How Did Portugal Get Macau?

Macau's skyline.

Peter Stuckings/Lonely Planet Images

Macau, a port city and associated islands in southern China, just west of Hong Kong, has the somewhat dubious honor of being both the first and the last European colony on Chinese territory. The Portuguese controlled Macau from 1557 to December 20, 1999. How did tiny, far-off Portugal end up taking a bite of Ming China, and holding on through the entire Qing Era and up to the dawn of the 21st century?

Portugal was the first European country whose sailors successfully traveled around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean basin. By 1513, a Portuguese captain called Jorge Alvares had reached China. It took Portugal two decades more to receive permission from the Ming emperor to anchor trading ships in the harbors around Macau; Portuguese traders and sailors had to return to their ships each night, and they could not build any structures on Chinese soil. In 1552, China granted the Portuguese permission to build drying and storage sheds for their trade goods in the area now named Nam Van. Finally, in 1557, Portugal got permission to establish a trading settlement in Macau. It took almost 45 years of inch-by-inch negotiation, but the Portuguese finally had a real foothold in southern China.

This foothold was not free, however. Portugal paid an annual sum of 500 taels of silver to the government in Beijing. (That is about 19 kilograms, or 41.5 pounds, with a current-day value of roughly $9,645 U.S.) Interestingly, the Portuguese viewed this as a rental payment agreement between equals, but the Chinese government thought of the payment as tribute from Portugal. This disagreement over the nature of the relationship between the parties led to frequent Portuguese complaints that the Chinese treated them with contempt. 

In June of 1622, the Dutch attacked Macau, hoping to capture it from the Portuguese. The Dutch had already ousted Portugal from all of what is now Indonesia except East Timor. By this time, Macau hosted about 2,000 Portuguese citizens, 20,000 Chinese citizens, and around 5,000 enslaved African people, brought to Macau by the Portuguese from their colonies in Angola and Mozambique. It was the enslaved African population who actually fought off the Dutch assault; a Dutch officer reported that "Our people saw very few Portuguese" during the battle. This successful defense by the enslaved Angolans and Mozambicans kept Macau safe from further attack by other European powers.

The Ming Dynasty fell in 1644, and the ethnic-Manchu Qing Dynasty took power, but this regime change had little impact on the Portuguese settlement in Macau. For the next two centuries, life and trade continued uninterrupted in the bustling port city. 

Britain's victories in the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), however, demonstrated that the Qing government was losing clout under the pressure of European encroachment. Portugal unilaterally decided to seize two additional islands near Macau: Taipa in 1851 and Coloane in 1864. 

By 1887, Britain had become such a powerful regional player (from its base in nearby Hong Kong) that it was able to essentially dictate the terms of an agreement between Portugal and the Qing. The December 1, 1887 "Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Amity and Commerce" forced China to give Portugal a right to "perpetual occupation and government" of Macau, while also preventing Portugal from selling or trading the area to any other foreign power. Britain insisted on this provision, because its rival France was interested in trading Brazzaville Congo for the Portuguese colonies of Guinea and Macau. Portugal no longer had to pay rent/tribute for Macau.

The Qing Dynasty finally fell in 1911-12, but again the change in Beijing had little impact down south in Macau. During World War II, Japan seized Allied territories in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and elsewhere in coastal China, but it left neutral Portugal in charge of Macau. When Mao Zedong and the communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they denounced the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Portugal as an unequal treaty, but did nothing else about it. 

By 1966, however, the Chinese people of Macau were fed up with Portuguese rule. Inspired in part by the Cultural Revolution, they began a series of protests that soon developed into riots. A riot on December 3 resulted in six deaths and over 200 injuries; the next month, Portugal's dictatorship issued a formal apology. With that, the Macau question was shelved once more.

Three previous regime changes in China had had little impact on Macau, but when Portugal's dictator fell in 1974, the new government in Lisbon decided to get rid of its colonial empire. By 1976, Lisbon had relinquished claims of sovereignty; Macau was now a "Chinese territory under Portuguese administration." In 1979, the language was amended to a "Chinese territory under temporary Portuguese administration." Finally, in 1987, the governments in Lisbon and Beijing agreed that Macau would become a special administrative unit within China, with relative autonomy through at least 2049. On December 20, 1999, Portugal formally handed Macau back to China.

Portugal was the "first in, last out" of the European powers in China and much of the world. In the case of Macau, the transition to independence went smoothly and prosperously—unlike the other former Portuguese holdings in East Timor, Angola, and Mozambique.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "How Did Portugal Get Macau?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). How Did Portugal Get Macau? Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "How Did Portugal Get Macau?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).