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Governor of Macau killed and beheaded. Was Governor Amaral heroic or foolhardy? By Stuart Braga


Part 1 ‘A dead man walking’

Of all the 120 governors of Macau from 1623 to 1999, a few stand out, but perhaps the most conspicuous of all was the 79th governor, João Maria Ferreira do Amaral, who held office for three years from 1846 to 1849. He met his death violently at the hands of a group of Chinese near the barrier wall that separated Portuguese controlled territory from China. He was beheaded, and his head and hand were carried off as trophies. In his short term in office he had sought to make Macao great again. In the attempt, he made enemies of almost everyone in his major effort to redeem a situation in which the Portuguese rule of Macau was imperilled.That was nothing new. A change in Chinese policy at any time since Macau’s foundation in 1557 might have seen the Portuguese expelled or perhaps wiped out as a Portuguese embassy to China had been in the early sixteenth century. However, the situation in the 1840s, soon after the Opium War and the occupation of Hong Kong by the British, presented great challenges.

Who was Ferreira do Amaral, and what did he try to accomplish? His father Francisco also met a hard death. He froze to death in Russia in 1812 when Napoleon’s unwilling allies, including Portugal, had to send troops to join the French invasion which ended in the disastrous retreat from Moscow in mid-winter. The younger Amaral also knew at Þrst hand the cost of patriotic endeavour and what it was to Þght and suffer in battle. Born about 1803, he started his military career as a midshipman in the Brazilian Squadron of the Portuguese Navy. In 1821, during Brazil’s brief war of independence against Portugal, Amaral lost his right arm in the Battle of Itaparica. Here a legend was born. Amaral led a storming party ashore, and a cannon ball carried away his right arm. He went on, exclaiming, ‘Forward, my brave comrades! I have another arm left me still.’ Another version claims that in hospital it was considered necessary for the arm to be amputated immediately. The brave midshipman endured the amputation without a sound, seated in an armchair chewing his cigar. When he saw his severed arm fall, he rose from his seat and threw it in the air shouting with exaltation ‘Viva Portugal!’ However, his sacriÞce was in vain, and Portugal lost Brazil. Soon afterwards, Portugal lapsed into civil war. Amaral, still in the navy, was one of a few officers who managed to make their way from mainland Portugal to the Azores, where the Liberal side had established its base. Throughout the war, he served as an officer in the navy of the Portuguese Liberal side. By the end of the war, Amaral had already gained promotion. This valiant man did not then retire on a pension, but carried on in the King’s service. Twenty-Þve years later, Portugal needed a Governor of Macau who was Amaralbrave, determined and even reckless, a man who would stop at nothing. Captain Amaral, who had all these qualities, seemed to be the man of the hour.Macau had numerous problems. Following the establishment of Hong Kong in 1841, Macau lost almost all its trade to the new British colony with its deep water harbour. By comparison, Macau’s harbour had over a long period of time become silted up. The government was effectively bankrupt. Hong Kong had been declared a free port, with no customs duties levied on imports or exports. So in 1845 the Portuguese government decided to do the same for Macau, hoping to increase trade. This had the effect of abolishing Macau’s only source of revenue, making a bad situation even worse. Alternative forms of taxation such as ground rent and income tax were bitterly opposed by the Council, the Leal Senado, so Amaral dissolved it.A previous governor, Silveira Pinto, attempted to persuade the Chinese authorities to extend the same concessions to the Portuguese that they had made to the British following China’s defeat in the Opium War. In particular, he sought the abolition of three requirements that had throttled Macau for nearly three centuries: the annual ground rent paid by Macau since the sixteenth century, the payment of onerous harbour dues, and permission required from the local Mandarin for the construction of any building and the repair or construction of ships. All these requirements were imposed in a degrading way. But the Chinese were determined to continue their control over Macau as they had always done, despite the humiliation they had suffered. After a long delay, the Portuguese were told in 1844 that, in consideration of their having always proved extremely submissive for over two hundred years, the restrictions on house-building and ship-building were to be removed. The treaty ports recently opened to the British would be open to the Portuguese too, but they would have to pay tonnage dues there. All other restrictions would continue. Moreover, the local Heangshan Mandarin would continue to deal only with the procurador of the Senate, not the Governor of Macau, whose authority the Chinese refused to recognise. So 1844 was a bad year for Macau. The whole question of relations with the British had never been deÞned in Macau, but when the Hong Kong Legislative Council was set up that year, its Þrst ordinance was to conÞrm extra-territorial jurisdiction in China, one of the provisions of the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the Opium War. This meant that in cases involving British subjects in China, British law was to prevail. That remained in effect until 1944, when extra-territoriality was abolished during World War II. The background to it was an infamous case involving a British subject, Francis Scott, who in 1773 was accused of murdering a Chinese subject in Macau. The Mandarin decided that he was guilty and must die, but no-one would testify against Scott in the Portuguese court. Nevertheless, under extreme duress, the Leal Senado was forced to surrender Scott, who was executed by the Mandarin by strangulation, a slow and very cruel death. The dreadful Scott case was never forgotten. A British writer in the 1820s observed that ‘the surrender of this man is considered to have inßicted indelible disgrace upon all parties concerned’. The British government of Hong Kong made sure that it would never happen again in Macau. As well as proclaiming the supremacy of British law in China, the ordinance stated that Macau was ‘deemed and taken to be within the dominions of the emperor of China’. It was a tremendous humiliation for Macau, which had always maintained that Portuguese sovereignty existed from the beginning, in 1557. It made the task of the Governor of Macau even harder, his authority rejected by the Chinese and seriously compromised by the British.Thus Amaral, who took up office in April 1846, faced utterly daunting problems. As well as suffering economic collapse, Macau was obliged to continue somehow to pay the hated ground rent and harbour dues. In addition, it was to be subject to British law in matters concerning British subjects. This would be put to the test during his administration in a very ignominious way.

Amaral’s orders were to assert the absolute autonomy of the colony. This he did, in a determined, confrontational way, although he had not been given any reinforcements for a garrison contemptuously referred to by John Davis, a prominent British merchant and later Governor of Hong Kong, as ‘two or three hundred starved blacks’, who could be seen begging for food at the doors of convents, because a bankrupt government could not pay them. Nor did he have any naval force at his disposal. It seemed that the royal government in Lisbon wanted him to do the impossible without giving him any backing at all. They presumed that the Chinese Empire, soundly defeated by the British, would acquiesce in whatever this Þrebrand might do.


The two most burdensome impositions were the annual ground rent and the payment of harbour dues. Amaral announced that, as the Queen of Portugal had declared Macau to be a free port, the harbour dues no longer applied, and he therefore closed the customs house and sent the minor mandarin in charge back to China. The house was sold at public auction. Next to it was a ßagpole with Chinese banners ßying. Amaral held a well-publicised event at which the ßag pole was chopped down by Negro soldiers, the lowest ranking people in Macau. It was a studied insult. Naturally, this led to a visit by higher ranking mandarins from the Heangshan district, arriving with an armed guard and preceded by gongs. They were told to leave the armed guard and the gongs at the barrier wall, as the Governor was in charge of all people in Macau. This time, Macau did not give way to the mandarins’ demands for the customs dues to continue. The next step was an announcement that the ground rent would no longer be paid, because Macau was Portuguese sovereign territory. This was brinksmanship enough, but Amaral went further, and in 1849 abolished the trading combine of merchants, the hop-po, set up originally to regulate trade between China and Portugal. Its members were sent packing too. Then Amaral chose yet another Þght.There had always been disagreement about the boundary of Macau. The city wall had been built as part of the defensive measures following the Dutch attack in 1622. Still earlier, in 1573, the Chinese had erected a barrier wall at the narrowest part of the isthmus connecting Macau with the mainland. They maintained that this was merely a convenient point for controlling trade, but that the true boundary of Macau was the city wall. This disagreement was a running sore for the whole period of the Portuguese occupation of Macau. In the area between were paddy Þelds and hills on the slopes of which were numerous Chinese graves. Amaral determined to assert Portuguese sovereignty over the area by building a road from the city wall to the barrier wall to facilitate trade, in the process destroying numerous graves, an affront to Chinese law and morality. He had not only alienated all the mandarins from the Viceroy in Canton down, but now earned the hatred of the common people as well. In Canton, posters went up calling for Amaral’s head. As the summer of 1849 began, he was already a dead man walking. It seemed that things could not possibly get any worse, but they did. Much worse.


Part 2 to be continued

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