Thursday, June 23, 2005

Macau's Desperate Battle For Survival, Part II

The blasting cannonades from the Dutch East Indiamen continued unabated all through the day of the 23rd. It kept the thin line of 150 Portuguese defenders from surveying the extent of the Dutch invading force or indeed, the damage done to their city (which only had in total 1,000 people there at the time). While substantial damage was done to more temporary structures and edifices, the walls of the city and many of the sturdy houses were less affected. Why was this? It was because the walls of the Portuguese forts and houses alike were made of a material called variously, taipa or chunambo. Antonio Bocarro, in his 1635 description of the city, explains it, and the fortifications of the main fortress of Sam Paullo (the Monte Fort), thus:

"The stronghold of greatest strength and importance in this city is that of Sam Paullo, dwelling of the Captain-Generals, otherwise called Madre de Deus. [note that at the time of the 1622 attack the Jesuits lived there, and no Captain-General had yet been successfully installed in Macau - the Monte Fort was part of a string of defenses in the old city that was not only next to the St. Paul's college of the Jesuits, but had actually incorporated it, and the church famed today for its ruined facade, into the city's defenses. This fact testifies to the great power of the Jesuits then - Ed.] It is on a prominent hill which dominates the whole City, on the top of which is built a wall, measuring 20 spans at its base, made of granite as far as 6 spans high above the ground, after which it it composed merely of earth mixed with straw, and beaten so strongly with pestles that it becomes exceedingly strong, and even better than stone in its ability to resist bombardment, since it does not loosen so easily. [this is the taipa we spoke of - Ed.] Walls made of this earth and lime are so durable, that as all the houses in the city are built of it, they have great difficulty in opening spaces for windows when they are finished, which they do by means of iron picks, with excessive toil and moil."

The excellent historian Charles Boxer, that dug up Bocarro's account, also then adds in a footnote:

"The strength of these old walls of well-beaten earth, straw and lime, is strikingly attested by the fact that to blow up a section of 130 metres it was necessary to use 1800 lbs. of gunpowder (nearly 13 lbs for each metre) in the middle of the last [19th] century."

Nevertheless, the Dutch went at their barrage. They were determined to take the town, not only to exact revenge for their hanged comrades two decades before, but to capture the town that they felt would give them a steady source of silk for sale in Japan (they had thus far needed to buy their silk from pirates in Formosa). They even tried to enter the outer harbour by bombarding the forts defending it, a frontal naval assault. They were forced to retire, however, with the loss of one ship thanks to the guns of those forts.

On the morning of the 24th, St. John the Baptist's Day, the Dutch resumed the bombardment on the harbour. But this time, that attack was a diversion, with their main force landing at Cacilhas Bay, near where the ferry terminal stands today. This beach on which they landed was only defended by an improvised sandbank, according to historian Austin Coates. Meeting only light resistance, they made their way through the undefended side of the city.

This roused every man in the city, whether merchant, priest or slave, to the city's defence. The Jesuits began to man the guns while the defending Portuguese soldiers engaged the Dutch in melee combat. This was the moment I had mentioned before, when Jesuit Father Jeronimo Rho landed a miraculous shot on his first attempt tbat scored a direct hit on the Dutch gunpowder magazine, which blew up spectacularly, and some of the Dutch leaders along with it.

Let me close with a quote fromby quoting Austin Coates' excellent book, A Macao Narrative, which I would also recommend heartily as an excellent read. The measure of its writing can be found below:

"Even after this loss, the Dutch continued to press their attack but being short of ammunition, and unaware of the perilously small size of the force defying them, they hesitated at the main entry into the city, between the hills of Monte and Guia. They were preparing to advance to take one of these hills and secure themselves, when Portuguese reinforcements arrived from the outer harbour forts, the defenders on that side having realized that the Dutch did not intend landing on the Praia Grande.

This unexpected increase in strength gave the Portuguese a sudden elan of confidence. The nation's battle cry - 'St. Iago!' - rang out from somewhere, and was a second later being yelled from every throat as the diminutive force, each man like one inspired, charged down from all sides upon the Dutch. Their onrush, after several hours of defensive action, confused their adversaries, making them uncertain how the battle was going, for the Portuguese were attacking with the fury and enthusiasm of those who believe themselves victorious. Under cover of all the fire they could muster, the foremost of the Portuguese closed with the enemy to engage him hand to hand.

The impact of their advance was decisive. The Dutch commanding officer was among the first to fall. As they lost sight of him, the invaders wavered. A moment later they were retreating in disorder to the boats. Chaasing them through the fields, the Macanese threw away their firearms and slew the Dutch with their swords. An African woman dressed as a man even killed two Dutchmen with a prong.

The rout was joined by the entire population, Jesuits included. Many Hollanders were killed, others taken prisoner, and several drowned while trying to reach the boats. It could not have been a more complete victory. On the following day, the Dutch sent ships flying a truce flag to ask for the ransom of the prisoners. This being refused, they sailed away..."

Which is why St. John the Baptist's Day is always a special day in Macau, despite the fact that the government forbids its official celebration as a colonial pastime. A good excuse to get on the ferry tomorrow!

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