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Macau History Articles


The following article was published in the 'National Library of Australia News', June 2004, Vol XIV, No. 9
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The Last Colony - The Portuguese in Macau

George Smirnoff
[Macau Cathedral] 1944
watercolour; 18.1 x 25.6 cm
Braga Collection; Pictures Collection,

Stuart Braga tells the fascinating story of the world’s most enduring European colony

On 20 December 1999 Macau, like Hong Kong, became a Special Administrative Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China. This brought to an end 442 years of unbroken Portuguese rule. No other colony, anywhere in the world, had lasted as long as this. For nearly three centuries, it was the only permanent European presence in what was regarded as the remotest part of the world.
José Maria (Jack) Braga (1897–1988) lived in Macau and Hong Kong for most of his life. Aware that the long-established Portuguese colonial culture in which he had grown up was fast vanishing, he began to record it in a large collection that was acquired by the Library in 1966.
Early in 2000, the National Library’s Visitors’ Centre hosted a display of some of the material from the J.M. Braga Collection. This display reflected the Library’s focus on documenting the history of European presence in the Far East from the late-fifteenth to the late-twentieth century.
For several years, as a consultant to the Library, Jack Braga gained much pleasure from assisting in the cataloguing and location of his treasures in the various collection areas of the new library building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. In 1969, he drew upon his own collection and his detailed knowledge to produce a booklet about Vasco da Gama for the Embassy of Portugal. This booklet celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Portuguese navigator, whose epic voyage to India 28 years later led to the European penetration of much of the Far East in the next 20 years.
Mr J.M. Braga and Mrs A.I. Braga
cutting the cake at their
Golden Wedding Anniversary,
30 December 1974, San Francisco
col. photograph; 24.4 x 19.3 cm
From the Braga family photographs
Pictures Collection,

The 500th anniversary of da Gama’s voyage was commemorated in 1997 and when Macau was returned to China two years later, it marked the end of what has been described as the Vasco da Gama era of European involvement with Asia. In the Far East, it was the Portuguese who first demonstrated the vigorous mercantile entrepreneurship that has marked Western capitalism ever since.

Within 20 years of da Gama’s voyage, Portuguese sailors had reached South China. The first was Jorge Alvares, an adventurer who raised a stone column displaying the arms of the King of Portugal, on Chinese soil in 1515. Along the way the Portuguese had established settlements at Goa on the west coast of India, and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malacca and East Timor.

The natural place from which to open trade with China was the major port of Canton (Guangdong) on the Pearl River in the south. Close to the mouth of the river was a small peninsula which the Portuguese merchants named Macau. It was occupied by the Portuguese from 1557 until 1999. It is not hard to imagine the thrill of seventeenth-century European sailors, going ashore at a European settlement after a long voyage, there to hear familiar voices and to see buildings very similar to those they had left behind up to a year before.
Macau was the gateway through which Europe discovered tea and porcelain (soon to be known simply as ‘china’). Silk, which was far lighter, more costly, and more easily transported, had been exported for centuries along the ‘Silk Road’ through High Asia, but now reached Europe in larger quantities through Macau.
George Smirnoff
Macau 1863 1945
watercolour; 23.5 x 36.1 cm
After an original painting by E. Hildebrandt
Original title: View of Praya Grande, Macau 1863;
Praia Grande, Macau 1863
Braga Collection, Pictures Collection,









This lucrative trade was vigorously contested by the Dutch, who in June 1622 attacked Macau in strength.The Portuguese defenders of Macau were certain they faced utter destruction as a fleet of 15 Dutch ships bore down upon them. Two English ships also waited in the background, hoping for some spoils. The little settlement’s defences were incomplete and the garrison was insufficient to withstand a siege or even a sustained attack.

Sensing the unpreparedness of the Portuguese, the Dutch fleet sailed straight into what sailors used to term the Macau ‘roads’, the channel leading to Macau from the outer islands. It was a rash, over-confident move and one of their ships was immediately sunk by fire from a shore battery. The remainder withdrew to regroup and an invading force landed a little to the north, on an undefended shoreline. Only a single gun could be brought to bear on the attacking Dutch; this was under the command of a Jesuit priest, Father Rho, a noted astronomer. With a shot that was either lucky or providential (depending on the point of view), he succeeded in blowing up the Dutch supply of gunpowder, which was being brought up in one cart. Lacking the means to pursue their attack, the Dutch retired in confusion. The date of the Dutch defeat, 24 June, became a day of celebration, and was ultimately proclaimed Macau Day. As a gesture of thanks for their loyal support, the Portuguese victors set free their Negro slaves, brought from the Portuguese colony of Mozambique on the east coast of Africa. The fortifications of Macau were then swiftly completed. Several forts were built facing the sea to repel the Dutch and a major fort was located at Guia, on the highest point of Macau facing China, should there be a landing further up river. The little settlement was never attacked again.

Macau’s golden age was in the late- seventeenth century, the settled early years of the Qing dynasty in China. Other European merchants also began to arrive and their trade flourished. It grew steadily from about 1750 with the arrival of British merchants belonging to the Honourable East India Company. Under Royal Charter, the Company had a monopoly of trade to China until 1813, after which there were scarcely any restrictions from the point of view of the foreigners.Tea was becoming the favoured drink of the growing middle class in Europe, while imports of opium into China were out of control. Macau became the base of operations for an increasingly diverse European community. In addition to the Portuguese, whose total population numbered about 5000, significant numbers of British, French, American and Danish merchants arrived.

Unknown artist
Macao 1830
watercolour; 17.5 x 21.5 cm
Rex Nan Kivell Collection;
Pictures Collection,







For part of the year they were permitted to trade in Canton, retiring in the hotter summer months to the milder climate of Macau. The Portuguese were not party to the growing tensions between British merchants and Chinese officials which led to war in 1839. However, the British victory, in what has since been known as the First Opium War, had a major impact upon Macau.

In the two-and-a-half centuries since the Portuguese occupation, Macau’s harbour had gradually silted up and was no longer able to receive large ships. The British choice of Hong Kong as a port from which to conduct its China trade was based upon the knowledge that it was a capacious and sheltered deep-water port. A British garrison occupied Hong Kong Island in February 1841 and with it came a number of Portuguese settlers from Macau. This was one of several waves of emigration from what had by now become a sleepy backwater with quaint crumbling architecture surmounted, appropriately enough, by the impressive ruins of St Paul’s Church and the still older forts of a bygone age of peril. The coolie trade, an export of human toil not unlike ‘blackbirding’ in the Pacific islands, provided some wealth, but in 1873 this was brought to an end by the British, who viewed it as tantamount to slavery. In August 1874 a great typhoon flattened much of Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong recovered, but impoverished Macau did not, and more people left. Even the guns in the Monte Fort, built in the 1620s to repel any future Dutch attack, were sold for scrap by a penurious government desperate to raise some extra money.

Vicente Pacia (1880–1940)
[Macau in 1640] 1940
pen and ink drawing; 20.8 x 67.4 cm, on sheet 29.1 x 67.6 cm
Braga Collection; Pictures Collection, nla.pic-an23746680

The little settlement remained fossilised well into the twentieth century. It achieved brief significance between 1942 and 1945 following the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941. For the second time, Macau became a place of refuge, and its population tripled to about 600 000. As the Portuguese flag had flown defiantly in the seventeenth century, the only one in the world, so now the Union Jack flew at the British Consulate, the only one north of the Equator between India and the United States. Portugal was neutral during World War II, and the Japanese government was prepared to leave Macau alone, although East Timor, the other Portuguese colony in the Far East, was occupied. The Government of Macau coped admirably with the emergency; all essential services were maintained, and despite the presence of many British civilian refugees, the Japanese were not provoked to action. Following the end of the Pacific War, the population surge moved on, and for another 20 years Macau returned to obscurity.
During the 1980s, after its long period of quiescence, Macau, like Hong Kong, experienced explosive growth. Casinos were developed, providing a sudden and unprecedented cash flow both for the government and for the private economy. Light industry grew where little more than joss sticks were manufactured 50 years before. Diplomatic relationships between Portugal and China had been severed at the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. They did not resume until 1979, following which negotiations began concerning the future status of Macau. These gained impetus following the 1984 Accord between China and Great Britain, under which Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty on 30 June 1997. In 1987, an agreement was reached between Portugal and the Peoples’ Republic of China, which recognised that Macau was a Chinese territory, but would be administered by Portugal for a further 12 years.

During the 1990s, the Government of Macau worked hard to preserve the heritage of this long Portuguese occupation. Many Portuguese colonial buildings were restored and several museums were built to celebrate both Chinese and Macanese contributions to the culture of this unique place. The Museum of Macau, opened in 1998 inside the Monte Fort, set a new international standard for cultural museums.
What of the Macanese people? Like any isolated community, the Portuguese colonists of Macau developed their own distinct identity. They were there for far longer than European colonists in any other part of the world, and in the course of many generations, a multiracial community developed. It had its own distinct dialect—a patois (patua in Macanese) that was largely old Portuguese but also contained elements of Cantonese and other Chinese dialects.
George Smirnoff
[Macao Showing the Praia Grande Bay,
Looking Southwards] 1944
watercolour; 17.9 x 25.3 cm
Braga Collection; Pictures Collection,








It developed a superb and distinctive cuisine from much the same elements. It was firmly and conservatively Catholic. This community has now largely scattered worldwide.Many Macanese went to Portugal or to Brazil, the other large Portuguese-speaking country, but others migrated to the Pacific rim countries: the United States of America, Canada and Australia.

Australians, themselves the product of a colonial past, can benefit from an understanding of this rich Portuguese colonial heritage. It is quite different from ours, although it developed over the same period in which Europeans became aware of the existence of our continent.The Portuguese history is firstly one of exploration in the Far East, followed by settlement and eventually the development of a unique community that persisted for several centuries.

It is most fortunate that the National Library of Australia possesses Jack Braga’s major collection devoted to the subject. Braga saw his collection as more than his own life’s work. He intended it to be a tribute to his family, whose roots in the Far East went back to 1712, and to the Macanese people whose history had left such a vibrant cultural legacy. His library is rich not only in printed and manuscript materials covering the whole of the period of Portuguese influence, but also in pictorial material, maps and ephemera.

Braga was well aware that he was recording a unique facet of human civilisation, and he did it as comprehensively as he knew how. He was, moreover, a writer as well as a collector. For many years he was the official historian to the Government of Macau and wrote numerous articles based on his collections. He developed warm relationships with scholars in his field, notably the late Professor Charles Boxer, Austin Coates and Geoffrey Bonsall. Jack Braga’s father, José Pedro Braga, had built up a considerable library in the first 40 years of the twentieth century. This library was lost during World War II, like that of Sir Paul Chater (whose incomparably rich collection is known only by his catalogue and is thought to have disappeared on route from Hong Kong to Japan). Twenty years later, during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, it appeared that another upheaval might again destroy the fruits of scholarship. Jack Braga determined that his own library would not suffer that fate. Believing that neither Macau nor Hong Kong was sufficiently secure, he decided that his collection should come to Australia where it would be strategically placed to contribute to the culture of another immigrant community.

STUART BRAGA, nephew of Jack Braga, is a retired teacher and writer of military history, notably Anzac Doctor: The Life of Sir Neville Howse, Australia’s First Victoria Cross Winner.