The Second Macanese Migration in Asia: The Settlement of Macao

July 23rd, 2013 1 Comment

Following the conquest of Malacca in 1511, Afonso Albuquerque sent ships to identify other ports of call on the southern coast of China. He was particularly interested in establishing good relations with the masters of Chinese junks and Japanese Ryuku vessels who sailed up the Pearl River Delta. These incursions allowed explorations of the region by Jorge Alvares in 1513 and the first attempt to establish trade at Canton in 1517 by Fernao Peres de Andrade. But in 1519 the first impressions Albuquerque worked so hard to maintain were badly damaged by Simao de Andrade, Fernao’s brother, who displayed “piratical behavior” by attacking Chinese junks.[1] The younger Andrade’s actions caused a rift with China that would last for almost 40 years, despite numerous Portuguese attempts to heal relations. In that time no Chinese were allowed to trade with Europeans under threat of execution.[2]

During the interim the Portuguese took advantage of an “irregular kind of smuggling-trade” with junk masters who ignored the ban, while also competing with Japanese pirates raiding the Chinese coast. Soon the discovery of the Japanese islands by Portuguese sailors in 1542 added a profitable new market, which temporarily diverted the Portuguese from China. When relations with the Chinese were re-established in 1550, the first exchange of goods took place during an annual fair on Sanchan Island, also the site of Jesuit Francisco Xavier’s death in 1552. By 1555 the trade fair was extended to Lampacao Island and the small peninsula on which Macao is located today.[3]

The first Portuguese settlers in Macao, a collection of sailors, criminals, adventurers, escaped prisoners, traders, Jesuit missionaries, as well as Goan, Japanese, Malaccan, Chinese, and African servants and laborers, arrived in the early 1553. It is reputed that Chinese mandarins allowed them to establish a permanent settlement in 1557 for expelling a band of pirates who used the peninsula as a stronghold.[4] Colonial status was not granted by the Viceroy of Goa, the head of the Indo-Portuguese administration until 1586 when Macao was given an official name: Cidade do Nome de Deos na China (City of the Name of God in China). Locals adopted a less formal title derived from Chinese: Ao-men, honoring the goddess of sailors and navigators, and the A-Ma Temple. This was soon shortened to “Amaco” among the Chinese. To the Portuguese the new port became known as “Macao”.[5]

The influence of the Catholic Church, and especially the Jesuit order on the development of trade relations with Japan and China, was of primary importance to Macao’s future. Jesuit philosophers, mathematicians, and missionaries were influential in 15th century Chinese imperial courts. Their voyages on Portuguese ships provided opportunities for Portuguese captains to negotiate agreements with local mandarins until formal approval was granted by Ming Emperor Jiajing in 1557. Historians also allude to the influence of Macau’s bishops on the governing Senate and the military to open or close the port to Chinese trade.[6]

Once the Portuguese left Malacca in 1641 because of Dutch aggression, Goa and Macao, the latter recognized as an entry point to China, became the principal European trading centers in Asia. Soon these strategic sites allowed the Portuguese to act as intermediaries between east and west in a virtual trade monopoly. Exchanging Chinese tea, silk, gold, musk, and porcelain for Japanese gold and silver, Portuguese traders could load their vessels with lacquer cabinets, ornamental boxes, fine garments, swords, and wood-carvings for sale in Europe.[7] Other exotic cargo included Arabian horses, Bengal tigers, and Malaysian peacocks. To each port the ships brought European paintings, glassware, clocks, furniture, wines, cotton and woolen cloth for sale in China. Along the way, spices such as pepper and cinnamon, and hard woods, could be acquired and resold at substantial profits.[8]

English traveler Ralph Fitch, visiting East India from 1585 to 1591, estimated that a large Portuguese ship brought back over 600,000 silver crusadoes from Japan and 200,000 silver crusadoes from India.[9] Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto wrote in 1720 that once the silver was used to purchase Chinese goods, the total value of each ship’s cargo could be worth more than one million gold ducats.[10]

As a result, noted historian C.R. Boxer concluded:

“Portugal could buy in the cheapest market (China) and sell in the dearest (Europe)”…”and the gold and silver they carried away from Japan in payment for their silk imports was profitably disposed of in India and China respectfully, where the relative and fluctuating values of these two metals enabled them to make further profits on the rates of exchange.” [11]

The True Value of Portugal’s Asian Trade

To better understand the impact that this enormous amount of trade had on Macao, let us attempt a contemporary estimate of its value. Presuming one million gold ducats on each ship to be accurate, modern rates of exchange would place the value of each cargo at approximately $160.65 million (USD).[12] Even accounting for loses due to bad weather, the average number of ships leaving Macao each year in the late 16th century was around 10, while the number of ships from India was 12, for a total of 22 Portuguese ships each year. Profits going back to Portugal annually therefore would have averaged about $3.5 billion (USD).

TreasureTaking these estimates further, if we multiply the average value of each annual yield by the fifty-three years in which Japan and China were both part of Portugal’s Asian trade, from 1586 the date of Macao’s official recognition as a colony, to 1639 the year Japan closed its ports to Europeans, the total value for the period would have been approximately $187 billion (USD). A more liberal estimate of ships and cargoes, as suggested by other accounts,[13] would have multiplied these profits even more, suggesting that Portuguese monarchs had ample incentives to risk men and resources in Asia.

As a prosperous outpost with ample resources in its early days, Macao thus was in the enviable position of being the only European port in China with direct access to the sea and the exclusive beneficiary of trade between Asia, India, and the European continent. But as astounding as the wealth of the China Trade was, submerged in the historical narrative is how it affected Macao’s early inhabitants, many who lived precariously between China, the “Empire of the East”, and Portugal and other European powers in the West.

Early Descriptions of Macanese Wealth

Some of the earliest accounts not only highlighted Macao’s wealth, but also implied in their descriptions the gulf between rich and poor. This is perhaps best illustrated in the 17th century chronicles of a mercantile agent for the British East India Company named Peter Mundy.

A seasoned traveler in India and China, Mundy was often aboard the company’s ships because of his fluency in Portuguese and Spanish. But he was no ordinary ship’s agent. Future historians would describe his descriptions of Asia as “enchanting”, and all the more enhanced by his meticulous “eye for detail”. Mundy first exhibited these talents in diaries tracing voyages to Bengal and Agra, where he was one of the first Europeans to witness the construction of the Taj Mahal. On succeeding trips he conducted business up and down the coast of China, in Nagasaki, Japan’s largest trading port, and in the Portuguese colony of Goa.

On an October evening in 1637 Mundy, accompanied by officers from the British ship “Squire Courteen”, landed on the strand just off the Praia Grande in Macau to attend a dinner at the port’s government house.[14] The ship was one of the largest in the East India Company’s fleet, and part of a squadron of four vessels under the command of Captain John Weddell. The dinner was to be one of many attempts to convince the Portuguese in Macao to help secure English trading rights in Canton, just up the Pearl River.

This particular meeting began with greetings from members of the Senado, Macau’s governing council, and prominent representatives of the colony’s merchant class. The Portuguese military contingent was led by Captain-General Domingos da Camara de Noronha, to whom Mundy and others delivered letters from England’s King Charles I and the Viceroy of Goa. Noronha’s second in command and head of the civil administration, Captain-Major Antonio de Oliveira Aranha, was also in attendance, reconfirming his personal hospitality to Mundy who had been invited to stay a few days in Aranha’s home.

The setting for the dinner was befitting a wealthy trading port. Mundy and others marveled at the richly furnished dining room outfitted with tapestries, gold and silver plates and matching cutlery. Exotically decorated chairs and paintings lined the walls. Large Japanese folding screens called “Beeombos” separated portions of the room.  Each screen had multiple panels, which when fully extended measured up to nine feet. Each panel, in Mundy’s words,  was “…painted with (a) variety off curious colleurs intermingled with gold, containing stories, beasts, birds, fishes, forrrests, flowers, fruites…”, providing a feeling of tranquility as the assembled group was seated.

A savory meal highlighted the evening. Each guest was served portions of meat “… broughtt between 2 silver plates…”. Several dishes were offered, the frequency and variety of each attracting special notice. Mundy writes: “For before a man had Don(e) with the one, there was another service stood ready for him…” Behind each guest was an African servant ready for the smallest request. Beverages were similarly offered. Accompanying each place setting was a silver goblet “…which were no sooner empty butt there stood those ready that filld them againe with excellent … Portugall wine.”  Light music played in the background, performed by Luso-Chinese singers and skilled musicians on harps and guitars. Behind the scenes women cooks of mixed race, probably from Malacca or Japan, stood ready to replenish each course.

Captain-Major Aranha’s home life also interested Mundy. The Englishman was especially taken with the Captain-Major’s two Eurasian daughters, whom he noted: “… except in England, I thincke not in the world bee overmatched For their pretty Feature and complexion,…”  Mundy took special notice of their style of dress. In formal settings, each daughter was clothed in small Japanese kimonos “adorned with pretious Jewells and Costly apparel.” Their hair, pulled up to the crown, was similarly decorated with jewels and decorated combs.

Mundy observed that most Macanese women dressed in this manner, often covered in public over the head with a shawl-like garment called a “Sherazzee”, with a lower kimono around the waist extending to the feet. Out on the avenues and plazas, the wealthier women “… are carried in hand chaires …, all close covered, off which there are very Costly … brought from Japan.”  Indoors, all classes wore wide sleeved kimonos without the upper shawls, the less costly ones made of cotton, while others were embroidered silk interwoven with gold.

Class Distinctions in Early Macao

Mundy’s observations also included some interesting asides. After describing the fashions of the day, he writes:

“Butt when they (women) goe without (their sedan chairs), the Mistris is hardly knowne from the Maide or slave wenche by outward appearance, all close covered over, butt that their Sherazzees are finer.”[15]

This off-handed remark suggests that the differences between merchant women, their servants and slaves were tenuous, apparent to outsiders only from their style of dress and the rich accessories they wore. Racial mixing was apparently evident just eighty years after the first settlers arrived in Macao. Despite their rank, the women Mundy observed were of similar ethnic ancestry, exhibiting both Portuguese and southeast Asian features. Only their elaborate style of dress belied associations to government and trade, determining their rank in Macao society.

Class distinctions also could be observed among mixed race children. Mundy was impressed by the care taken by parents and the Jesuits in education, implying that a bond had already formed between the Portuguese community and the Church. He writes:

“… It being the Parents care to sett them Forth For their owne Content and Creditt, as it was the Jesuits to enstructe them who not only in this, butt in all other Manner of education are tutors and have the Care off the uppe bringing the youth and young children of this Towne, especially those of quality.”[16]

The suggestion that child care and education were benefits of class, as indicated by Mundy’s qualifier: “those of quality”, begs the question: What of others who were not of the higher ranks? Specifically: What was the plight of Macao’s laborers, servants, slaves (and their children)? We have already seen that the racial mixing was a strategy of Portuguese rule in Goa. Mundy’s chronicle of Macao in 1637 suggests that mix-raced women had been accepted in Macao’s highest ranks. But the reality for other women and their offspring who were not “people of quality” was apparently much different.

slavesHistorian Elsa Penalva writes that many lower-class women, especially the mothers of mixed-race Portuguese, came to Macao through kidnapping, purchase, negotiations, and as rescued slaves.[17] Due to a shortage of European women of higher social status, these other women were bought or kidnapped for “sexual markets” and marriage to Portuguese who could afford them. These practices continued until an effort was made by the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century to “redeem” such women, with the intention of reducing lawlessness by reforming the unruly sailors, traders, and adventurers who frequented Macau.[18]

British historian C.R. Boxer devoted much attention to the origins of the slave trade, and to Portugal’s and Macau’s complicity before slavery was abolished in the 18th century.[19]  Many low-born women were kidnapped as children, some from Japan and other trading ports, but the majority from Kwantung province northeast of Macau. The circumstances in which they were enslaved were no doubt the result of poverty among rural peasants in the Pearl River delta and the willingness of Europeans to trade in human cargo. Women, and some men, were especially prized for their culinary skills, but most were domestics and servants. Many of the women were kept as concubines, many with the acceptance of Portuguese wives and mothers.[20]

Boxer also noted that unlike the English, Spanish, or Chinese, illegitimate children in Macau households were adopted into the families and treated like legitimate offspring.[21] As the Portuguese empire declined in Asia, the options for socially accepted unions dwindled, making inter-racial marriage an economic and political necessity. Despite the circumstances, Penalva concludes, “These women were indispensible to sustain the marriage and bridal markets that allowed the survival of kinship systems, families, and households of the Portuguese and the growing “Luso-Asian” population.”[22]

Other Effects of Racial Mixing

Along with kinship ties, the presence of different races yielded other benefits in the years before and after Peter Mundy’s arrival in Macao. The defeat of Dutch invaders in 1622, for example, was noteworthy as much for the unlikely victory as the ethnic composition of the defenders, which included Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, Malaysians, and Timorese, some of whom were slaves. Charles Boxer writes that military leaders was so grateful for the valor shown by Negro slaves, who had been given liquor, that they freed them following the battle, more than 100 years before Lisbon ended Chinese slavery in Macao.[23]

But the end of the Japan trade in 1639, resulting in the expulsion of Catholic missionaries and the closure of Nagasaki and other ports by the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, plunged Macao into poverty for the next century.[24] Maintaining trade with China became the colony’s sole priority.

East India CompanyThe Macanese presence in Asia was especially critical to continuing European trade during a period when Chinese tolerance for Europeans began to wane. Following the death of Qing Emperor K’ang Hsi, who had formally opened trade in 1685, and the succession of Yung Ching in 1722, delft negotiations by Portuguese diplomats and Jesuit interpreters reaffirmed Macao as the sole European port in China, allowing trade to begin anew.[25]  Fifty years later, when the Portuguese overseas empire was in decline, it is likely that negotiations between the English and the Chinese would have failed without the intercession of the Portuguese.[26]  By then mixed-race Portuguese were so firmly entrenched in Macao as intermediaries to China that East India Company officials were forced to accept government restrictions on the garrisoning of British troops, the use of arms, and the prosecution of Chinese nationals.[27] Unlike the harsher rule of the British in India, the adoption of the Portuguese policy of accommodation eased Chinese concerns about northern Europeans, and was ultimately responsible for securing English trading rights with Machu rulers.

By the 1780s, after more than two hundred years of tenuous occupation, Macau began to emerge as an international trading port, but now in partnership with foreign traders and under the protection of the British Royal Navy. With the benign consent of the Chinese, the English presence in Macao soon proved to be the catalyst for greater numbers of Macanese to leave Goa for southern China.

[1]  C.R. Boxer, Fidalgos in the Far East, Hong Kong, 1968, p. 2-6.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  C.A. Montalto de Jesus describes the occurrence in this way: “In the reign of Kia Tsing, a pirate named Tchang Si Lao, who roved in the Canton waters, seized Macao and beleaguered the provincial capital. The mandarins appealed to the Europeans (Portuguese) for succor. These, who were on board their trading vessels, raised the siege and chased the pirate down to Macao, where they slew him. The viceroy having apprised the emperor of the victory, this prince issued an edict whereby he gave Macao to these merchants from Europe, so that they might settle there.” C.A. Montalto de Jesus, Historic Macao, London, 1902, p.25.

[5] Boxer, p. 3-4.

[6]  For example, see C.R. Boxer, Fidalgos in the Far East, London, 1968, Chs. I and XIII,  Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War: 1840-42, Chapel Hill, 1975, p. 98-109, and Zhidong Hao, Macao: History and Society, Hong Kong University Press, 2011, p. 129-130.

[7] According to de Jesus, Chinese tea was first popularized in England by Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles II in 1661. The marriage ceded Bombay as part of Catherine’s dowry, beginning the long alliance between Portugal and England, and also began Britain’s long obsession with tea. See de Jesus, op.cit. p.117.

[8] P. Sequeira Anthony, “Liberty Goods and Private Trade: Some Reflections on the liberty and subtlety in 18th century Indo-Portuguese trade”, p. 21-24, in Goa and Portugal: History and Development, Boges, Pereira, Stubbe (eds.), New Delhi, 2000.

[9]  Paraphrased by Boxer, p. 6.

[10] Paraphrased by Boxer, p. 6.

[11]  Boxer, p. 6.

[12]  Each gold ducat was approximately 3.5 grams of pure gold, with an estimate worth in 2013 of £105 or $160.65 (USD). Each million ducats are thus worth almost $161 million USD. source:

[14]  The Travels of Peter Mundy, London, 1919, Volume III. Mundy was hired as a “factor” or a person who acts for another, notably a mercantile or colonial agent. Some of Mundy’s quotes were taken from C.R. Boxer, Fidalgos in the Far East, London, 1968, p. 123. For impressions of Mundy’s observations, see Dorothy Carrington, The Traveller’s Eye. London, 1949, p. 178-79.

[15] Peter Mundy, as quoted by C.R. Boxer, op. cit. p. 128.

[16] Boxer, p. 126, quoting Peter Mundy, op. cit.

[18] Elsa Penalva, op. cit.

[19] See Boxer’s chapter, “Muitsai in Macao”, in Fidalgos in the Far East, op. cit.

[20] C.R. Boxer, op. cit. p.228.

[21] C.R. Boxer, op. cit. p. 225.

[22] Elsa Penalva, op. cit.

[23] C.R. Boxer, op. cit. p. 85. All Chinese slaves were freed under an edict published in March 1758. See Boxer, op. cit. p. 240.

[24] De Jesus, Historic Macao, p. 87, “By the imperial decree of 1637 Japan was secluded from intercourse with foreigners : Japanese vessels were, under penalty of confiscation, forbidden to go abroad ; Japanese subjects who emigrated, or who returned from abroad, incurred the pain of death ; substantial rewards were offered for the detection of priests and converts, the common gaol being assigned for their detention ; the Portuguese and their families were banished to Macao, and those who returned or even conveyed any letter from abroad were to suffer death together with their families … ; the nobles and soldiery were forbidden to buy anything from foreigners.” According to C.R. Boxer, the decree came into effect in 1639.

[25] De Jesus, p. 127-132.

[26] De Jesus, p. 179-197.

[27] De Jesus, p. 194.

1 Comment

  1. Virginia June Tieken says:

    So enlightening! Very well done. Many thanks!

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