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History Matters

A European Conflict in Asia

S. Francisco Monastery and the Fort/The Victory Monument


In the seventeenth century, European traders fought each other for a share of the trade with China.


The first European traders to reach China were the Portuguese. They had pioneered the sea route to the East in search of spices. Towards the end of the fifteenth century Portuguese sailors rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1510 they established themselves at Goa, in India. The following year they captured Malacca, from where, in 1516, Rafael Perestello, one of their more adventurous members, took passage on a junk to China. He was able to trade and his trip was so profitable that others were encouraged to follow.


The Monte Fort in the 1930s

Establishing good relations with China was not a smooth process and there were setbacks but the Portuguese were finally allowed to settle in Macau in 1557. The tiny peninsula was an ideal location, close to the important trading areas of South China (Canton, present day Guangzhou, had been a
trading port for many years).
The trade with Asia was very profitable and not surprisingly others wanted to get in on the act. The Dutch were the first and they appeared at Macau in 1601 when a fleet under Admiral van Neck approached. A party sent to take soundings of the harbour was attacked by the Portuguese, who then hanged eighteen men and sent two to Goa. That did not stop the Dutch, who returned two years later. Two of their ships opened fire on Macau and plundered and burnt a carrack.
Cannon still guard the Monte Fort
The Dutch made plans to take control of Macau, which they expected to be an easy task. In the instructions to the Dutch admiral, it was stated that: "Macao was always an open place without a garrison, which, despite of its being provided with a few munitions and some shallow entrenchments, could easily be taken by a force of a thousand or fifteen hundred men and converted into a stronghold which we could defend against the entire world.”
Clearly the Portuguese needed to prepare for an attack. Although the Chinese opposed any fort building, some simple batteries were established. In addition, the Jesuits began construction of a fort at the Monte. In 1616 Francisco Lopes Carrasco arrived to organise a proper system of fortifications. Fortunately by 1622 some effective batteries were in place as in June a Dutch fleet, under Admiral Cornelis Reijersen, was on its way to take Macau.
The fleet arrived in sight of Macau on the 21st June; on the 23rd, to distract attention from the intended landing-place, three of the ships set anchor off the small São Francisco fort, and bombarded it. Other than some material damage, the Portuguese did not suffer any losses. The next day the Dutch ships intensified their bombardment. Meantime, about two hours after sunrise a force of 800 men landed at Cacilhas beach to the northeast of the town. In addition to covering fire from the ships, they were shielded by the smoke from a barrel of damp gunpowder; one of the earliest recorded instances of the tactical use of a smokescreen. About 150 Portuguese and Eurasian musketeers under the command of Antonio Rodriguez Cavalhino opposed the landing.
The Clube Militar at the Barracks
From the start, luck favoured the defenders. A musket-shot fired at random into the smokescreen struck the Dutch Admiral in the belly, so that he had to be taken back to his flagship. This did not deter the Dutch and they were able to land their three field-pieces and the rest of their men without serious opposition. The enemy had nearly passed the hermitage of Guia, when a heavy gun and some of lesser size were fired at them from the Monte Fort. It is reported that a lucky cannon-ball from a large bombard struck a barrel of gunpowder which exploded in the midst of the Dutch formation to devastating effect. They were forced to halt their advance. The commander, finding that a great number of men were in front, and apprehensive of being surrounded, sought to consolidate his position.
Meanwhile the commander of the garrison of the fort of São Thiago at the Barra, realising where the main attack was coming from, sent a party of 50 men to help. They swung the balance and the Dutch were routed. Many tried to reach the boats by swimming; 90 of them were drowned, and almost as many were slain in the field. The Dutch lost five standards, five drums, a field piece and more than a thousand arms. Portuguese casualties were very low and the outcome was a great victory, but it was not until 1871 that a monument to it was erected in the Jardim da Vitória. It remains there today as a reminder of Macau’s less peaceful past.
The Monte Fort was completed in 1626 as part of a major defensive building programme that was to act as a deterrent to any further attacks. It is there today and houses the Macau History Museum. The Fort of S. Francisco remained until the mid-nineteenth century when the monastery and the original S Francisco Barracks were removed. Today it houses a small military museum. All serve as vivid reminders of the turbulent history of this vibrant corner of Asia.
Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China.


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