Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Macau's Desperate Battle for Survival, Part I

Today is another muggy summer day in the Pearl River Delta. It was on a day just like this one, 383 years ago on the 22nd of June 1622, that a flotilla of Dutch East Indiamen and warships descended upon on the surprised city of Macau.

Just decades before, Portugal had ruled the seas of East and Southeast Asia, by virtue of their early start in seafaring, experience with navigational equipment and exploratory vision of their leaders. But as we explain in our Macau walk, the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the autos-da-fe and the emphasis of the new Habsburg monarchs on religion over secular knowledge led to a decline in Portuguese navigational ability. At the same time, Holland, newly freed from the Spanish Habsburg boot, had many advantages. Their people were also very experienced sailors - it is estimated that by 1670 fully 10% of the adult male population of Holland were seamen. Thanks to their low import tariff policy, their fluyts dominated trading routes all over Europe, including the most important commodity for building ships - wood, brought over from the Baltics. In 1596, their invention of the wind-powered sawmill gave them a dramatic edge in shipbuilding, and their East Indiamen were skillfully built such that small crews could manage the same amount of cargo as English or Portuguese ships with three times the men.

These advantages gave the De Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, a huge advantage over the Portuguese or even the British East India Company, which had been founded 2 years earlier in 1600. The Dutch ruthlessly and rapidly took over Portuguese shipping routes that had been left both vulnerable and undefended due to the Habsburg wars against the Protestants (including the Dutch) that had embroiled Portugal now that a Spanish Habsburg now sat astride the Lusitanian throne. The Dutch apparently had received intelligence that most of the sailors and fighting men of Macau were out at sea - driven to take up mercenary roles now that their trading routes and the frequency of their galleons had declined dramatically. So it was that 800-900 Dutchmen began their bombardment of old city of Macau with their guns.

It was fortunate for the Portuguese that the Dutch did not know about the weak link in their defences to the north. For the land on which Macau stood was considered Chinese sovereign territory, only leased to the Portuguese, and the Chinese were very suspicious of the walls the Portuguese had begun building after the first Dutch exploratory incursion in 1601. The Chinese had insisted that the main Portuguese defence, the Monte Fort, could not have any gun emplacements or strong walls facing north towards China. Had the Dutch known that, the city today would surely be known for beers and rijstaffels than for Douro wines and egg tarts. In 1606, the Dutch numbers were small, and many of them had been publicly hanged by the Portuguese. The locals knew these Dutchmen would want revenge.

The Dutch, however, did not disembark from their ship on the 22nd, nor did they the following day. Rather, they maintained the bombardment, a fearsome barrage of noise and shot that must have made the vastly outnumbered 150 Portuguese defenders despair of the outcome of the attack.

I shall describe the climax and denouement of this battle again tomorrow....Until next time!

(Below is a bond of the VOC, dating from 7th November 1623, a year after the attack on Macau)

1 comment:

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