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The 17th Century Battle of Macau and divine intervention on the Festa de Sao Joao

Based on a sermon by Fr Marciano Baptista S.J. at Club Lusitano 22 June 2018

By the late 16th Century all European powers were envious of Portugal and its profitable China-Japan trade based out of Macau. After the succession crisis in 1580 that saw the Phillip II of Spain take the Portuguese throne, Spain’s enemies England and Holland started to attack Portugal’s colonies. Dutch raids on Macau had occurred in 1601, 1603 and 1607 but by 1622 the Dutch decided to launch a full scale invasion.

A fleet of eight ships left the Dutch East Indies capital Batavia on 10 April 1622. The fleet had orders to commandeer any Dutch ships encountered on its voyage so it added another three Dutch ships when passing through Indochina, then a Siamese war junk with some Japanese mercenaries shortly thereafter. A smaller fleet of two Dutch and two English ships rendezvoused with them outside Macau on 29 May. In total the invasion force had 13 Dutch ships with 1300 men and some 800 available for the landing. The English and Siamese ships provided assistance for the ensuing blockade.

On the island of Macau, the local Chinese population had fled in anticipation of the coming battle so its population of 10,000 ‘native’ residents was almost non-existent come the night of the 21st of June. In addition, many of the Portuguese traders had decamped to Canton for the annual trading season where they purchased goods for the China – Japan trade.

Macau was poorly defended due to objections by the local Chinese mandarins fearful of a permanent European fortified city, so there were few battlements and the Fortaleza do Monte (the Monte Fort) overlooking the key Santo Antonio district including the main Cathedral de Sao Paulo, was only partly complete. To make matters worse for the Portuguese many able bodied Portuguese fighting men and their modern arms had been enlisted by the Chinese Emperor in October 1621 to help resist the Manchu occupation of China in the North. So the actual number of combatants available to defend Macau was estimated at a mere 50 musketeers and 100 residents capable of bearing arms.

On 22 June, three Dutch warships bombarded Macau with their cannon and the attackers threatened to lay waste to Macau and slaughter its men and women. At daybreak on the morning of 23 June 1622, the feast day of St John the Baptist / Festa de Sao Joao, the Dutch attacked. They were met with fierce resistance by the Portuguese defenders, who by that time were under no illusions that they would not be spared should the Dutch win the day. The initial Dutch attack was successful in securing a beachhead in the East of Macau with a landing force of 800 men and the Portuguese defenders had to withdrawal towards the centre of the city.

As they did so, they came within artillery range of the Fortaleza do Monte (the Monte Fort). When the invaders passed by a small spring called Fontinha where local women used to wash their laundry, an Italian Jesuit priest Fr Giacomo Rho S.J. fired a cannon-shot from the Fortaleza do Monte which landed on a barrel of gunpowder in the midst of the Dutch formation, causing many casualties and destroying most of their ammunition. This fortuitous cannon-shot threw the Dutch forces into disarray.

Seeing his opportunity with the battle cry “Santiago!“, Macau’s leader Captain – Major Lopo Sarmento de Carvalho, signaled the counterattack, and the combined forces of the Portuguese defenders, Macanese citizens, Dominican friars, Jesuit priests, and black slaves alike charged the enemy, compelling the Dutchmen to flee. The onset of the “drunken negro slaves” in particular, sparing no one as they beheaded all Dutchmen they came across in the name of John the Baptist, greatly demoralized the Hollanders.

During the panicked Dutch retreat the remaining force in reserve, abandoned their Eastern beachhead and overturned many landing ships, in the process drowning many of their men and seeing others shot in the sea by the pursing Portuguese.

Exhausted, out of ammunition and demoralised the Dutch retreated to their tall ships and sued for peace and the release of prisoners by the morning of 23 June. The negotiation was in vain, and the dejected Dutch fleet soon left Macau waters to head for the Pescadores near modern day Taiwan. The result of the battle was a comprehensive victory for the Portuguese and the most decisive defeat of the Dutch in the Far East. The Portuguese gave much credit to the bravery of their black slaves and many were freed on the battlefield immediately after the victory.

The aftermath of the attack saw a considerable change in the Portuguese approach to Macau that resulted in the completion of the Fortaleza de Monte and the appointment of a permanent Governor. The Chinese officials turned a blind eye to these new fortifications, in no small part to considerable bribery, which had the effect of creating the first permanent European outpost on Chinese soil.

In years that followed the 23rd of June has been celebrated as City Day in Macau with an annual public holiday up until the handover to China in 1999. In 1871, a monument erected in the Jardim da Vitória to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese over the Dutch.

Fr Giacomo Rho S.J., the Italian Jesuit priest who fired the cannon ball that routed the Dutch may have been guided by more than just divine intervention on the Festa de Sao Joao. He was a mathematician and astronomer who had undoubtedly some experience in the science of projectiles that would have been very useful when using artillery in the defense of Macau. It was not uncommon for priests to be actively involved in 16th and 17th century warfare and so his seemingly lucky cannon-shot may have been no fluke.

After his exploits in the battle of Macau Fr Rho became proficient in Chinese language and was summoned to the Imperial Court in Peking where he worked for the Emperor on the Chinese calendar from 1631 to his death in 1638. He and another German Jesuit priest Johann Adam Schall von Bell S.J., who worked in Peking from 1630, used modern mathematical techniques to reform the Chinese astronomical calendar.

They trained the Imperial Court’s Board of Mathematics in astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and in doing so battled traditional Chinese superstitions and jealousy towards European science. Fr Rho and Fr Schall’s works were extensively published and they were key missionaries in a golden era for the Jesuits in China when they were influential and respected figures in the Imperial Court.

The works of Fr Giacomo Rho S.J. relative to the correction of the Chinese calendar, to astronomical and theological questions


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