Chapter 4, Part 3
Two years after the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, Jorge Álvares sailed to the Far East and became the first Portuguese to ever set foot in China – at the Pearl River Delta to be precise. However, it took another four decades for the Portuguese to be allowed by the Ming dynasty rulers to stay onshore and build storage as well as rudimentary housing. Less than a decade later they built their first permanent settlement in Macau by agreeing to pay an annual rent in silver to the Chinese rulers.
In the following decades the Portuguese grew as the most prominent European power in the Far East with Macau as the seat of their colonial administration in East Asia. Macau’s growing significance was further affirmed with the establishment of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Macau and the colony’s own Senate in the second half of the 16th century.
The Ming dynasty let the Portuguese conduct their trade and economic affairs from Macau largely peacefully. However, in the 17th century the Dutch, who by then had grown into a prominent power in Asia, attempted to take Macau from the Portuguese hands. A futile military campaign which resulted in victory for the Portuguese successfully kept the Dutch away.
As more European players entered the lucrative trade with China by dispatching large numbers of vessels to the Orient, the trade balances were increasingly leaning toward the Chinese favor as the Europeans imported a lot of goods from China but exported only a fraction of their imports. This was made possible due to Chinese self-sufficiency for most of their necessities. To change this unfavorable balance, the British introduced opium – harvested from their South Asian colonial possessions – to the Chinese market in the 19th century. In a relatively short time the highly-addictive narcotic drug had created huge problems to the Qing dynasty who, as a retaliatory action, imposed severe limitations to the European trade in China, resulting in the First and Second Opium Wars.
Victory turned its back on the Chinese side, leading to a series of treaties which would immensely benefit European trade interests in China. The Portuguese, whose influence in Asia had profoundly been reduced by that time, annexed Taipa and Coloane, two small islands to the south of Macau, following the setbacks suffered by the Chinese. They also unilaterally ceased the annual payment for colonizing Macau which had been paid to China since the 16th century.
At the turn of the 20th century, Portuguese presence in Asia was concentrated in Goa and several coastal enclaves within the British Indian Empire, Portuguese Timor surrounded by the Dutch East Indies, and Macau at the doorstep of China. In 1961 India invaded Goa, Daman and Diu, ending more than 450 years of Portuguese rule in the subcontinent. Thirteen years later the Carnation Revolution occurred, an event which restored democracy in Portugal and bolstered movements for independence in Portuguese colonies around the world. In 1975 Portuguese Timor proclaimed their independence from Portugal, only to be annexed by Indonesia – whose territory was largely inherited from the Dutch East Indies – several days later.
This momentum was soon exploited by China – already a Communist country by then – to renegotiate the status of Macau. Finally, in 1999 Portugal relinquished their control of Macau back to China, ending more than four centuries of Portuguese administration in the port city. In fact Macau was the last Portuguese colony in the world. China granted Macau the Special Administrative Region (SAR) status, similar with Hong Kong which was returned by the British two years earlier. This status ensured both SARs’ autonomy to use their own currencies, have separate legal systems from China, join international organizations where membership is not limited to sovereign states, preserve freedom of speech, and implement democracy. Officially both Macau and Hong Kong are guaranteed SAR status for 50 years. But taking the heed from the situation that has been developing in Hong Kong in the last few years, Macau’s special status looks increasingly fragile. Only time can tell what will happen to the former Portuguese colony in 2049, when the SAR status expires.
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