The Portuguese Diasporas in Asia

June 20th, 2013 5 Comments

Growing up I often heard the term “Macanese Diaspora” used to describe the migration of the Portuguese from Macau, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to the United States and other countries following the end of the World War II. It was during this same period that “diaspora” was used to explain other ethnic migrations. Most often the term illustrated the movement across national borders of groups that retain cultural ties to their homeland. In some cases, the diaspora group sought to preserve a distinct cultural identity that separates it from other groups in their new home. In other cases, a diaspora group leads a movement to gain recognition, either to highlight a forced migration, or to maintain ties to a widely dispersed population.[1]

While these definitions are useful, my own research raised many questions concerning the Macanese diaspora, and suggests that the origins and significance of their migrations over the years have yet to be fully explored.

If we accept that there was and still exists a “Macanese Diaspora”, the circumstances in each location in which the Portuguese settled must be carefully considered. In the past, research has been hampered by a lack of clarity concerning the specific conditions in the societies in which they lived (that is, the type of colonization and the character of trade), which people were involved (Portuguese and \ or Macanese), and the significance to the economic and social development of Asia (the relevance of the Macanese diaspora today). Based on an initial review of sources, we may consider the following characteristics concerning the “Macanese Diaspora”.

There were, in fact, four principal Macanese migrations (and several minor migrations) over a five hundred year period that originated from Portugal and later consisted of people of Portuguese ancestry. The initial destination (from Lisbon to Goa) was closely tied to the Portuguese colonization of India and Asia (1513). As the Portuguese empire peaked and declined, their mixed-race progeny, generally known today as “Macanese”, began settling in Macau (1557). When the British gained dominance in Asia, many Macanese workers and their families moved to Hong Kong (1841). Then following the end of World War II, the group dispersed to the United States, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, and other countries (1945 to the present).[2] In addition to these, there were secondary migrations that followed the trade routes between Goa, Macau, Hong Kong and other ports in southeast Asia. One of the most prominent destinations was Shanghai, a port with a large international community that thrived until 1949.

The dates of each settlement vary slightly among sources, resulting in an overlap in periods. That is, although Macau was settled in the 16th century, the migration from Goa to Macau did not begin en masse until the late 17th century. Each date, however, marks the beginning of a specific period of settlement in a new destination. The fact that this particular group identified with Macau, rather than Goa or Portugal, suggests a longer period of cultural development took place there, and persists in the cultural identification of the Macanese to this day.

By attempting to document the four stages of the Macanese Diaspora, I am also suggesting that each migration shared other characteristics. The societies in which they lived allowed many to thrive commercially. But when each colony began to decline, many were motivated to seek other destinations in later years. There was also a common ethnic make-up of a majority of its people, that is, a mix of Portuguese and other indigenous blood lines, which I will discuss below. Throughout each period the Macanese continued to maintain cultural ties to Europe. This permitted the development of a separate, hybrid culture with unique characteristics, such as a creole language. Like other diaspora movements, early Luso-Asians often were compelled to migrate East, especially from Goa toward Asia due to the persecution of the Estado do India (the Portuguese State) and the Roman Catholic Inqusition (the Portuguese clergy). They were also attracted by better opportunities in each new location.

The Portuguese in India

To illustrate these points, let us consider the Portuguese colonization of India. In the process we will outline the conditions of the Goan trade, the practice of inter-marriage with native people, and the relevance of later Macanese migration to Asia, and specifically to Macau and Hong Kong. (A more detailed study can be found here.)

Following the conquest of western India by Afonso de Alburquerque in 1510 and the first expeditions to the southern coast of China by his lieutenant Jorge Alvares in 1513, Goa became the administrative core of an empire that stretched from Persian Gulf to Timor. The Indian coastal state soon became a center for international trade in the 16th century, specializing in pepper and textiles that were exported to Lisbon. However, structural flaws in the administration of trade proved to be inherent weaknesses. Most of the goods were obtained through local merchants, rather than directly from farmers and textile producers. As a result, Portuguese traders became increasingly dependent on local agents and brokers in Goa, who often increased prices, cutting into the profits of the Portuguese administration.[3]

Moreover, because Portugal’s Asian empire was scattered over such a wide area with a limited number of soldiers, it was vulnerable to attacks by the Dutch and the English. When both countries began to take control of the spice trade in the region, the Portuguese crown refocused its efforts on Brazil where there was less competition for the abundant sugar, gold, and tobacco. This forced Albuquerque to place military garrisons at strategic locations to secure what was left of Portugal’s Asian possessions, further stretching his man-power. There was also a shift in the focus of the Asian trade to textiles, which were still in demand in Malacca, and to diamonds and other precious stones, and in some cases, slave trading.[4]

Inter-Marriage as Strategic Policy

In light of these conditions, Albuquerque developed specific strategies through which he ruled his dominion. First, he personally took control of the trading centers of Ormuz, Malacca, and Goa, making the latter his administrative center. He then built fortresses in India and on the east coast of Africa to serve as naval bases to protect the trading factories located in each area. Next, alliances with native rulers were made with assurances to each that local customs would be preserved so long as tributes continued to flow to the Portuguese crown. Finally, and most critical to the Asian empire, Albuquerque conducted the process of colonization by encouraging marriages between Portuguese soldiers and native women. In this way he hoped to use inter-marriage, a common practice in Brazil and Africa, to induce his countrymen to settle down and form a loyal population.[5]

Albuquerque initially promoted marriages between Portuguese men and the widows and daughters of defeated Muslim soldiers in Malacca if they converted to Catholicism. Marriages were also encouraged with Brahmin and Kshatriya women in India, who were often provided with incentives of land, a house, a horse, cattle, and gold.[6]  The Portuguese crown also sought to address the shortage of European women in other colonies by turning a blind eye to liaisons with other indigenous groups, often with strategic intent.

The native Indian populations of Bahia and Pernambuco in Bazil, for example, supported the Portuguese against the Dutch because of kinship ties through inter-marriage.[7]  One Dutch account related the details of a strategic marriage between the cousin of the Portuguese governor of Bahia and a Tupi woman in the 16th century. It states:

One of the sons born of this relationship became an influential “Indian King” in the region with a large fighting force of warriors. Portuguese colonial officials eagerly sought out the friendship and services of the chief of mixed descent and his Indians.[8]

Many Jesuit missionaries also became valuable go-betweens in both marriage and war, some able to mobilize warriors quickly against Dutch invaders in 1624.

In Sri Lanka, marriage between Portuguese and native women resulted in 95% of the Portuguese garrison made up of mixed-race soldiers by the middle of the 17th century.[9]  Creole Portuguese, a by-product of these unions, became so entrenched that the Dutch were unable to replace it with their own language.[10] Even though Dutch was spoken in business and the civil service, many Portuguese speaking families and their servants continued to use creole despite laws forbidding its use.[11]

In Goa, the incidences of mixed-marriages and liaisons with indigenous women resulted in a significant increase in ‘descendentes’ (those of Portuguese descent) in India. By 1540 the local population with Portuguese ancestry already numbered around 10,000.[12]  Another historian writes that the resultant half-caste population made significant headway toward addressing the persistent problem of inadequate man-power, creating in the process a Eurasian community that was strongly Portuguese in culture and Roman Catholic in religion.[13]

English historian Edgar Prestage concluded that Albuquerque had little choice in his charge to maintain Portugal’s Asian empire.

As it was impossible to send white women to India, his scheme of mixed marriages seemed the only solution, and it was made practicable by the fact that the Portuguese had no objection to mixing their blood. They had already done so at home with Africans brought home by the early navigators. He could not keep his officers in the East, but he was anxious to maintain there a body of artisans, soldiers, and especially gunners, for his power depended, next to personal valour, on artillery. After his conquest of Goa, he married some hundreds of his men to natives,… and is said to have conducted the ceremony himself.[14]


What did the appearance of mixed-race Portuguese mean for the rest of the world? And what were their specific contributions to the future economic and social development of Asia? Let me conclude by outlining a few key points and suggest some new areas of inquiry.

Initially the colonization of India and South East Asia by the Portuguese provided Europeans with more realistic impressions of Asia and India, and soon after of Africa and Latin America. Instead of images of giants and wild human aberrations that made up some descriptions, eye-witness accounts and actual experience led to a new understanding of these foreign lands.[15]

The greatest impact was a forced reevaluation of life in the physical world, which now included information on many new races, languages, customs, plants and foods, new ways of building cities, new technologies, and an expansion of the known world. The innovations of the Portuguese and others, especially in ship building and navigation, led to a revolution in 16th century European thought, contributing to the evolution of the world economy from feudalism to trade based capitalism, and to the transition of Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Portuguese colonization in its less destructive forms in Asia, through the acceptance of local customs and marriage with indigenous people, also introduced new types of goods and products that were previously unknown. These included teas, spices, precious stones, textiles, exotic fruit, porcelain, silk, and drugs, which were now supplied by a new racially-mixed class of merchants. Given the shortage of men and resources, these merchants and their offspring were literally the only way that the high volume of trade and wealth coming from Portugal’s Asian empire could have been sustained.

Finally, the success of the Asian trade using Portuguese methods of commercial accommodation provided a template for social relations that developed in Macau, which were later adopted to some degree by the British in Hong Kong. Policies that emphasized incorporation through cultural acceptance (at least in theory), rather than conquest, suggested a different style of colonization in Macau, as opposed to more repressive policies in Portuguese Goa.[16] This led to less conflicted alliances, particularly when the English arrived in Macau to seek  advice and entre’ to long standing relations with the Chinese to establish their own trade in the Far East.

In many respects, therefore, the emergence of the Macanese, as mixed-race Portuguese with cultural ties to many outposts in Asia, was largely responsible for laying the foundations of the China Trade. It was they who inherited Albuquerque’s maritime empire in the Far East after 1600, and maintained lucrative trade relations with Japan and China. It was also these same mixed-race Portuguese who re-established trade with China after the fall of the Ming dynasty and rise of the Manchus. And it was under the guidance of the Macanese in Macau that the British East India Company and the great number of private traders from many other nations in the 18th century first encountered the resources of China.

By the middle of the 19th century, following the end of the Opium War, many young Macanese translators, clerks, bookkeepers, compositors, physicians and merchants followed the British to Hong Kong as the China Trade entered its next phase. Further research on the Macanese in this new setting will shed light on their long forgotten contributions to British development in Hong Kong. An assessment of the fourth Macanese migration from Hong Kong after World War II will bring that history up to date. Only then will the significance of the “Macanese Diaspora” be understood in the context of Asia’s recent development as an emerging region.


Read more: The Settlement of Macao and the Second Macanese Migration in Asia


[1] For a more thorough discussion of  “diaspora” and its recent uses, see Roger Brubaker, “The ‘diaspora’ diaspora”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 2005, p. 1-19.

[2] For an example from the experience of the Chinese in Hong Kong during this period, see John M. Carroll, Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong, Cambridge, 2005, and especially, Ch. 1, “Colonialism and Collaboration: Chinese Subjects and the Making of British Hong Kong”, pgs.16-36.

[3] Philomena Sequeira Anthony, Liberty Goods and Private Trade: Some Reflections on the liberty and subtlety in the 18th century Indio-Portuguese trade, p. 21-40, in Goa and Portugal: History and Development, Borges, Pereira, Stubbe (eds.), New Delhi, 2000.

[4] Anthony, op. cit.

[5] Edgar Prestage, The Portuguese Pioneers, London, 1933, p. 299-300 (as quoted by J.P. Braga in The Portuguese in Hong Kong and China, Hongkong, 1944).

[6] A.J.R. Russell-Wood, The Portuguese Empire: 1415-1808, Baltimore, 1992 p. 187-188.

[7] Mark Meuwese, Brothers in Arms, Partners in Trade: Dutch-Indigenous Alliances in the Atlantic World, 1595-1674, the Netherlands, 2012, p. 129.

[8] Meuwese, op. cit.

[9] John Holm, Pidgins and Creoles, Cambridge, 1989, p. 288-89.

[10] Holm, op. cit.

[11] Holm, op. cit.

[12] Genevieve Escure and Armir Schwegler, Creoles, Contact and Language Change: Linguistic Interpretations, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 5-6.

[13] Charles Alfred Fisher, Southeast Asia: A Social, Economic and Political Geography, Great Britain, 1964, p. 128.

[14] Prestage, op. cit.

[15] For example, see the descriptions and illustrations by Europeans of early Chinese by Toby Lester in “The Description of the World”, pgs. 65-82 in his work The Fourth Part of the World, New York, 2009.

[16] I wrote a preliminary statement on the Portuguese diasporas in “The Roots of Macanese Identity”, posted in the “Articles” section on the Far East Currents web site. The current article is a more refined and detailed account of these previously unreported migrations.



    To be concised,I believe that both words “Diapora” and “Macaense” are mislead (or better misused).
    Firstly, “DIASPORA” is misled by the author as compared to “COLONIZAÇÃO” which is a totally different issue. They are opposite ways in the same road.
    Secondly, “Macaense” is misinterpreted as “Macaista” (or Maquista in Patuá).
    There is a tremendous difference between them.
    Time permitting, would be glad to explain in details.

    • Director says:

      Thanks for writing Pedro. We have all the time we need if you would care to explain more. Please say it in 1000 words or less. The Internet generation has a short attention span, me included.

      Best wishes,

    • Pedro Almeida says:

      “Η ετοιμότητα να διδαχθούν από ξένους σοφούς, πολλοί εκ των οποίων ήταν Εβραίοι είχε οδηγήσει στη γνώση που μεταφράστηκε αμέσως σε πρακτική εφαρμογή”

      (Readiness to learn from foreign men, many of whom were Jews, have led to knowledge that translated immediately into practical application)

  2. Director says:

    Thank you Susan for your comments. My father’s side of the family is also from Goa. I hope that one day you will share the details of your family history with our readers.

    Best wishes,
    R.E. Xavier

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you for another informative article. I look forward to the next one on the settlement of Macau. As I research the family tree, I have found ancestors who hailed from Goa and Brazil, so it seems that Macau was a magnet for Portuguese from all ports.

    All the best in your continuing education of us all!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: