Surrender, or we'll flatten Macau

by Stuart Braga

Article originally published in Casa de Macau Australia Bulletin of 10 July 2009

A little over two centuries ago, little Macau, remote and isolated from world affairs, narrowly escaped being caught up in the worldwide struggle between Britain and France under Napoleon. Fearing that the French might get there first, the British Governor-General of Bengal sent troops to Macau with instructions to force the Governor to surrender. Had he succeeded, Portugal might never have got it back.

It all started with a stalemate between France and Britain, who had been at war with each other several times during the 18th century, and went to war again in 1793. Neither side could land a knockout blow on the other, with the French victorious on land, and the British unchallengeable at sea. Britain's prosperity depended on trade, which was protected by the watchful presence of the Royal Navy.

The situation became far more serious for the British when a successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized control of the French government in 1799, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor of the French. Napoleon reasoned that to defeat the British, he would use his control over most of Europe to stifle British trade. That would lead to the collapse of the British economy. Even Portugal, on the southwest corner of Europe, had to dance to Napoleon's tune, or risk invasion. That eventually did happen, and when it did, British forces, based at Lisbon, began the long fight back that ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

In response, the British took drastic steps to safeguard their important worldwide trade especially with India and China. Cape Colony (now South Africa), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Malacca were seized from the Dutch. Many years earlier, the Dutch had pushed the Portuguese out of Ceylon and Malacca. Now they were sent packing too. The Portuguese territories around the African coast - Guinea, São Tomé e Principe, Angola and Mozambique - were not considered strategically important and were left alone. However, the British seized Mauritius, the French island in the Indian Ocean. In India, Goa, with its small outposts Damão and Diu were possible targets for a swift French strike. In the Far East, Macau, already occupied by Portugal for nearly 250 years, was the gateway to trade with China. The China trade became enormously important to Britain during the 18th century, and it would hurt Britain severely if it were to be interdicted. If Macau was left in Portuguese hands, it might well be the weakest link in the British strategic chain. So Macau and the Portuguese Indian territories were next on the British list to be occupied and fortified.

British policy in India was administered, not from London, but by the Governor-General of Bengal. He was appointed, not by the British government, but by the Honourable East India Company, an immensely powerful trading company which since 1603 had held a monopoly over British trade in the East. Gradually, the company extended its influence throughout Bengal and southern India until by the 1790s it controlled an empire of tens of millions of people.

Two remarkable brothers played a significant part in the rapid expansion of British influence at the beginning of the 19th century. They were Richard and Arthur Wellesley. Richard, who became the Marquess of Wellesley, was a very able administrator, and was appointed Governor-General of Bengal in 1797. Arthur, his younger brother, was an up-and-coming army officer of exceptional capability. Within twenty years, he would defeat Napoleon and become Duke of Wellington. In India, the able governor and the brilliant soldier swept all before them. The policy of British expansion in India was continued even more aggressively by the Wellesleys, partly because the French were giving military assistance to various princes who stood in the way of British ambitions. The French might well have seized Goa as part of this life-and-death struggle to obtain a useful port.

The Marquess of Wellesley moved first. Two forts at the entrance to Goa harbour, at Aguada and Cabo Raj Bhawan, had been occupied by a British force since 1797. Now, in a letter dated 20 November 1801, Wellesley courteously requested the Governor-General of Goa, Francisco António da Veiga Cabral, to accept a strong force of British soldiers to reinforce his small garrison and make the port impregnable. A similar dispatch was sent to José Manuel Pinto, the Governor of Macau, then under the jurisdiction of Goa. Cabral and Pinto were reminded that Britain and Portugal were old allies, and that their cooperation was expected. However, within a few weeks, the situation suddenly became much more precarious. Wellesley heard that Portugal had signed a treaty with France agreeing to close all her ports to trade with Britain. There was no time to lose; Goa and Macau must be occupied at once.

On 17 January 1802, Wellesley sent off a flurry of letters. Sir William Clarke, the commander of the British forces at the entrance to Goa harbour, was ordered to occupy Goa, to place the Governor under house arrest but to treat him with dignity, and to offer the Portuguese troops there service under the British flag. They would become prisoners of war if they refused. Clarke was instructed to prepare a detailed Intelligence report on the government, economy and social fabric of Goa.

A second letter went to Governor Cabral. It demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender of Goa and its dependencies to Clarke's forces. That of course included Macau. A third letter was sent to Richard Wall in Canton, the President and Commissioner of British Supercargoes (i.e. merchants). He was informed that troops on their way to Macau would be ordered to require its surrender. "In the event of opposition on the part of the Governor of Macao", Wellesley ordered "the reduction of the settlement by force of arms." Wellesley was shrewd as well as forceful. Wall was instructed to let the Chinese authorities know that a French takeover of Macau would be bad for business. A British takeover would be good for business. However, Wellesley realised that he had to tread warily in relation to the Chinese authorities. Wall's instructions were soon watered down with what for Wellesley was a rare piece of diplomacy. "Your knowledge of the disposition of the Chinese government will enable you to determine upon the expediency of proceeding to the occupation of Macau without previously obtaining the acquiescence of the government."

If that left Wall in an awkward position, not quite knowing what to do, Governor Pinto in Macau was in a most unenviable position. Wellesley's fourth letter was a blunt demand for his abject surrender. "I have directed the Officer in Command of the British Armament … to propose to your Excellency terms for the peaceable surrender of the Settlement of Macao and its dependencies. Your Excellency's wisdom and discernment will suggest to you the inutility [uselessness] of opposing any resistance to the accomplishment of this measure; your Excellency's justice and humanity will not permit you to expose the lives and property of the inhabitants of Macao to the danger of an unavailing contest with the superior power of the British arms." In simple language, Pinto was told, 'surrender or we'll flatten Macau'.

What happened? Cabral knew that he could do nothing to stand in the way of this Englishman who hated Napoleon, but like the French ruler was ruthless and tyrannical. For the next 12 years, British forces occupied Goa. The old Portuguese territory was virtually a British protectorate, but Portuguese civil authority was allowed to continue, despite Clarke's concern about the way the Portuguese civil service operated there. 'Conditions amount to extortion', he reported. Arthur, the younger Wellesley brother, fresh from a stunning victory at Assaye over an Indian army with French advisers, was even more forceful than his brother. He told Clarke to lay it on the line with the Portuguese governor. Clarke was instructed to point out to Cabral, "it is positively determined that the French shall not have Goa; that by a good understanding with the British government he may certainly secure the Possession for the Crown of Portugal, otherwise it may be lost entirely."

However, Goa did go back to Portugal in 1813 for nearly another 150 years. Had the Wellesley brothers still been in India, it would surely have remained British. Both of them were determined to increase British power, and neither would let anything or anyone stand in his way. However both men returned to England in 1807, there to make their mark on world history. Portugal soon shook off the treaty with France, and joined forces with Britain. Major-General Arthur Wellesley went to Portugal's rescue and soon earned fame, promotion, titles and riches.

And Macau? Governor Pinto found himself with a delicate situation on his hands. Sure enough, a British force arrived, but Pinto dextrously handled a very difficult situation most capably. Had he failed, it might well have meant the end of Macau. The next article will explain what he did.

This article was prepared principally from transcripts made in 1952 by Jack BragaClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (14492) to be taken to his personal page of the despatches of Richard, Marquess Wellesley, in the British Museum, Additional Manuscripts 13,710. The transcripts are now in the JM Braga collection, National Library of Australia, MS 4480 and MS 4300, series 12.