top of page

Vasco da Gama and the 1898 Fourth Centenary Celebrations during a Pandemic

By Mr Ken Chad

Journeying to the 25th floor of the Club, the first person we are greeted by is Vasco da Gama. A bit over-dressed for the Pastelaria’s casual attire dress code, he is nonetheless significantly responsible for a good section of our Portuguese presence in this part of the world, and a hero to Portuguese worldwide.

And so it was back in 1898 that the Club, along with the Portuguese communities of Shanghai and Macau, got going with their plans to celebrate the fourth centenary of Vasco da Gama’s successful quest to find a sea route to India. In fact, there was so much excitement in Hong Kong that there was a race between Club Lusitano and a newly established Club Vasco da Gama (now extinct) as to which was to be the organiser of the celebrations!

Vasco da Gama speech given by J.J.Francis at Hong Kong’s (old) City Hall

On 13 April 1898 a lecture on Vasco da Gama was given at (old) City Hall. It was delivered by a well-known character and friend of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong, Mr. John Joseph Francis, Q.C., a gentleman known for his sharp and excellent oratory skills. He was also a committee member of the Odd Volumes Society, and it was under the auspices of this society that he was giving the speech.

With its origins in London, the Odd Volumes Society was an initiative designed to help people improve themselves with knowledge at a time when there was limited tertiary education available to the general population. The Hong Kong site was founded on 2 March 1893 at the Hong Kong Hotel and the inaugural speech was given by Dr. James Cantlie (later Knighted). Our own J.P. Braga was later invited on to the Committee and made Hon.Treasurer.

The speech was widely reported in the press of the day as being very well received by the local community, and particularly appreciated by the Portuguese community. Below is a report of the speech printed in the “Hong Kong Daily Press” on 16 April 1898:



On 13th April Mr. J. J. Francis, Q.C., delivered a lecture in the City Hall, before the members of the Hongkong Odd Volumes Society, on " Vasco da Gama and the discovery of the sea route to India." Commodore Holland, A.D.C., presided over a large audience. Many members of the principal Portuguese families in the colony were present, including Mr. A.G. Romano.

The Chairman, in introducing the lecturer, remarked that to those who lived in the Far East the subject of the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama must be very interesting.

Mr. Francis said that in Portugal and throughout the Portuguese dominions in the east the fourth centenary of the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama was being celebrated this year. In Macao, commencing on the 20th of May, there would be a celebration extending over a week. In Hongkong the Portuguese Consul-General, at the request of his Government and the members of the Portuguese community represented by the Club Lusitano, intended to arrange for the celebration of the event by a three days' celebration, including a concert, a ball, and an inauguration at the club of a bust of Vasco da Gama.

Why was it that this event was of so great interest not merely to the Portuguese, to whose nation Vasco da Gama belonged, but to them all? It was because it was one of the great geographical events in the history of the world. Four of these great geographical events occurred within a few years of each other at the close of the 15th and at the beginning of the 16th centuries-these being the discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, then the discovery of the sea route to India, and the discovery of the route through the straits of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

These great events, all coming within a few years of each other, effected almost a complete revolution not merely in the balance of trade in the centres of trade in Europe, but they also effected an almost complete revolution in the balance of power. Until the Portuguese made their appearance in the Indian Ocean the Arabs were in possession of the whole of the trade in these Eastern seas.

The very first of the nations of Europe who practically took up the question of exploration not so much in search of new countries as in search of new routes to the golden East were the Portuguese. Portugal was most admirably situated for the purposes of trade and commerce beyond the sea. It had been a place of very considerable trade and importance from the very earliest days. There were numerous ports on the coast which the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians and the succeeding traders in the Mediterranean regularly frequented.

The people were hardy, accustomed to war-they had been fighting for years with the Moors, they had been fighting for years with the Spaniards-they were accustomed to the sea, were full of enterprise, and completely shut out as the European nations were at that time from all trade with the East by the Mahomedans. The Portuguese were probably at that time in a better position to take up the search for new avenues of commerce, new means of reaching the East, than any other nation in Europe.

The most famous name in those days-one of the most famous perhaps in the whole history of discovery and travel-was the name of Prince Henry the Navigator, who was the son of King John of Portugal and of Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He and his brother were not merely distinguished warriors, but they were for those days most learned men. They had travelled extensively over every portion of the then known world, and Prince Henry devoted himself almost entirely to furthering the progress of navigation and of trade, sending out year by year small expeditions, mainly along the coast of Africa, to search for new countries and new routes. He made a close study of the travels and voyages of Marco Polo and accumulated a great many maps and a large quantity of information.

In 1460 Prince Henry died and there was a lull in further explorations. When King John died, however, he left three ships almost complete in preparation for an expedition to India. These ships were completed by his successor, and Vasco da Gama, an experienced navigator, a brave and adventurous son of Portugal, was appointed to the command. He set sail some said on the 25th of March, some said on the second of June, and some on the eighth or ninth of July 1497 on the voyage which ultimately landed him at Calicut, which he reached after many hardships on May 20th, 1498, arriving back in his native country on September 18th, 1499.

Two other expeditions quickly followed and further discoveries resulted. Da Gama made a second voyage, this time with 20 vessels and 800 men, being instructed to do what had not been done before, that was to establish factories in India and to leave a portion of his fleet and men in the country. These instructions he followed out, and during the whole of the 16th century the Portuguese had the exclusive control of the enormous trade in the East and Portugal might to this day have been in possession of the vast tract of country over which she acquired supremacy in those days even to the present if it had not been unfortunately for her and her children, that the government of the country was usurped and Portugal annexed to the Spanish dominions.

The result of this annexation was that before the end of another 100 years nearly all her eastern possessions had passed into other hands. Her glory in these eastern seas had departed so far as her possessions were concerned, but the glory must always remain to Portugal and the Portuguese nation who were the pioneers of trade, of commerce, of empire throughout the east. (Applause.)

On the motion of Mr. A. G. Romano, a hearty vote of thanks was accorded Mr. Francis for his interesting lecture.”

Today we are less constrained and whilst recognising Vasco da Gama’s phenomenal accomplishment and acknowledging its effect on the world, it is no secret that he was also brutal and ruthless in achieving his aims.

Anxiety and the Pandemic

Meanwhile, amid the planning of celebrations, there was anxiety in Hong Kong and Macau. 1894 had seen the terrifying emergency of the bubonic plague which spread into the city from neighboring Guangzhou (Canton) and Macau. The Hong Kong authorities reportedly believed that the influx of some 40,000 laborer’s from Guangzhou likely brought the plague across and into to Hong Kong. Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that vessels were able to enter Hong Kong unrestricted and unchecked at the time, another source of spread. Soon after emerging in Hong Kong the plague spread out to other parts of the world as Hong Kong was already an international trading hub being serviced by steamship.

The plague’s emergence in Hong Kong in 1894 resulted in 2,500 cases, causing a staggering 2,317 deaths - a fatality rate of 92.7%. It then ebbed and flowed arriving with the advent summer and receding in the cooler months.

In 1898 the Hong Kong authorities understood well enough that the plague travelled with people and given the movement likely as a result of the upcoming Vasco da Gama celebrations, they were concerned with restricting large gatherings and travel. This concern was transmitted to the Macau authorities via the Hong Kong press in not-so-subtle terms, as can be seen in the following article appearing in The Hong Kong Weekly:


(2nd May.)

Great preparations are being made at Macao for the celebration of the fourth centenary of the discovery of the sea route to India, and -the programme of festivities includes Chinese processions. In view of the present prevalence of plague and in the interests of humanity and the public health we would earnestly implore the Celebration Committee to omit that item.

There is every reason to believe it was the Chinese procession in Hongkong in 1894 that sowed the seeds of plague here by producing a large influx of Chinese visitors from Canton, where the disease was then raging.

At Macao they unhappily have the disease now, but so far its ravages have been confined within comparatively moderate bounds. To cause the assembling of the Chinese in packed crowds in the streets, however, would be to set up a means of propagation which might cause the plague to spread like wildfire in Macao itself and also to extend to surrounding places from which visitors might have come to see the sights.

Seeing this great danger surely the Macao authorities will recognise the advisability of so modifying the programme of the Vasco de Gama celebration as to avoid drawing large crowds of Chinese together, or of postponing the celebration for a few months should it be deemed desirable to carry out the original programme in its entirety.

Should the celebration take place as originally arranged, and, as is probable, large crowds of Chinese flock over from Hongkong, it will be the duty of the authorities here to see that they are not allowed to return unless they undergo medical surveillance of a much stricter character than the examination already imposed on arrivals from Macao.

We can understand and sympathise with the disappointment of our Macao friends should anything occur to mar the celebration which has been looked forward to with such interest and for which such great preparations have been made, but the danger to the public health cannot be ignored.”

At the time the plague was far worse in Macau and Guangzhou and so on Friday 6 May 1898, the Sanitary Board held a meeting which was reported in The China Mail:

Interestingly and as an aside, J.J. Francis, the gentleman that gave the speech on Vasco da Gama, was one of the two elected officials on the Sanitary Board (elected in 1894). And many years later in 1927, J.P. Braga was elected (unopposed). The Sanitary Board, as readers may be aware, was what is now the Urban Council.

Fourth Centenary Celebrations in Shanghai, but restraint in Hong Kong and Macau


The Vasco da Gama celebrations were reported in the China Overland Trade Report on 28 May, 1898, stating that there were subdued celebrations in Macau:

“At Macao, on account of the plague, the celebrations were on a small scale as compared with the elaborate programme originally prepared. On the 17th a Te Deum was sung in the Cathedral. On the 18th alms were distributed to two hundred poor persons. On the 19th a bronze wreath was placed on the bust of Camoes when patriotic speeches were made by H.E. the Governor and Senhor Horacio Poiares. On the 20th the foundation stone was laid for the statue of Vasco da Gama, when H.E. the Governor made another speech, being followed by Senhor Ovido d’Alpoim, who described some of the more dramatic episodes of the first voyage to India. The military band was present at all the functions, and in the evening played in the S. Francisco garden. All the public offices and a number of the private establishments were illuminated in the evenings.”

In Macau rising up from the foundation stone laid in 1898 a beautiful monument was inaugurated on 31 January 1911; an obelisk upon which sits the bronze bust of Vasco da Gama created by sculptor Tomás de Costa, where it can be seen today (although now surrounded by concrete foliage).


Meanwhile Shanghai, not suffering the plague like Hong Kong and Macau, was able to celebrate in full, with an amateur band parading the principal streets in Hong Kong playing the Portuguese National Anthem and the hymn of the centenary. Flags were raised on merchant ships and houses, and those or residents. A Te Deum was sung at St. Joseph’s Church with “almost every member of the diplomatic and consular bodies” being present. There were receptions, telegrams to the King, musical and literary entertainment, and extensive decorations on the Bund displaying the national colours.

Hong Kong

Sadly, the celebrations had to be curtailed and postponed in Hong Kong “owing to the plague”. The then President of Club Lusitano, also Consul General of Portugal in Hong Kong (and Brazil), Senhor A.G. Romano, in his official capacity sent a telegram back home:

“The King, Lisbon. The Portuguese salute Your Majesties on the occasion of the national jubilee.”

This led to criticism of the restraint by some in the Hong Kong Portuguese community who wrote letters to the press saying they felt it was unfair they’d been unable to properly pay homage and due respect to their country and its hero.

Postscript: The Plague in 1898, quarantine, economic woes and inflation

The number of plague cases in Hong Kong in 1898 amounted to 1,320 resulting in 1,175 deaths (a 89.0% fatality rate). And Hong Kong wasn’t to be rid of the plague for another 31 years by, which time it had taken over 20,000 souls.

Ahead of the Vasco da Gama celebrations the Hong Kong authorities robustly debated the way forward and interestingly the transcript of the debate was published in the press at the time. During the plague areas were at times subject to evacuation and visitors/returnees from China were subject to quarantine, severely curtailing trade between Hong Kong and China. The economic fallout hit Hong Kong hard, including suffering food inflation of between 30 to 50%.

However, as we know, Hong Kong didn’t just recover from the horrors of the plague. Its people adapted and discovered new ways to continue to grow and build, embodying the resolve and spirit of heroes past to not just survive but strive, and proactively transform. Of course, at times such transformation was against the wind, in the knowledge that all storms pass, and the sun will shine on Hong Kong again.


bottom of page