History of Macau as a Portuguese Colony

please click on the link above to access interactive timeline

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No other city in China has the kind of rich colonial history that Macau does. It began 500 years ago, when in June 1513 Jorge Alvarez landed in Southern China (Cremer 9). At that time Macau was an insignificant fishing village. Its location and lack of value in the eyes of the Chinese made it an ideal location for the Portuguese, and it became the “first port to be settled permanently by Westerners in the Far East” (Wiarda 18)

Statue of Portuguese Explorer Jorge Alvarez

A statue of Jorge Alvarez, Macau, China

Many of the details and dates that followed soon after are uncertain. Indeed the very terms of the Portuguese stay is still a topic of debate. B. V. Pires argues that the Portuguese were involved in illegal trading along China’s coast.  He argues they did not gain any kind of official clout  to found a settlement in Macau until they eventually defeated pirates in a 1556 battle (Cremer 10).

However D. E. Mungello theorizes that the Portuguese had attempted to open official relations with China as early as 1517 but were rebuffed by the Chinese emperor and makes no mention of any battle with pirates (Mungello 7). Regardless, the local authorities did reach some agreement with merchants from Portugal sometime around 1555, and there are instances of money being exchanged between the two parties though at least at first these payments appear to have taken in the form of bribes (Cremer 10).

By 1576 the Portuguese had gained such a foothold in the area that the Catholic Church made Macau a Diocese (Cremer 11). Money began pouring in to construct cathedrals throughout the city. The Jesuits had some success in converting Chinese literati though an anti-western backlash would destroy much of the physical evidence of their influence (Mungello 18). Nonetheless, they did have a significant role in education and science in the region even establishing a printing press with moveable type as early as 1588, and it was in Macau that the Bible was first translated into Chinese (Cremer 46).

These early decades would be a time of great economic prosperity for the city as Portuguese traders became the middlemen for the lucrative trade between Japan and China (Goodman 213). However their economic prosperity brought increased competition and on July 24, 1622 the Dutch assaulted the city. Their attempt failed, even though the Portuguese were heavily outnumbered (Cremer 12). The Dutch would continue their attempts to gain a foothold in China until 1627, and although their attempts failed they marked the beginning of the end for Macau as the sole gateway of the West to the East (Porter 8).

Continued interest in China led to the forced opening of other ports on China’s east coast decreasing Macau’s importance, while the closing of Japan to the West in 1639 also hurt Macau’s lucrative trade operations there. The final blow came while Portugal was busy with a revolt against Spain in Europe, when the Chinese Imperial Palace decided to open up a Custom’s house in 1684 (Porter 8).

St. Paul's Cathedral, Macau, China

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Macau, China

The period from 1750 to 1840 would be rather uneventful for Macau as commerce remained restricted to local trade. Porter claims that it was during this time of peace and stability that “Macau became a refuge for European traders and Protestant missionaries whose efforts were now focused on growing trade at Canton” (Porter 9). The influence of this period are apparent in Macau’s cuisine and architecture which began to fuse Chinese and Portuguese cultures.

However the “growing trade at Canton” began to involve England more and more as they looked to trade opium that was being grown in the Indian colony for tea which had become immensely popular back in Britain (Bello 24). This would lead to the the greatest blow to Macau’s economy, which came in 1841 when the British occupied Hong Kong Island. This possession would soon surpass Macau as the financial hub of Southern China, and Macau’s economy nearly collapsed. In an attempt to counter the decrease in revenues the Portuguese made gambling legal in 1844 (Cremer 57). This decision resulted in Macau becoming a center for all manner of illegal activities.

Macau nonetheless would see an increase in revenue through this attempt, and to this day casinos remain the dominant force in Macau’s economy. Their success is in large part due to their “comparative advantage… in tourism: a relative lack of restrictions on entry and departure, low rates of taxation and high rates of return, as well as access to the rapidly developing south china region” (Porter, 14). Each of these is a carry over from Macau’s colonial days which allowed for more lax restrictions than those of mainland China.

Yet as commerce dwindled the government in Macau would gain greater autonomy, as after centuries of mixed relations between the Chinese government and Portugal, the two sides finally came to an agreement on March 26, 1887 (Cremer 14). This agreement made Macau an official colony of Portugal though the borders remained a matter of some dispute for decades to follow.

Nearly a century later a seemingly unrelated event would carry significant consequences, when then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang agreed to sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Britain promised to return the New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong back to China when the lease term expired. In return China agreed to implement a “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which stated that for fifty years Hong Kong citizens could retain a capitalist economy and some political freedoms. This decision was deeply relevant for Macau, for this same system would also be implemented there.

On December 20, 1999 Macau became the last colony to be handed back over to the PRC (People’s Republic of China), thus ending Portugal’s colonial rule.