese Relations on the South China Coast', in D. Pitts, Macao: Mysterious Decay and Romance, p. 10.

To underline their sovereignty over Macau, the Chinese authorities made a thorough search of the Macau forts in case a secret British force had been left behind. Then, and only then, trade resumed in Canton on 1 January 1809. H. B. Morse, historian of the East India Company, summed up the British humiliation: 'Admiral Drury in his encounter with passive resistance was defeated without the loss of a man on either side, and in the eyes of the Chinese he must have appeared to have saved all except honour. He had come to Macau to aid the Portuguese in defending it against the French – this aid was rejected by the Portuguese, by the Chinese, and the very British merchants whose business interest he had come to enhance.' 7Quoted by A. Coates, p. 100.

Macau had survived by the skin of its teeth, and Miguel de Arriaga was rightly seen as the architect of its salvation. However, thirty years later the Chinese empire would not be able to send the British packing so easily.