History of Macau

Settlement in Macau

In the winter of 1556-1557, Portuguese seafaring traders relocated their settlement of about 400 mat-shed huts on Lam Pak Kau Island (Wave-White Inlet…Cantonese literal) nineteen miles northeast to a small desolate peninsula adjacent to a weather-protected harbor at the tip of the Chinese mainland, first documented as “Macau” in a letter written in 1555 by Fernao Mendes Pinto, author of one of the most exciting travel adventures ever written – “A Peregrinacao.” During this time, the ruler of Portugal was Joao III of the House of Avis, and the ruler of China was Emperor Wan-Li of the Ming Dynasty.


During the years 1553-1556, marauding pirates from Ryukyu Islands in Japan descended on the southern Chinese coast, plundering, destroying and otherwise wreaking havoc on Chinese villages, including Kowloon (in Hong Kong). Abundant written accounts from Chinese clan (family) records show that these were indeed frightful times, where entire villages fled to evade impending danger. The fact that the Japanese pirates were able to carry out this incursion over such a period of time is indeed evidence of circumstance that the Chinese authorities were quite ineffective in dealing with the problem, this region of the coast being remote and ill-protected. The pirates were able to carry on their reign of terror unchecked, until they encountered superbly armed Portuguese vessels able and willing to deal the marauding fleets the severe punishment they deserved. Another major encounter, this time with a notorious Chinese pirate chief and his horde of raiders, took place in this region shortly afterwards during 1556-1557.

The Chinese officials were so impressed at the efficiency the Portuguese displayed in dealing with the pirates, scoring victory after victory against numerical odds, that they insisted that the Portuguese (probably at the urging of local Chinese merchants and villagers) abandon their settlement on Lam Pak Kau altogether, and establish their post in Macau at the mouth of the Pearl River. Macau itself was a pirates’ lair from which most of the attacks on neighboring villages were launched, including Kowloon, just forty miles due east. The mandarin officials in Canton, well-educated and highly sophisticated in their assessments, surely were aware that they were cleverly posting a “lion”, in this case a “barbarian” and his roaring cannons at the exterior gate to ward off “evil and misfortune” and to protect the prize of the Pearl River Delta Region – Canton (Guang Zhou), from other barbarians.

As was the case with previous Portuguese settlements in China, mostly illegal, Chinese merchants and craftsman likewise quickly moved to settle in and around Macau, the pirates having been driven out and a safe haven established, but primarily attracted by the prospect of the wealth and prosperity the Portuguese traders would soon bring. Trading with the Chinese was illegal because China had a zero export and trade policy, except for tributary states such as Siam. The significance of the problem of pirates cannot be overstated, because at various times, Guangzhou itself was under piratical siege. Seriously, no one would not expect the official Chinese chroniclers of that time to record this problem for fear of embarrassing the Emperor and/or suffering the punishment of death. Hence the resolution of the pirate problem, Heaven forbid, would then be credited to this new species of “barbarians,’ whom they referred to in the Cantonese dialect as “Sai Yeung Yan”, or “The People of the Western Ocean.” This was truly the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between Portugal and China that will more than likely last beyond the elapsed time of 450 some-odd years.

Luis de Camoes

Where shall I find a more secluded spot,
Of all delightful traits so sadly bare,
That need I say no man betakes him there,
When e’en by beast it rests uncared, unsought.
Some frowning woods with awful darkness fraught,
Or sylvan solitude of dismal air,
Without a sprightly brook or meadow fair,
In fine a place adapted to my lot.
For there, embosomed in the rocky cleft,
In life entombed, there freely may I mourn
O’er plaintive, death-like life of all bereft,
Save tears and woes to which there is no bourn.
In cheerful days there shall I feel less sad,
Contented too when all in gloom is clad.

~ Taken from Viscount de Juromenha’s edition of Camoes

So wrote soldier-poet Luis Vaz de Camoes of a romantic grotto in Macau. Banished by the Portuguese Viceroy of India for his scathing satire on Goa, Camoes sailed east to China with the fleet dispatched in 1556 under the command of Francisco Martins. It would not be a stretch for us to infer that Portugal’s most celebrated poet (who, incidentally, was also ejected from Lisbon for standing on street corners criticizing the Crown) participated in the campaign to destroy the piratical horde; after all, he was equally as skilled with the sword as he was with the pen. To modern-day sons and daughters of Macau, a sense of pride comes from knowing that our Hero, a great adventurer and poet was one of the first people to find solace in Macau, after being persecuted and banished from his homeland, driven to the farthest reaches of the Portuguese Empire – Goa, India – and then further east to their newest trade settlement of Macau, albeit in what amounts to a few large slabs of stone tossed together by God to form a trilithon grotto. At different times over the next 450 years, countless others also found sanctuary and solace in Macau, driven there by social upheavals, war and famine.

Early Trading

The Portuguese seafaring merchantmen were quick to capitalize on the total absence of official trade between China and Japan, a consequence of deep animosity and mistrust between the rulers of these two countries. But in short order, the Portuguese explorers assessed that illicit trade principally of silk from China, and silver and gold from Japan was already taking place, and quickly saw an opportunity to benefit from the situation. Historical accounts tell us of precious commodities filling the holds of the “Black Ships” to beyond maximum capacity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Macau established itself as an important trade emporium with commercial relations with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaya, Siam (Thailand), and most importantly with Japan, due to the high profits the trading there generated. The Naus de Trato (Trading Vessels) provided the nautical link or “highway” between Europe and the Far East. Prized goods from the Far East – silk, tea, spices, pearls, musk, ivory, wood carvings, lacquered ware, fine cobalt-blue and white porcelain rarely seen in the west, gold and silver headed west, and on the return trip (depending on your perspective, but keep in mind that the fleets appeared to have spent more time cross-trading within the Far East), they carried from Portugal works of art, cotton and woolen goods, aromatics, drugs, Portuguese wines, Flemish and English clocks, crystal, glassware, and of course, firearms. Firearms changed drastically the way feudal warlords in Japan fought their battles.

Macau’s golden epoch spanned a relatively short period of about eighty-five years, from the establishment of Macau in 1557 to 1641, when the lucrative trade with Japan came to an end when the Third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, threw the Portuguese and all foreigners out of Nagasaki in 1636. Iemitsu was motivated by a paranoia of Christianity. Quite ironically, it was to the Portuguese that this city owed it greatness, for it was nothing more than a fishing village before they developed Nagasaki as a key trading port.

Union of the Crowns

The decline actually began much earlier when Portugal lost her independence for a time to Spain under King Philip II soon after King Sebastiao of Portugal died in an ill-conceived, ill-fated campaign against the Muslims in North Africa in 1578. This Union of the Crowns eventually brought about the downfall of Portugal’s empire in the Far East. It was the threat of the Spaniards in the Philippines to colonize Japan through Christianity that prompted Iemitsu to take action against all Christians without differentiation. Problems between Spain and the Netherlands also led to Dutch assaults on Macau, which were fended off with courage and success. Trouble between Spanish and English Crowns also invited attacks on Portuguese Carracks. Portuguese overseas possessions were of low priority to Spain. Ironically, it was because Macau had a history of managing her own affairs quite independently from Lisbon and Goa that allowed her to survive through this period of Spanish dominion. Conversely, had Macau been a conformist to begin with, the outcome would have been drastically different.