The Portuguese age of Discovery commenced in the 15th century with the sponsorship of Infante Henrique of Portugal, Henry the Navigator. He sparked the expansion of Portuguese trade for the next 150 years that opened a maritime route for Europeans to Africa, the Middle East, India, the Straits of Malacca and ultimately reached the China Coast and Japan. At its height in the early 17th Century, the Portuguese empire encompassed 60 states and territories.
Jorge Alvares was the first European to reach the China coast by sea when he made port near the historic city of Canton in May 1513. In 1557, Portugal established the first permanent European settlement in China.
Macau prospered as the only European trading port permitted by imperial China and this exclusive position survived for nearly 300 years. Unlike other European powers in Asia, the Portuguese were not able to sustain extensive land based military conquest due to its smaller resources and lack of large-scale military and shipbuilding capability. This made its presence more palatable for the local rulers who tolerated the Portuguese and profited by trade with their new Far East ports. Portugal for its part was happy to restrict its activities to the pursuit of trade and conversion of the local population to Christianity. The founders of Macau replicated this more benign colonial model that was also successfully used in Goa, Ceylon, Malacca and Timor.
Christianity was a central part of the Portuguese culture in Macau and later Hong Kong. Churches were established, as were Christian schools and seminaries. It became a major training and departure point for Catholic missionaries to different countries in Asia.
Priests and missionaries travelled with the sailors and traders on the early caravels. The flags of the caravels and later the Portuguese tall ships carried the distinctive red Cruz de Cristo as a symbol of their faith.
The Society of Jesus was founded in 1534 as a missionary order and when it arrived in Macau, established the Colégio de São Paulo in 1594 as the first western university in East Asia. The Jesuits brought with them western science, and astronomy to China and as a result gained influence and access to the imperial court in Peking. One of its founders was St Francis Xavier S.J. who was an early missionary in China and Japan. Parts of his remains are kept in Macau at the Chapel of St Francis Xavier in Coloane, Macau.
So important was Macau to the 16th century Catholic Church that in 1576 Pope Gregory XIII declared by holy edict, Cidade do (Santo) Nome de Deus de Macau, City of the (Holy) Name of God of Macau. With this holy edict the Macau diocese was granted jurisdiction over China, Japan and Korea.
The Portuguese in Asia initially traded in spices from the East Indies. Key spices were pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and mace and they established monopolies in the 16th century. The trade routes were state secrets and maps of the Far East were highly sought after by other European powers seeking Asian expansion. By decree of the King of Portugal, disclosure of maps was punishable by death.
From the mid 16th century, Portuguese traders were able to exploit the China – Japan silk, porcelain and silver trade for almost one hundred years. Japanese consumer demand for Chinese silk and porcelain was enormous but China had imposed a trade embargo with Japan from 1567. The Portuguese filled this gap as intermediaries, shipping silk and porcelain to Japan that was paid for by Japanese silver. The silver was then resold in China for substantial profits. This two-way trade provided the economic prosperity required to establish early Macau.
The Portuguese were expelled from Japan in 1639 ending this profitable trade. Due to the enormous success of Jesuit missionaries with conversions of the local population to Catholicism, Christianity was made illegal in Japan at the same time.