The Dutch Attempt to Seize Portuguese Macau

Dutch ships firing their cannons in the waters of Macau, drawn in 1665.

Map of Macau Peninsula in 1639, the city now reinforced with walls and forts

The First Fortifications

At first there were no fortifications in Macau. As mentioned previously, the Chinese were suspicious of Portuguese intentions and were careful to prevent them becoming too strong, and a part of this was their objection to the building of forts. The Portuguese controlled the seas and, whether or not they had colonising intentions, they came to realise that direct conflict with the Chinese was not feasible. They therefore accepted the Chinese demands and appeared to coexist peacefully with them.

Dr. Francisco de Sande reported in 1582 that:

The Portuguese of Macao are still nowadays without any weapons, or form of justice, having a Chinese Mandarin who searches their houses to see if they have any arms and munitions. And because it is a regular town with about 500 houses and there is a Portuguese governor and a bishop therein, they pay every three years to the incoming viceroy of Canton about 100,000 ducats to avoid being expelled from the land, which he divides with the grandees of the household of the king [emperor] of China. However, it is constantly affirmed by everyone that the king has no idea that there are any such Portuguese in his land.

As late as 1598 when Dom Paulo de Portugal protested about the Spanish trading at Pinhal,2 he did not feel able to be too forceful, as Macau was an open unprotected place. However, others were a greater threat to Macau.

Portugal’s geographical proximity to Spain became political after the death of Dom Sebastião in 1576. There was no male heir and, after a short period of uncertainty, the claim of the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain was endorsed by the Cortes which in 1581 proclaimed him king. Thus Spain and Portugal shared the same monarch, although the Portuguese fiercely clung to the notion of the countries remaining separate. One negative effect for Portugal was that Spain’s enemies became Portugal’s. These included the Dutch and English who were both naval powers. They were soon attacking Portuguese vessels and between 1623 and 1636 some five hundred Portuguese ships were lost.

Ships were not their only aim but the colonial territories as well. The Dutch first appeared at Macau in 1601 when a fleet under Admiral van Neck approached. They sent a party to take soundings of the harbour but the Portuguese attacked them and eighteen were hanged and two sent to Goa. That did not stop the Dutch, and they returned two years later when two of their ships opened fire on Macau and plundered and burnt a carrack. The next year a Dutch envoy tried to establish trade with China but the Portuguese influence stopped that, at which the Dutch Admiral van Waerwijk set sail to take Macau. He was halted by a typhoon and then driven off by a fleet of war junks. A report by Captain Matelieff in 1607 to the Dutch government confirmed that there was still a lack of forts and walls.

The Dutch were not the only threat as some of the British adventurers also cast their eyes on Macau, but the Dutch were in greater numbers. The Dutch made plans for taking control of Macau and they estimated this 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.

However, elsewhere in the same document it is noted that some steps had been taken to fortify the city, albeit that the Chinese were still against such works.

Ever since we and the English have traded with Japan with many ships, the population has been greatly alarmed. The place was therefore strengthened with some bulwarks, and they brought twelve cannon from Manila, whence another five guns are expected. They would gladly fortify the city but the Chinese will not allow it, saying that there will be time enough to do so when the enemy actually appear in sight.

Richard Cocks, writing to his employers, the East India Company in London, on 30 September 1621, confirmed the Dutch assessment, stating that:

It is very certen that with little danger our fleet of defence may take and sack Amacon in China, which is inhabeted by Portingales. For the towne is not fortefied with walls; neither will the King of China suffer them to doe it, nor to make any fortifications, nor mount noe ordinance upon any platforme; and ¾ partes of the inhabetantes are Chinas. And we are credably informed that, these last two yeares, when they did see but two or three of our shipp within sight of the place, they were all ready to runn out of the towne, as I have advized the Precedent and Councell of Defence at Jaccatra; and, had but 2 small shipps, as the Bull and Pepercorne, entred this yeare, they might easily have burnt and taken 17 sale of galliotas which weare at anchor, amongst which weare the 6 galliotas which came into Japan, being then full laden; and, had they taken this fleet, the Portingales trade in these parts of the world is quite spoiled, both for Manillas, Malacca, Goa, and else wheare. And the King of China would gladly be ridd of their neighbourhood; as our frendes which procure our entry for trade into China tell me, and doe say that he wished that we could drive them from thence.

Clearly the Portuguese needed to prepare for an attack and, in spite of the Chinese objections, they took steps to improve their security. The first defensive works were probably in the form of simple bulwarks, using guns that could be spared from the ships. As noted above, cannon were also brought in from Manila and some progress had been made in building proper defensive works to house them. Fei Chengkang notes that between 1608 and 1615 the batteries of São Francisco and Bom Parto had been built to protect the Praya Grande and that there was a battery at the entrance to the Inner Harbour. He also notes that a city wall had been started as early as 1605 in the area north of the Jesuit seminary, although this may have been their boundary wall, albeit built with defence in mind.

The continuing Dutch incursions so alarmed the citizens that in 1612 representatives from Macau went to Canton to argue that fortifications were required to defend the territory against the Dutch. There is no record of the Chinese having given any approval, but in the face of the Dutch menace a decision to fortify Macau was made in 1615. By then, in addition to the batteries noted above, the construction of the fort at the Monte was also well advanced. Francisco Lopes Carrasco was the officer charged with building the extended fortifications. He arrived in 1616 and established his headquarters at the Monte Fort, apparently as a guest of the Jesuits, as at that time it was part of their seminary complex. It is not known what plans he drew up or how much work was completed in the early years. However, there were fortunately some effective batteries in place by 1622.

The 1622 Attack by the Dutch

The early preparations were well justified as in June 1622 a Dutch fleet, under Admiral Cornelis Reijersen, was on its way to take Macau. The preparations for the attack were very thorough. Two hundred and one soldiers on board the fleet were formed into three companies and drilled daily under the command of two captains and an ensign. The sailors were divided into six companies of fifty men each, a total of three hundred. These nine companies of European soldiers and sailors were organised into three detachments —advance-guard, main-guard and rear-guard— each composed of one company of soldiers and two of sailors. The detachments were distinguished by red, green and blue flags and each was provided with six hundred pounds of small shot, six barrels of gunpowder and a surgeon. There were also sixty scaling-ladders, a thousand sandbags and three cannon. In addition to the five hundred Europeans there was a Japanese contingent and some Bandanese and Malays, the whole landing force amounting to about six hundred men.

The fleet arrived in sight of Macau on the 21 June where it was joined by the four ships (two Dutch and two English) of Janszoon’s blockading squadron. Reijersen now found himself at the head of a force of thirteen Dutch ships (Zierickzee, Groeningen, Delft, Gallias, Engelsche Beer, Enchuysen, Palliacatta, Haan, Tiger, Victoria, Santa Cruz, Trouw and Hoop) carrying a force of 1,300 men, so that he was able to reinforce the landing detachment by another hundred Europeans. The two English ships — the Palsgrave and Bull — decided not to participate in the attack, because Reijersen, in accordance with his instructions, refused to allow their crews any share in the expected booty.

On 23 June, to distract attention from the intended landing-place, three of the ships — Groeningen, Gallias and Engelsche Beer, anchored off the São Francisco bulwark, which they heavily bombarded during the afternoon. Apart from some material damage the Portuguese did not suffer any losses. The next day the Dutch ships Groeningen and Gallias resumed and intensified their bombardment of the São Francisco bulwark. The Portuguese gunners replied with equal determination and better success, as the Gallias was so badly crippled that she had to be abandoned and scuttled a few weeks later.

Meantime, about two hours after sunrise, the landing force of eight hundred men embarked in thirty-two launches (equipped with a swivel-gun in the prow) and five barges. They steered for Cacilhas beach to the northeast of the town, protected by fire from the guns of two of the ships. Further protection was provided by the smoke from a barrel of damp gunpowder that had been ignited and placed to windward; one of the earliest recorded instances of the tactical use of a smoke screen. About 150 Portuguese and Eurasian musketeers under the command of Antonio Rodriguez Cavalinho opposed the landing from a shallow trench dug on the beach.

From the start luck favoured the defenders. A musket-shot fired at random into the smoke screen struck the Dutch admiral in the belly, so that he had to be taken back to his flagship at the beginning of the action. This did not deter the Dutch and they were able to establish a beachhead. They disembarked their three field-pieces and the rest of their men without serious opposition. The senior military officer Captain Hans Ruffijn then organised two rear-guard companies to stay on Cacilhas Beach, with a view to covering the withdrawal of the main body if the attack on the town should prove unsuccessful. This done, he resumed the advance with six hundred men.

Ljungstedt quotes from an account of the events in the Senates archives as follows:

The Tocsin was rung: our people flew to assist us. The enemy had nearly passed the hermitage of Guia, when a heavy gun and some of less size were fired at them from the Monte. This salute made them stop and finding that a great number of men were in front, the commander apprehensive of being surrounded, sought some strong hold on the declivity of the mountain at the foot of Guia. Of this movement the Portuguese availed themselves, they attacked the enemy in the rear with so much resolution, that the Dutch threw away standards, arms, everything that they might get quickly back to the bay. The two companies stationed at Casilhas, endeavoured to rally the fugitives, when the Portuguese fell upon them so furiously with fire and sword that the enemy were compelled to seek for safety on board the ships. Many tried to reach the boats by swimming; of them 90 were drowned, and almost as many were slain in the field. The Dutch lost five standards, five drums and a field piece, that had just been landed, and more than a thousand arms. Four Captains were slain, and one taken with seven prisoners. Four Portuguese and two Spaniards, with a few slaves were killed. Some Portuguese slaves, who had behaved bravely and faithfully during the action were emancipated by their masters: the Tsung-tuh of Canton, sent them two hundred piculs of rice.

Surprisingly he does not mention that a lucky cannon-ball from a large bombard in the half-finished citadel of Sao Paulo do Monte, which was served by the Italian Jesuit and mathematician Padre Jeronimo Rho, struck a barrel of gunpowder which exploded in the midst of the Dutch formation with devastating results. Nor does it describe the vital part played by the commander of the garrison of the Fort of Sao Tiago at the Barra. He, realising that the main attack was coming from the landward side and that the naval bombardment of Sao Francisco was a feint, sent a party of fifty men under Captain Joao Soares Vivas to help. These reinforcements swung the balance and resulted in the rout of the Dutch.

It is perhaps ironic that Richard Cocks, who a year earlier had written to say how easily Macau could be taken, had to write a report of the battle on 7 September 1622 stating that three to five hundred men had been killed and four ships burnt. It was a great victory but it was not until 1871 that a monument to it was erected in the Jardim da Vitória.


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