A History of Macau

Compared to Hong Kong, Macau has attracted little attention from Western media. Hong Kong was the most successful colony of the British Empire, the biggest colonial empire in history, comprising one quarter of humankind. The British Empire gave today’s world an indelible imprimatur: the English language, ‘white’ settlers’ colonies such as the United States and Australia, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the industrial revolution etc. – these are all part of the legacy (along with the negative and reproachful aspects of colonialism), that the British global supremacy has left. 

Hong Kong was the last colony of the British, and it was perhaps the most fascinating of all. It was one of the Asian Tigers, an economic powerhouse whose per capita income surpassed that of Britain itself; it was a Chinese city that had thrived under British administration. It was also a nice showpiece of benevolent imperialism that provided peace, order and prosperity. The last British colony was perhaps the best, the most enduring legacy of Empire.
Hong Kong’s success story was a good way for Britain to say good-bye to colonialism, a system of direct political control of foreign lands which by the 1990s had been completely discredited.

The Portuguese occupied Macau in 1557 and governed it until 1999. In comparison, Britain took Hong Kong only in 1843. But despite being the oldest European colony in China, Macau was in many respects far less successful than Hong Kong. The relationship between the Portuguese and the local Chinese, as well as its economic performance, set Macau clearly apart from its British neighbour. 

Macau was a small, sluggish outpost of an empire – the Portuguese – that had been declining for centuries. Portugal and Spain were once powerful countries, and they established the first European colonial empires. But after their zenith in the 16th and 17th century, their economic and military decay was irreversible. The legacy of Portuguese rule in Macau was therefore very different from the one the British left in Hong Kong. 

Macau Under Portuguese Rule

The Portuguese set foot on Macau for the first time in 1553. The story of how Macau got its name is one of the many examples of miscommunication that can be found in the European history of exploration and colonization. It is said that when the Portuguese arrived in Macau they asked local people to tell them the name of the place. The Chinese misunderstood the question and replied it was called ‘Ma Kok’, which was the name of a nearby temple. Thus the Portuguese, incapable of pronouncing the word correctly, created a Portuguese form of it: Macau (see Hao 2011, p. 12-13). ‘Macau’ is therefore completely unrelated to the Chinese name of the territory: 澳門 (pinyin: Àomén), meaning Bay Gate. 

The 15th and 16th centuries were an era of colonial and maritime expansion for Portugal, the Golden Age of Portuguese sea power. Not only in Brazil and Africa, but also in Asia they established trade outposts which laid the basis for one of the first European global empires. In 1510 Alfonso d’Albuquerque seized Goa, in India. By the middle of the 16th century Portuguese rule extended over the entire Indian Coast. As the explorer and writer Fernao Mendes Pinto (509 — 1583) recounts in his book “Peregrination”, in 1557 “the Mandarins of Canton, at the request of the merchants”, gave the Portuguese “the port of Macau where the commerce is now carried on” (see Hao 2011, p. 9). The Portuguese thus inaugurated a 400-year de facto rule in Macau, which became the first European colony in China and the last to be returned to the motherland in 1999, two years after the British had handed over Hong Kong to the PRC. The loss of the last strongholds of Western imperialism coincided with the ascendance of China as a world power and its recovery of the territories lost in her time of weakness (Cheng 1999, p. 10).

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), China embarked on a period of isolation, also known as the ‘closed door’ policy. As a consequence, trade between China and Japan was prohibited. The Portuguese seized this opportunity, and used Macau as a base for a profitable business; they traded Chinese silk, gold, musk and porcelain in exchange for Japanese silver and copper, thus serving as intermediaries between the two countries (ibid.).

Due to the closed-door policy, the Ming-dynasty government restricted foreign trade and emigration. It established a sino-centric order, based on the assumption of Chinese superiority and self-reliance (ibid., p. 17). However, they let the Portuguese settle in Macau. One of the reasons is that the Chinese authorities hoped to use the Portuguese to prevent other foreigners to arrive, and also to fight against piracy, which was a major problem at the time. As a French official who visited Macau in the late 1700s wrote, the Chinese armed a fleet together with the Portuguese, but they did not take part in the battle. “The Portuguese won battle upon battle, and finally purged the area of the fearsome pirates” (Hao 2011, p. 16).

Though the Portuguese conquered and administered Macau since 1557, the legal status of Macau was uncertain. From a legal point of view, the Portuguese had not acquired it formally. The Portuguese seem not to have regarded the issue of sovereignty as a vital matter for the continuation of their administration in Macau until the British defeated the Chinese in the first Opium War (1839–42) and acquired Hong Kong through the Treaty of Nanjing in 1841. In the following years, other European powers signed treaties with China (the USA and France in 1844, Belgium in 1845, and Sweden in 1847). The Portuguese became aware that the status of their own colony was not legally secured, and sought to obtain a formal transfer of sovereignty from China.

Exploiting China’s weakness after the Second Opium War with Britain (1856 – 1860), Portugal and China signed the Treaty of Beijing (1887), which ceded Chinese sovereignty over Macau in perpetuity to the Portuguese (see Cheng 1999, pp. 22-27). 

The Portuguese and the Chinese in Macau – A Difficult Relationship

Despite ruling Macau for over 400 years, Macau never became a Portuguese-speaking territory. Moreover, the relationship between the Portuguese and the local Chinese was tense and strained, especially when one compares it with the coexistence between British and Chinese in Hong Kong.

As a matter of fact, in a 1998 representative survey only 22.4 % of the people interviewed in Macau said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the Portuguese rule, while 39.2 % said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. This stands in sharp contrast with Hong Kong, where 68.6 % of the respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the British administration, while only 7.2 per cent were dissatisfied.
Similarly, Before the handover 63% of Hong Kongers trusted the British administration, but only 35 % trusted the Portuguese administration.

When asked of they felt proud of being Chinese, 74.1 of Macau respondents replied affirmatively, while only 38.8 said they were proud of being a Macau citizen (Yee 2001, p. 64-71).

These numbers should be put in perspective. Of the total population of Macau in 1998, which was about 437 000, approximately 96 per cent were ethnic Chinese (ibid., p. 131). Although Macau was administered by the Portuguese, and despite the fact that when they arrived there were only a few hundred local inhabitants, there was never a massive settlement of Portuguese people. The majority of the inhabitants of Macau are Chinese from mainland China’s Guangdong Province (with the same culture and language as the population of Hong Kong), and a minority of estimated 50 000 from Fujian Province. Most of these immigrants have strong ties with China, given hat more than 2/3 of them were not locally-born, but came from mainland China (ibid., p. 83 and 131).

However, the long Portuguese presence has produced an ethnic minority, which constitutes around 2-3% of the population, of Eurasians or Macanese, who are mostly Macau-born people of mixed Portuguese-Chinese heritage. Another estimated 1 per cent of the population are Portuguese from Portugal, Angola, Mozambique and Goa, as well as people from other countries.

There are several reasons why the relationship between Portuguese and Chinese in Macau was not as successful as that between British and Chinese in Hong Kong. First of all, the Chinese of Macau did not perceive the Portuguese colonial government as efficient, nor were they satisfied with the economic performance of the colony. Whereas Britain, which was the biggest world power until World War II, and which had an immense financial and industrial capacity, provided not only a positive economic framework for the Chinese in Hong Kong, but it also provided an administration the Chinese were happy with. Although the British governed Hong Kong in their own way, they ironically delivered a government that historian Steve Tsang describes as ‘the best possible government in the Chinese tradition’. The characteristics of such government are:, according to Tsang: “efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people” (Tsang 2011, p. 197). In fact, the British saw Hong Kong mainly as a major port and a financial and trade centre where to promote business. They were interested in keeping order, let people devote themselves to their business, secure the rule of law. The Chinese appreciated the benefits of the rule of law and of a professional, high-level civil service, and profited from the good business environment and from the basic welfare system and house construction and relocation projects of the government. Besides, they felt the government was non-intrusive; in fact, it was typical of the British to administer their colonies with few human and capital resources. The British Empire was an economic empire, and the government in London didn’t want to take on a too heavy financial burden. It’s not a coincidence that  when the British became broke after WWII, the empire dissolved. Consequently, the colonial government in Hong Kong was per definition minimalistic. For instance, until 1941 the government had but 35 administrative officers (ibid., p. 199). Overall, the government was small, but efficient, and although it never granted democracy, it had a paternalistic and benevolent attitude. 

On the contrary, the Portuguese government was not perceived as efficient or benevolent. For decades, the Chinese were almost excluded from the administration, which was monopolized by Portuguese and by Macanese. Ethnic tensions exploded in 1966, when in the course of anti-Portuguese riots the police killed eight Chinese. Even before the handover the Chinese community criticized the government for wasting money in the construction of numerous monuments, and for taking money from Macao to Portugal through the Orient Foundation. 

Secondly, the Portuguese language and culture never enjoyed the same prestige as English did in Hong Kong. In the last decades of Portuguese rule, only public schools used the Portuguese language, but they constituted only 10% of all schools. The local Chinese usually sent their children either to Chinese or English schools. Portuguese was the official language of the government and the public sector. But outside of its official sphere it enjoyed relatively little prestige in everyday life and business, so that there was no incentive for the Chinese-speaking population to learn it or even use it at home. It may sound surprising, but English is the second language after Chinese, while Portuguese is only the third most spoken language in Macau (Yee 2001, p. 56)
One possible explanation for this difference might be that English language and (Anglo-American) culture are influential worldwide. For more than two centuries, Britain first and then the US were global superpowers, spreading their tongue, political system and way of life to almost every country in the world. From this perspective, it is obvious that Hong Kongers saw the task of learning the language of their colonial masters not as a useful imposition, but as a practical tool they needed in their working life. In fact, I and millions of other people who don’t come from countries colonized by the British have to learn English as well. The Chinese of Macau, on the contrary, didn’t see learning Portuguese as a priority.

The third reason is that Portugal itself was by far not as strong, rich and stable as Britain. Portugal had major internal problems that weakened its position. In 1910, a revolution overthrew the Portuguese monarchy. In 1928 Antonio de Oliveira Salazar established a fascistoid Republic. He obstinately clung to the colonial empire. Given the economic and political woes of the country, keeping a global empire was a very hard task for Lisbon. In 1961 India invaded the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Damao and Diu. All over the empire wars of independence broke out (see Cheng 1999, p. 35). Other than the British, who accepted the end of their empire, the Portuguese fought bitterly to maintain their rule. But it was obvious that it was just a matter of time before the colonized peoples succeeded in becoming independent.

In 1974 Salazar’s dictatorship was ousted by a leftist revolution. A process of decolonization began. In Macau, colonial rule had already lost its grip on the colony, and Chinese influence in the internal affairs of Macau was strong.

In 1979, Macau became a ‘Chinese Territory under Portuguese Administration’.  Thus the Portuguese unilaterally gave up their sovereignty claim on Macau and defined their role as that of a temporary administrator of a Chinese territory. On 3 April 1987, the Joint Declaration between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Portugal was signed, which stated that Macau would be returned to the PRC on 20 December 1999 (ibid., p. 36).


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