by Stuart Braga
Edited version of an article first published in the Australian Casa de Macau Newsletter
If you thought our political leaders leave something to desired, then think again. Quite apart from the appalling dictators of 20th-century Europe and the cruel tyrants of contemporary Africa, 17th-century Macau had its share of blackguards. Probably the worst was Dom Sebastićo Lobo da Silveira. If ever there was a man who had not one redeeming feature it has to be da Silveira. He was a murderer, robber and possibly a traitor to his King who flagrantly flouted justice and common morality.
How was this allowed to happen? We need to remember that none of the systems of accountability that we take for granted in a modern democracy existed two or three centuries ago. There were no elections, no newspapers or talkback radio, no highly organised commercial lobbies. The whole apparatus of public opinion and public scrutiny was absent.
However there was the Church, immensely powerful in Macau, the City of the Name of God. Sadly, the Catholic Church was beset by struggles between the different Orders with a presence in Macau. The Jesuits were very strong from the time of Francis Xavier onwards, but the Mendicant Orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans arrived later, and vied with the Jesuits to gain a foothold in the immensely important mission field that China represented. A faction-riven church was unable to take a strong stand against an unspeakable villain, who was shrewd enough to play one faction against another.
What of the King of Portugal? We must remember that from 1580 to 1640 the Portuguese throne fell under the control of Spain. When in 1640 King Joćo IV came to the Portuguese throne, it took two years for the news to reach Macau, where it was received cautiously. If a loyal message was sent to the King in Lisbon, it might not arrive until 1644 or even later. By then the Spaniards might be back in control. Effectively, distant colonies and trading posts were all but independent of their home government.
When in 1558 the Portuguese government became aware of the existence of Macau, settled the previous year, they dealt with it in the only way they could. Control of all the trade in the Far East was given to a Captain-General, who also had sole legal authority over Macau and its inhabitants. Later, this was altered to separate the commercial and administrative roles, and Macau was placed under the control of Goa, whose Governor had the high rank of Vice-Regent. However, Goa was thousands of miles away from Macau. A combination of typhoons, contrary winds and above all the depredations of Dutch privateers could place Macau beyond the reach of higher authority for well over a year. Effectively, control of the economy and administration of Macau was in the sole hands of one man. Thus da Silveira was able to pursue his predatory ways unchecked for several years.
Dom Sebastićo Lobo da Silveira was appointed Governor of Macau in 1638, towards the end of the 80 year period in which Portugal was ruled by the King of Spain. When news arrived in Macau that the Portuguese throne had been restored, it was da Silveira who swore the oath of allegiance to King Joćo IV of Portugal, Duke of Braganza. If the chroniclers can be believed, it was the only good thing he ever did, and even then, he may have secretly planned to sell the colony out to the Spanish should they arrive from Manila in sufficient force. A 17th century Franciscan friar, José de Jesus Maria asserted that 'Macau at this time was in an uproar due to the tyrannical and iniquitous proceedings of its Captain-General, Dom Sebastićo Lobo da Silveira, who, wolf as he was (Lobo is Portuguese for wolf), appeared desirous of devouring everyone irrespective of their quality.'
The worst of Dom Sebastićo's many crimes was the cold-blooded murder of the Crown Administrator, Diogo Vaz Freire, whom he kept chained in a filthy dungeon in the basement of his house for eight months, before beating him to death on the night of 4 May 1643. Not only did the Governor brutally refuse his victim's pitiful pleas to be allowed the sacraments and confession before dying, but in his sadistic rage he strangled a slave boy who ventured to appeal for mercy for the dying wretch. He crowned this double atrocity by depositing Freire's mangled corpse at the door of the Santa Casa de Misericordia, where a horrified crowd gathered next morning to see the body 'covered with sores and weals, and with one eye hanging out from its socket'. Dom Sebastićo then had the incredible effrontery to write to the King that he had killed the Administrator in cold blood and without trial, 'since it was convenient for His Majesty's credit, the honour of the Portuguese nation and the safety of his own life.'
Needless to say the home government in Lisbon took a very different view and ordered his immediate arrest and deportation to Portugal for trial. Repeated orders for the confiscation of his property were evaded or ignored, allegedly through the connivance of his Jesuit friends in Macau, and when he finally sailed from Goa to Lisbon in February 1647 he still had most of his ill gotten gains in his possession. The ship was wrecked on the desert coast of Natal in South Africa, but the majority of passengers and crew reached the shore and began the long overland trek to Mozambique on 15 July.
Few survived this ordeal, and Dom Sebastićo was not one of them. He was so fat that he was incapable of walking more than a few steps, and he hired a group of cabin boys to carry him. This they agreed to do for a few days, but then abandoned him. He was too heavy. Next a group of sailors were persuaded to carry the rascal further on. Dom Sebastićo bribed them with jewels and other precious things including six gold chains. However after three days even these incentives failed to induce the sailors to go any further with their fat burden. Dom Sebastićo made his confession and was left behind under a small cloth shelter while the others struggled on to Mozambique and safety. Thus he escaped from the justice which surely awaited him in the Portuguese capital, but perished miserably in Darkest Africa.
A scoundrel like this is bound to breed myth. Dom Sebastićo is no exception. Later generations of Macanese could not bear to believe that he had escaped their ancestors' wrath. Modern writers, including Montalto de Jesus and Father Manuel Teixeira have it that he was murdered by a patriotic mob under a staircase in Government House, Macau, where he had hidden while plotting to surrender the colony to the Spaniards. Never let facts get in the way of a good story.
For further reading: C.R. Boxer, Fidalgos in the Far East, C.A. Montalto de Jesus, Historic Macao.