Family Ties & the Macanese Community

January 15th, 2014 4 Comments

 (Revised 1/25/2014)

One of the articles that I’m currently working on is a study of the Macanese family. My research on Macanese culture has uncovered sources referencing the situation of families in Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other Portuguese-Macanese settlements since the 16th century.* In the process, I began to wonder about the relationship of Macanese families to the development of the larger community.

Sociologists and historians often refer to the family as the fundamental unit of society, a place where, in the words of Emil Durkheim, “ways of acting are reinforced by practice … called customs, laws, and mores’… residues of collective experiences, fashioned by an entire train of generations.” * The initial purpose of this study is to look more closely at customs and “ways of acting” that have been practiced over many generations within Macanese families to gain insights into how Macanese communities developed. In the process, I will focus on familial networks, and attempt to highlight reference points from which to understand the progression of families, and the Macanese community in general, since their first settlement in Asia.

My operating thesis is that the essential components of the Macanese community were, and in some cases continue to be, its strong family networks.* These networks were tied together by cultural and genealogical bonds, which were originally created by Portuguese policies toward indigenous groups and supported by the Roman Catholic Church in Goa and Macau. Family networks formed the basis of social and commercial relations within the Macanese community, creating hereditary pathways to jobs in government, the military, and other professions, as well as developing local businesses, residential enclaves, cultural institutions, philanthropic agencies, and other social organizations that supported and enriched the lives of members. By considering the origins of family networks through custom and common practice, and then providing examples from specific family histories, we can gain valuable insights into the formation of the Macanese community and a better understanding its development over time.

Here’s where the research is so far. (Each “ * “ indicates sources to be inserted.)

Families and Customs

Family customs and mores’ (unwritten rules) have longed marked the boundaries of the Macanese experience, and helped shape the character of its communities throughout Asia.* In fact, the argument could be made that Macanese communities have been supported and sustained by close-knit family networks which shared a common set of practices throughout their history in Asia. These networks formed the basis of social and economic relations within the Macanese community, and were often reinforced by genealogical ties among a small number of family groups.

Although usually limited by racial and class barriers, Macanese families also have been influenced by formal policy, language, culinary traditions, and religious practices.  Each of these, in turn, were supported by colonial administrations, the Church, and by indigenous Macanese institutions, which worked in concert to perpetuate the community’s development in Asia.

Macanese family customs are rooted in the first Portuguese unions in Asia. The creation of families was an issue of geo-political importance to the Portuguese trading empire in the 16th century. After the conquest of Goa, Afanso de Albuquerque initiated a policy of indigenous marriage in order to maintain his fighting force and administrative personnel throughout Portugal’s far-flung Asian possessions, which were depleted by arduous journeys to and from Europe, skirmishes with pirates and indigenous armies, disease, and isolation. Albuquerque allowed, and even officiated at marriage ceremonies conducted by Catholic missionaries of his men to Goan and Middle Eastern women. These women, some of whom were the widows and daughters of opposing soldiers who died in battle, were encouraged to settle in new households and in newly conquered lands.

Following Albuquerque’s death in 1515, inter-racial unions proceeded with and without the consent of the Church, probably pushed by the expedience of trade, through the custom of informal liaisons between Portuguese settlers and indigenous women.* These unions were partially the result of Spanish policies preventing European women from making the journey to Asia, but also were an attempt by Portuguese administrations to encourage trade by diminishing conflict with local groups.* Recent studies suggest that many women in these unions were indentured servants, escaped slaves, kidnapped girls, and sexual surrogates intended for the “Marriage Markets” of the Portuguese colonies.* Nearly all came from trading ports in Southeast Asia, including Goa, Malacca, the Philippines, Japan, and Timor. As trade with Japan began to weaken and was finally closed in 1639, trade with Chinese ports increased and women from the region were included as well. Beginning in the late 16th century, most of these women found a relatively stable and tolerant environment in Macau.

The households of Macau often included wives, concubines, servants, and their respective children. This practice created the environment for accepted behavior within Macanese families. One of the typical characteristics were large “mestizo” family groups made up of the legitimate and illegitimate children.* Accounts of households of more than twenty or thirty members were common, and remained so in some settlements through the early 20th century. Another practice was the acceptance by “legitimate” members, including the wives of the household’s head, of multiple conjugal relations. This was apparently common among the Portuguese, and had important consequences for the future of the Macanese community.

The acceptance of multi-racial children from these unions primarily had the effect of creating bonds between the Portuguese and indigenous ethnic communities, lessened the impact of colonization in Macau and other settlements. In fact, reports of alliances, many based on familial ties with ethnic groups in India, Malacca, Macau, Brazil, and Africa, helped limit the influence of other European traders for almost two centuries.* Despite the discord that sometimes divided generations, political and economic priorities in Goa and Macau tended to break down race and class divisions within Macanese families, and over time, in most cases, allowed unity to occur.*

Another key arbitrator of Macanese families was the Roman Catholic Church. Devotion to the Church in early Goa and Macau was well documented by Jesuit chroniclers, travelers and merchant traders throughout the period. The influence of the Church through its Jesuit missionaries in Japan and China from the late 15th century introduced baptism to virtually all household members. The wide acceptance of baptism and other sacraments extended familial bonds, while strengthening relations to the new Christian order through ritualized ceremony and adherence to doctrine.*

The Church also played a significant role in the education of Macanese in Portuguese trading ports. The socialization of family members, primarily males in schools set up by missionaries in Macau waiting to enter China, and later females separately in convent schools, reinforced ties through religious practice and education, creating both a sense of moral certainty and an expectation of social position among family members that aligned with the needs of Church and State. The continuance of these practices over time tended to legitimize all Macanese, regardless of ethnic origins, while supporting the extension of familial relations to future generations.

The Church thus helped to solidify Macanese customs and practice. By legitimizing racially-mixed unions through baptism, it also condoned bonds to other ethnic groups that were necessary for the survival of the Portuguese trading empire. In the process, the Church became a powerful ally of Portuguese colonial ambitions, and an institutional “guardian” of Macanese culture and community life.

And yet the Macanese, like other colonized groups, were not completely reliant on the Church or the colonial administration in Goa for their survival.* The expanding trade with Japan and China provided other options. For while the “rules” of Christian marriage and family practice were regulated by the Holy See and the Bishop of Goa, social and commercial relations between families and the effects of those relationships on the Macanese community in the colonies, were very much in play.*

Read the next installment: Family Networks in Goa and Macau


  1. Alva Marques Walters says:

    Great information. Mirrors the word-of-mouth stories my father told us about our family origins. Good to have it written down. Our genes so quickly disappear from the faces of our children and grandchildren when we marry outside of our people. I want the stories and food passed down to the grandchildren and you are doing it so beautifully. As my oldest granddaughter expressed when visiting the cemetery in Macau, “Look Mom, these must be our ancestors because they have our family names of Marques, Remedios and Xavier.”

  2. Maricela says:

    I wanted to thank you for this good read!! I certainly loved every bit of it.
    I have you book marked to check out new things you post…

  3. Delano Pereira says:

    Very informative reading.
    Please note the typo of AfOnso de Albuquerque in the beginning of the text, seventh paragraph.

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