Colonel who took a secret to the grave

The South China Morning Post HongKong

by Jason Wordie, Sunday October 3 1999

The death last Sunday of Colonel Henrique Alberto de Barros Botelho at the age of 93 removes a major player in a long and significant part of Hong Kong's history – the once prominent local Portuguese community.

Little recognised now, for generations it was they – not the bulk of the Chinese population – who were Hong Kong's truly local people.

Botelho's life and times encompassed most of Hong Kong's growth and development during the past century. The Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps,in which he played a leading role for decades, the Legal Department, the Club Lusitano and several community organisations all benefited from his involvement.

Few Europeans in the 19th century considered Hong Kong a place to make an enduring home. It was a place to make money, enjoy and leave. Most of the Chinese population were also long-term transients.

The Portuguese were the exception. Descendants of generations of intermarriage from Macau, they had years of continuous residence in Hong Kong, where they owned homes and property, educated their families, retired and were buried. Botelho's family had been in Macau since the late 1500s.

He spent his early years in an area of small terraces between Caine Road and Robinson Road known as Matto Moro, where much of Hong Kong's Portuguese community lived.

Though the local Portuguese were often seen as middlemen for the British business houses, by this century the community also contained many prominent professionals and businessmen. From the late 1920s they had a member of the Legislative Council to represent their interests. Botelho's life-long friend and contemporary, the late Leo D'Almada e Castro Jr, Hong Kong's first Portuguese barrister, took up this post in 1937.

Botelho became an articled clerk to his father's friend, solicitor Leo D'Almada e Castro Snr, in the mid-1920s, when this was the only way to obtain legal training. In due course he became a solicitor and partner in the firm, practising until the Pacific War broke out.

He left private practice after the war and joined the Hong Kong Government, one of the first locals to be employed on expatriate terms. He specialised in law drafting, eventually being appointed Commissioner of Law Revision.

He continued as a Crown Counsel until well into his eighties.

In 1924 he joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. He often said that if he had his time over again he would spend it in the military.

The community's loyalty to the British was reflected in the fact that the Portuguese Volunteers were kept interned in prisoner-of-war camps throughout the war, in spite of their families being classified as neutrals.

Botelho once said that when a rumour did the rounds in the PoW camp that Portuguese Volunteers might be released, he told his junior officers that if ordered to leave prison by the Japanese he would refuse to go.

He was brutally interrogated by the Japanese after being implicated in resistance activities at Argyle Street Officers' Camp. In spite of this experience he refused to harbour hatred for the Japanese.

Immediately after the Japanese surrender he went to Macau on a secret mission to the British Consul, travelling in a small boat with Dr (later Sir Albert) Rodrigues and another Portuguese. After nearly being shipwrecked, they finally got ashore and the message was delivered. Once I asked him what the message was. 'A secret one!' he replied, still tight-lipped after half a century. He continued in the Volunteers after the war, eventually being appointed Honorary Colonel.

Decades of community service were recognised by both the British and Portuguese governments, which honoured him with an OBE and the Ordem de Cristo.

A gregarious nature saw him closely involved with Club Lusitano, one of Hong Kong's oldest clubs of which he became its longest-serving president.

Whole families emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Portuguese community declined dramatically in both strength and visibility. Unlike many, Colonel Botelho had no desire to leave his home in Hong Kong.