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

Part 2

‘This atrocious murder’[1]

[Summary of Part 1: In 1846, João Maria Ferreira do Amaral, a dynamic and courageous leader, was appointed Governor of Macau at a difficult time in the ancient colony’s history. He set about asserting Portuguese sovereignty and cancelled all the impositions that China had imposed on Macau for centuries. In 1849 and surrounded by enemies on every side, Amaral remained undaunted, even with a price on his head.]


As summer drew on, the serious crisis that Governor Amaral faced grew much worse in a most unexpected way.[2] The Feast of Corpus Christi, on 7 June 1849, was one of Macau’s great religious festivals, when a solemn procession passed through the streets bearing the Host, in Catholic belief, the Body of Christ. A group of Englishmen happened to be in Macau, for a regatta in which several British, French and American naval ships were involved. They watched the procession from a vantage point. Deferring to local custom, all but one removed their hats. A Hong Kong resident, James Summers, refused to do so when asked. Amaral was told of this, and sent a personal request, which Summers also disregarded. He was arrested for defying the Governor and imprisoned. After that, matters quickly spiralled out of control.

Requested by British naval officers also there for the regatta to release Summers, Amaral stood his ground, insisting that his prisoner be dealt with under Portuguese law. The British officers took a different view: British law must prevail in Macau, because it was part of the Chinese Empire. The issue came to a head when a party of British marines stormed the jail and released Summers. In the melee, an unarmed Portuguese soldier was killed. He was given an imposing funeral, the Governor being one of the pall bearers. Later, there were repercussions in Europe, and there was an apology from Britain to Portugal. Meanwhile, the man on the spot, Amaral, was humiliated, and his authority further weakened. From the point of view of the British naval officers, they had indeed demonstrated that their law prevailed, because Macau was part of China. It was a massive slap in the face to Amaral.

Even worse, the Chinese could see how weak the Portuguese were, and that the British, recently victorious in the Opium War, would give them no support. Amaral was surrounded by enemies: the Chinese authorities, local Chinese people, the Macanese who opposed his taxation proposals, and now the British. He had no military support from Lisbon either.

On 22 August 1849, although he was warned of the danger he faced, Governor Amaral went for his usual evening ride, outside the city walls, accompanied only by his aide de camp. They went beyond the barrier wall into what was without question Chinese territory, in order to give alms to a poor Chinese woman he had been supporting. On the way back he passed the barrier wall and was in what he regarded as Portuguese territory, but which the Chinese authorities firmly claimed as their territory. His horse was struck with a bamboo stick by a Chinese boy who also hit him in the face. That was the sign for an attack by seven others, who pulled Amaral from his saddle before he could draw his pistol and hacked off his head and hand. These were carried off as trophies and as proof that he was indeed dead. Meanwhile, as night fell, the body was taken back to the city. It took several months of negotiation until January 1850 when the head and hand were returned in a bucket, like so much refuse being tossed out. Eventually the remains were sent back to Lisbon for burial.[3]

‘Assassination of the Governor of Macao’, Illustrated London News, 10 November 1849. Amaral was accompanied only by Lt. Leite, his aide-de-camp, not by three others, as shown here.

The death of the Governor seemed to be the first step of a determined Chinese move to reoccupy Macau and perhaps to slaughter its entire Portuguese population. Two things now happened. In the first place, a courageous Portuguese counter-attack ended the immediate threat to Macau. Secondly, the British authorities in Hong Kong seem to have realised that they had gone much too far in humiliating Amaral only a few weeks earlier. That had emboldened the Chinese, and the result had been his murder. The Governor of Hong Kong immediately gave solid diplomatic and military support to the Governing Council which took over in Macau. However, British support was a mixed blessing, as it was clear from then on that Macau’s continued survival depended on it.

The Battle of Passaleão. This static scene conveys little of the desperate, gallant attack.

Three days after the death of Amaral, Chinese artillery at Baishaling (Cantonese, Pak Shan Lan; Portuguese, Passaleão), a fort about 1½ km north of the barrier wall, opened fire on the barrier gate, where Portuguese troops had massed, expecting a Chinese attack. Under heavy, if inaccurate, fire, it seemed that they would have to retreat. That would have been a disaster, because the expected Chinese attack would certainly follow. Instead, a young sub-lieutenant of the artillery, Vicente Mesquita, volunteered to lead an attack on the fort. It seemed an utterly foolhardy thing to do, but with Macau facing a menacing situation, Mesquita was given permission. With a small force of 36 men, he attacked, his men almost certainly shouting the traditional Portuguese war cry ‘Santiago e a eles’ – ‘St James and at them’.[4] The last time it had been heard in battle in Macau was in 1622, when a valiant counter-attack by a small force of defenders forced a much larger force of Dutch invaders to flee. Baishaling was heavily garrisoned, but with untrained and disorganised soldiers who fled at the sight of brandished lances and cold steel. The fort’s guns were spiked and its magazine blown up. In a savage act of reprisal for the mutilation of Amaral, Mesquita seized and killed an unarmed mandarin, a civilian, whose head and left hand were severed, stuck on a long pike and carried into Macau ‘amid the vociferous exclamations of the multitude’.[5] It was probably the first time any Portuguese military force had ever attacked a Chinese position, and the reaction in Macau was ecstatic. A tiny force had vanquished a much larger body which, according to a Portuguese source, numbered 2,000 men, 500 of whom were in the fort, now renamed Passaleão.[6] The Portuguese report was that one Portuguese soldier was severely wounded, while Chinese losses were unknown However, a British source gives figures of seven Portuguese wounded and 74 Chinese dead.[7] Back in the city of Macau, Mesquita became an instant hero. Nearly a century later, in 1940, a statue was erected in his honour in the Largo do Senado, though it was destroyed in the riots of 1966. Mesquita was seen as the saviour of Macau, the man who had delivered Macau once and for all from the curse of its subjection to the mandarins.

Lieutenant , later Colonel, Vicente Mesquita

The truth is rather more complex. Amaral’s death led to an immediate response by foreign powers. There were two American warships nearby, and one, the USS Plymouth, was ordered to proceed to Macau at once. A French warship was also at Macau. The Governor of Hong Kong, Sir George Bonham, despatched two British naval vessels, HMS Amazon, commanded by Captain Troubridge, and the paddle steamship HMS Medea, to Macau. He told the hastily set up Governing Council: ‘Captain Troubridge will remain at Macao for the present, and I trust the arrival of H. M. vessels at this juncture will be sufficient to shew the Chinese Authorities that the British Government fully sympathize with that of Her Most Faithful Majesty on this distressing occasion, and that the Chinese will, if evilly disposed, be induced in consequence to refrain from any further acts of aggression.’[8] While the Governing Council in Macau had appealed for assistance, the armed British incursion amounted to a military occupation. Bonham stepped in quickly lest the Chinese do so first. He may also have thought it judicious to forestall the Americans and French. Bonham continued: ‘I yesterday addressed a Letter to the [Chinese] High Commissioner on the subject of this atrocious murder, and informed him that I conceived it to be one in which all the Representatives of the Foreign Powers in China were directly concerned, and that I fully expected that he would cause the perpetrators of the bloody deed to be at once apprehended, should they have taken refuge within the dominions of the Emperor of China.’

This was an obvious moderation of the position adopted only five years earlier, that Macau was part of ‘the dominions of the Emperor of China.’ The British position was, in reality, not so much support for the Portuguese in Macau as a definite warning to the Chinese not to attempt the capture of any Western territory on the China coast. In short, Bonham considered that if Macau were occupied by the Chinese, they might then try to move on Hong Kong, starting with the Governor. A Hong Kong paper warned: ‘if the Governor of Macao is assassinated in the open daylight within half a mile of the forts of the town, [this] may be the prelude to the assassination of our own worthy Governor in one of His Excellency’s evening drives.’[9] Britain supported the Portuguese presence in Macau from then on, but it meant that Macau became in effect a British protectorate.

The murder of Amaral and the strong British response to it were widely reported in the Australian and British press.[10] The weekly paper the Illustrated London News followed opinion in Macau in stating that ‘the murder, there was good reason to suppose, had been instigated or connived at by the Chinese authorities, to whom the late Governor had made himself obnoxious’.[11] A week later, the paper added ‘It was well-known that rewards had been offered at Canton and elsewhere for the Governor’s head’. British readers wanted to know what Queen Victoria’s armed forces had done about this outrage. They were told, ‘About sixty British marines were stationed on shore, and a party had charge of the Francisco Fort.’ This was located on the Praya Grande where Chinese war junks might approach, as they had done in 1839. Besides this, Troubridge sent marines to Passaleão, to prevent its reoccupation by the Chinese.

Gradually the situation calmed down, and all future governors of Macau avoided confrontation with the Chinese authorities. Was Amaral’s anti-Chinese policy too drastic? The Illustrated London News, writing soon after the event, evaluated his brief and dramatic governorship capably, but perhaps too gently. ‘His vigour, courage, and firmness, in dealing with the Chinese nation secured him the respect and admiration of all; but his very eminence in this respect marked him out for assassination.’[12] Ironically, Amaral achieved in death more than he did in life. The Portuguese presence in Macau was assured, and the Chinese overlordship ended. No more would the ground rent be paid or custom duties levied. Macau remained under Portuguese rule, as it had already done for nearly 300 years and would continue to fly the Portuguese flag for 150 years more.

Statue of Mesquita in the Largo do Senado, 1940-1966

[1] The comment of Sir George Bonham, Governor of Hong Kong. [2] Montalto de Jesus, p. 334-340. [3] Montalto de Jesus, p. 354. [4] C.R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, p. 119 and 302. [5] The Melbourne newspaper, the Argus, 1 December 1849, quoting the Hongkong Register, 30 August 1849. [6] Montalto de Jesus, p. 343. [7] Montalto de Jesus, p. 345; Illustrated London News, 10 November 1849. [8] J.F. Marques Pereira, Ta-Ssi-Yang-Kuo, Lisbon, 1899, vol. I, p. 233, cited by J.P. Braga, The Portuguese in Hongkong and China, p. 179. ‘Her Most Faithful Majesty’, was the title of the Queen of Portugal, the title ‘Rex Fidelissimus’ having first been bestowed on King John V in 1748 by Pope Benedict XIV. [9] Hongkong Register, 28 August 1849, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 1849. [10] At least eight Australian papers carried the story. [11] Illustrated London News, 3 November 1849. The attack on Passaleão was reported as having caused ‘considerable loss of life on both sides’. [12] Illustrated London News, 10 November 1849.


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