little over two centuries ago, little Macau, remote and
isolated from world affairs, narrowly escaped being caught
up in the worldwide struggle between Britain and France
under Napoleon. Fearing that the French might get there
first, the British Governor-General of Bengal was on the
point in 1802, of sending troops to Macau with instructions
to force the Governor to surrender. Portugal might never
have got it back.
It all started with a stalemate between France and Britain,
who had been at war with each other several times during
the 18th century, and went to war again in 1793. Neither
side could land a knockout blow on the other, with the
French victorious on land, and the British unchallengeable
at sea. Britain's prosperity depended on trade, which
was protected by the watchful presence of the Royal Navy.
reproduced by kind permission of the National Library
situation became far more serious for the British when
a successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized control
of the French government in 1799, eventually proclaiming
himself Emperor of the French. Napoleon reasoned that
to defeat the British, he would use his control over most
of Europe to stifle British trade. That would lead to
the collapse of the British economy. Even Portugal, on
the southwest corner of Europe, had to dance to Napoleon's
tune, or risk invasion. That eventually did happen, and
when it did, British forces, based at Lisbon, began the
long fight back that ended with Napoleon’s defeat
response, the British took drastic steps to safeguard
their important worldwide trade especially with India
and China. Cape Colony (now South Africa), Ceylon (now
Sri Lanka) and Malacca were seized from the Dutch. Many
years earlier, the Dutch had pushed the Portuguese out
of Ceylon and Malacca. Now they were sent packing too.
The Portuguese territories around the African coast –
Guinea, São Tomé e Principe, Angola and
Mozambique – were not considered strategically important
and were left alone.
However, the British seized Mauritius, the French island
in the Indian Ocean. In India, Goa, with its small outposts
Damão and Diu were possible targets for a swift
In the Far East, Macau, already occupied by Portugal for
nearly 250 years, was the gateway to trade with China.
The China trade became enormously important to Britain
during the 18th century, and it would hurt Britain severely
if it were to be interdicted. If Macau was left in Portuguese
hands, it might well be the weakest link in the British
strategic chain. So Macau and the Portuguese Indian territories
were next on the British list to be occupied and fortified.
British policy in India was administered, not from London,
but by the Governor-General of Bengal. He was appointed,
not by the British government, but by the Honourable East
India Company, an immensely powerful trading company which
since 1603 had held a monopoly over British trade in the
East. Gradually, the company extended its influence throughout
Bengal and southern India until by the 1790s it controlled
an empire of tens of millions of people.
remarkable brothers played a significant part in the rapid
expansion of British influence at the beginning of the
19th century. They were Richard and Arthur Wellesley.
Richard, who became the Marquess of Wellesley, was a very
able administrator, and was appointed Governor-General
of Bengal in 1797. Arthur, his younger brother, was an
up-and-coming army officer of exceptional capability.
Within twenty years, he would defeat Napoleon and become
Duke of Wellington. In India, the able governor and the
brilliant soldier swept all before them.
The policy of British expansion in India was continued
even more aggressively by the Wellesleys, partly because
the French were giving military assistance to various
princes who stood in the way of British ambitions. The
French might well have seized Goa as part of this life-and-death
struggle to obtain a useful port.
Marquess of Wellesley moved first. Two forts at the entrance
to Goa harbour, at Aguada and Cabo Raj Bhawan, had been
occupied by a British force since 1797. Now, in a letter
dated 20 November 1801, Wellesley courteously requested
the Governor-General of Goa, Francisco Antonio da Veiga
Cabral, to accept a strong force of British soldiers to
reinforce his small garrison and make the port impregnable.
A similar dispatch was sent to José Manuel Pinto,
the Governor of Macau, then under the jurisdiction of
Goa. Cabral and Pinto were reminded that Britain and Portugal
were old allies, and that their cooperation was expected.
However, within a few weeks, the situation suddenly became
much more precarious. Wellesley heard that Portugal had
signed a treaty with France agreeing to close all her
ports to trade with Britain. There was no time to lose;
Goa and Macau must be occupied at once.
17 January 1802, Wellesley sent off a flurry of letters.
Sir William Clarke, the commander of the British forces
at the entrance to Goa harbour, was ordered to occupy
Goa, to place the Governor under house arrest but to treat
him with dignity, and to offer the Portuguese troops there
service under the British flag. They would become prisoners
of war if they refused. Clarke was instructed to prepare
a detailed Intelligence report on the government, economy
and social fabric of Goa. A second letter went to Governor
Cabral. It demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender
of Goa and its dependencies to Clarke’s forces.
That of course included Macau. A third letter was sent
to Richard Wall in Canton, the President and Commissioner
of British Supercargoes (i.e. merchants). He was informed
that troops on their way to Macau would be ordered to
require its surrender. "In the event of opposition
on the part of the Governor of Macao", Wellesley
ordered "the reduction of the settlement by force
of arms." Wellesley was shrewd as well as forceful.
Wall was instructed to let the Chinese authorities know
that a French takeover of Macau would be bad for business.
A British takeover would be good for business. However,
Wellesley realised that he had to tread warily in relation
to the Chinese authorities. Wall’s instructions
were soon watered down with what for Wellesley was a rare
piece of diplomacy. "Your knowledge of the disposition
of the Chinese government will enable you to determine
upon the expediency of proceeding to the occupation of
Macau without previously obtaining the acquiescence of
If that left
Wall in an awkward position, not quite knowing what to
do, Governor Pinto in Macau was in a most unenviable position.
Wellesley's fourth letter was a blunt demand for his abject
surrender. "I have directed the Officer in Command
of the British Armament … to propose to your Excellency
terms for the peaceable surrender of the Settlement of
Macao and its dependencies. Your Excellency’s wisdom
and discernment will suggest to you the inutility [uselessness]
of opposing any resistance to the accomplishment of this
measure; your Excellency’s justice and humanity
will not permit you to expose the lives and property of
the inhabitants of Macao to the danger of an unavailing
contest with the superior power of the British arms.”
In simple language, Pinto was told, ‘surrender or
we’ll flatten Macau’.
happened? Cabral knew that he could do nothing to stand
in the way of this Englishman who hated Napoleon, but
like the French ruler was ruthless and tyrannical. For
the next 12 years, British forces occupied Goa. The old
Portuguese territory was virtually a British protectorate,
but Portuguese civil authority was allowed to continue,
despite Clarke’s concern about the way the Portuguese
civil service operated there. ‘Conditions amount
to extortion’, he reported. Arthur, the younger
Wellesley brother, fresh from a stunning victory at Assaye
over an Indian army with French advisers, was even more
forceful than his brother. He told Clarke to lay it on
the line with the Portuguese governor. Clarke was instructed
to point out to Cabral, "it is positively determined
that the French shall not have Goa; that by a good understanding
with the British government he may certainly secure the
Possession for the Crown of Portugal, otherwise it may
be lost entirely."
did go back to Portugal in 1813 for another 150 years.
Had the Wellesley brothers still been in India, it would
surely have remained British. Both of them were determined
to increase British power, and neither would not let anything
or anyone stand in his way. However both men returned
to England in 1807, there to make their mark on world
history. Portugal soon shook off the treaty with France,
and joined forces with Britain. Major-General Arthur Wellesley
went to Portugal’s rescue and soon earned fame,
promotion, titles and riches.
Macau? Nothing happened. Pinto remained undisturbed as
Governor until August 1803 when he was replaced by Caetano
de Sousa Pereira. The British, needing all their troops
in Europe, could spare none for an expedition to the ends
of civilisation. Moreover, French naval power in the Indian
and Pacific oceans was at an end already. So too therefore
was the French threat to Macau. However, its slow decline
continued as, less than 40 years later the British found
a far better place for their commercial and naval activities
in the Far East – Hong Kong.