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Macau History Articles


This article appeared in the June 2007 “Casa de Macau Australia Newsletter”.

‘He kept the Union Jack flying in the Far East’
Stuart Braga

This was the headline of an article by the British war correspondent, David Divine, in the London Daily Sketch about the work of the British Consul in wartime Macau. Appointed as vice-consul in what was for the British Foreign office a remote and insignificant outpost, the young diplomat, John Reeves, became a key man between 1942 and 1945, when thousands of refugees poured into the little Portuguese colony from Hong Kong.

British civilians were interned at Stanley, and prisoners of war, including members of the Hong Kong volunteers, were crammed into an army camp at Shumshuipo, Kowloon. Hong Kong’s Portuguese population fled by the thousands to Macau, and almost ten thousand of them were able to claim British nationality. Most were destitute and almost starving. It was John Reeves’ responsibility to care for them as best he could. Reeves had been sent to Macau shortly before the outbreak of war for a ‘rest cure’ from Mukden, in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, a forbidding place at the best of times. Some rest cure!

At the British consulate in Macau, flew the Union Jack, the only Allied flag between India and Alaska, apart from the Allied embassies in Chungking. It was a beacon of hope for desperate people. David Divine, writing on 29th September, 1945, six weeks after the Japanese surrender, concluded his article by saying the ‘the Union Jack of Macao should be given an honoured place among the treasures of the Foreign Office.’

As well as distributing the pitifully small British government subsidy, Reeves hired some of the younger men as consulate guards. He was a tacit supporter of the Resistance, though he had to be very circumspect. On 16th January, 1944, despite the straitened circumstances of those desperate times, members of the Portuguese community, led by Jack Braga, tendered him a Testimonial Dinner in gratitude for what he had done.

LEFT: This lapel badge bears the inscription 'H.B.M. Consulate, Macao' (His Britannic Majesty's Consulate, Macao). It was worn issued to the people employed by John Reeves as staff members and guards.
RIGHT: Notice of Dinner to be held in honour of David Reeves.

David Divine’s article almost certainly stemmed from four lengthy cables sent to Reuter’s News Agency by its Macau representative, Jack Braga, on 24th September. He wanted the story to be told and remembered. The press telegrams of that era were written in a language of their own, with words run together and Latin prefixes added to save money. What do you make of this?
‘englishlanguage newspaper parrefugeesreceived wholehearted encouragement thereby maintaining British etallied viewpoints during omniphases conflict’.

Edited, Jack Braga’s telegrams read, in part: ‘Bespectacled, wiry-looking John Pownall Reeves will remain in the memory of Macao’s wartime history as a figure representing unflinching confidence in the final outcome of Allied victory.' His dynamic, democratic attitude enabled him to transmit inspiring encouragement to all Allied subjects and Portuguese citizens, all of whom were Allied supporters, especially during the early phase of the war when the Japanese were triumphant.

He maintained morale at all times, despite his wife being marooned in Hongkong and his only child sick. After the Japanese occupation of Hongkong, numerous Allied subjects seeking shelter in Macao approached Reeves, whose Union Jack was the solitary symbol of the Allied cause. They received generous assistance and words of consolation. Meanwhile, Reeves obtained stories of Japanese atrocities and excesses which the British Foreign Secretary transmitted to Parliament, causing worldwide indignation.

Reeves successfully solicited the British Government to give consideration to the necessity of granting relief subsidies, owing to the impossibility of diminutive, unproductive Macao providing employment. The number of refugees who were British subjects at the conclusion of the war was nearly ten thousand, and there were a thousand American citizens. Reeves also acted on behalf of the American government in promoting their welfare.

A large proportion of those reaching Macao in the early months of 1942 suffered the effects of malnutrition, causing the Portuguese government to promote health measures as far as circumstances permitted, while Reeves established medical dispensaries catering for the needs of British subjects.

Collaborating with Portuguese authorities, Reeves helped to subsidise British subjects of Portuguese extraction. This did much to alleviate hardship. However, owing to the exorbitant prices of foodstuffs, the British government’s remittances were hardly sufficient for the barest necessities, causing Reeves and his wife, who meanwhile had been released by the Japanese, to collaborate with leading Portuguese and Chinese citizens in promoting public charities. When conditions made it desirable to increase the Macao police force, Reeves encouraged British subjects to join. Many distinguished themselves alongside other members of the police in the execution of their duties.

With English education languishing, Reeves sought the establishment of English-language primary schools to supplement Portuguese schools. When a technical school for adults was set up in 1945, it too received subsidies from the British consul. There were other marks of his solicitude for the activities of the refugees, while promotion of sports received the most active support and generous contributions, enabling all classes to participate in games, Reeves himself playing hockey, while his constant presence at every social activity contributed greatly to the maintenance of high morale. He gave wholehearted encouragement to an English language edition of the newspaper enascimento for refugees. This paper maintained British and Allied viewpoints during all phases of the conflict. Despite Japanese protestations, the Portuguese authorities gave friendly recognition to the paper.

Throughout the war, Reeves and his wife, despite their daughter’s serious illness, gave continuous personal attention to the affairs of almost every individual, applying advice throughout the day and often late at night, displaying fatherly interest in every phase of the life of refugees. In cases of distress, he sought to alleviate their afflictions, and endeavoured to distribute as equitably as possible the generous though never sufficient remittances from the British government.’

Upon the conclusion of the war, Reeves was enthusiastically feted publicly at a dinner given on 3rd November, 1945, by the Hong Kong Portuguese community. Within a few months, most had returned to Hong Kong to get on with their lives, so cruelly interrupted by war.

The press cuttings illustrated here and the text of he telegrams sent to Reuter’s are all from the wonderful J.M. Braga collection in the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The badge issued by the British consulate in Macau was also his. It must be very rare. Does anyone else have one? If you do, treasure it. It is a relic of a heroic time.