Macao and the ‘Great Ship to Japon’

The advantages of Portuguese trade with Japan were mutual; the daimyo of Kyushu were immediately responsive, and especially did they appreciate the virtues of the arquebus, long known simply as the ‘Tanegashima weapon’. There was also an eager demand for European novelties such as time-keepers, whether clocks, dials or hour-glasses, some fine textiles, and leather goods, as well as Chinese porcelain and other Asian luxury items.

The monopoly of eastern trade by the Portuguese was not absolute even in theory; apart from the fact that illicit dealings by officials and others soon crept in, Asian as well as Portuguese merchants were licensed to trade, except in spices and a few other commodities, in the areas under Lusian dominance. Except for de Abreu’s voyage of 1511–12 into the Indies and a mission to Siam in 1518, initial penetration beyond Malacca was by individual pioneers carried in Asian ships. In 1513 or 1514, soon after Francisco Serrão had thus reached the Moluccas, Jorge Alvares came in a junk to Lintin Island, about 100km southwest of Canton and in the main embouchure of the great delta south of that city, which was the official port for trading with southeast Asia as Ningpo was for Japan and Foochow for the Philippines. Once it was reported that ‘there is a great a profit in taking spices to China as in taking them to Portugal’, the Portuguese authorities in Malacca planned to open official relations; at the taking of that town, local Chinese merchants, at odds with the Sultan, had offered their help, and so the prospects of friendly trade were thought to be good.

Accordingly a fleet was sent to Canton under Fernão Peres de Andrade, carrying Tomé Pires as ambassador to the Emperor; but a promising start was ruined by Fernão’s brother Simão, who came out in 1519 and forthwith started building a fort, interfering with Asian shipping, and carrying off (or ‘buying’) young people. Initially the local officials seem to have covered up this outrage, against bribes, and Pires was allowed to proceed to Peking. But when more reliable news came through from Canton, the embassy collapsed: its staff was to be imprisoned until justice was done to the Sultan of Malacca, and trade was forbidden. Pires and his people died in captivity.

Nevertheless, the pepper and sandalwood brought by the Portuguese was highly desirable to the Cantonese, and two Malacca fleets arrived in 1521. The first did good business, but after orders came from Peking to expel the ‘Of-lang-chi’ (Feringhis or Franks) the second had to fight its way out. There was further fighting, in which the Portuguese were unsuccessful, in 1522, in which year Canton was officially closed to all foreign commerce. Ming naval forces were after all not entirely negligible, and the Portuguese feared an attack on Malacca itself. They gave over any more official visits, and the Chinese fitted out more ships. But these had more than enough to do in coping with local pirates; with closure of the port, customs duties ceased and local salaries fell into arrear; and there were no spices for the Court.

Vested interests—merchants, local gentry, some mandarins—favoured commerce with foreigners, and the Portuguese continued to trade, illicitly, around– 152 –the Bay of Amoy and at Ningpo, hovering off-shore, camping on islands, and using Malay or Siamese front men. Law enforcement varied from province to province and from time to time; a forceful counter-attack in 1547–8 by Chu Wan, Viceroy of Fukien and Chekiang, on the smugglers, banditti, and pirates (who included some Fo-lang-chi) was successful initially, until local resentments and intrigue led to his fall and suicide: his hard line had completely alienated ‘a large group of disciplined, tough men’, used to the sea, and their friends—local officials, gentry, and consumers—who found their account in a live-and-let-live policy. Chu Wan ‘rais[ed] the level of antagonism from that of smuggling to that of piracy’,[23] and the next decade saw the devastating razzias at their height: in 1555 the Wako penetrated well beyond Nanking, over 300km inland. Piracy shaded off into trade and vice versa: one Wako chief, the Chinese salt merchant Wang Chih, driven from the Chusan Islands by Chu Wan, based himself at Hirado and supplemented piracy with a large more or less licit business with the Southern Seas, especially in sulphur, important for textile industries as well as explosives. He was taken by a trick and executed in 1559, and in the 1560s major piracy subsided, though it long continued on a smaller scale. Against this background of ferocious anarchy, the Portuguese reputation as the violent disruptors of peaceful Asian trade, perhaps true enough for the Indian seas, must surely look a little different in those of China.

Three factors were important in the decline of piracy: in China, sensible relaxation of the prohibitions, which led to some revival of Chinese shipping; in Japan, the renewal of central control under Nobunaga—the first of these took away much of the raison d’être of illicit commerce, and both cut down recruitment to the Wako; finally the legitimation, within limits, of Portuguese trade, since the light Wako craft could not cope so easily with their solid well-armed ships. Indeed, one element in the eventual allowance to the Portuguese of a settlement near Canton may well have been their usefulness in putting down local pirates.

Since direct Sino-Japanese trade had never recovered from the Chinese embargo of 1523—the Japanese reputation for violence was such that they were banned again in 1579, 1599 and 1624, after which they shut themselves out—there was a place for the middleman, as the Ryukyuans had seen; and should the Portuguese secure the necessary base beyond Malacca, instead of having to make do with off-shore trading and precarious island camps, there would then be nothing to prevent them from entering and eventually dominating the carrying trade. Even so, indigenous Asian trading continued and even thrived, but often by avoiding Portuguese ports—in the long run, a weakening of Lusian economic strength through the fall-off in customs and port revenues.

In the face of Chu Wan’s offensive, the Portuguese in the 1550s began to shift their attention back to Kuangtung, where in 1530, as a result of local pressure, Canton had been reopened to foreign trade. The Fo-lang-chi were still excluded, though, as previously in Fukien and Chekiang, the connivance of local officials and merchants enabled them to conduct trade from the islands– 153 –of Shang-ch’uan (São João, where St Francis Xavier died in 1552) and Lang-pai-kau (Lanpacau), really on an annual fair basis, the temporary hutments being burnt at the end of the August-November trading season. In 1554 Leonel de Sousa secured permission for regular trade, paying customs dues, and by 1557 a town was growing up on the Bay of A-ma (most appropriately the goddess of seafarers), officially ‘the City of the Name of God in China’, in history Amacon, Macao, Macau.

Obviously a stylised view, with a few concessions to local colour; note the absence of fortifications, very often the most conspicuous features in this type of illustration. From Theodore de Bry, Indiæ orientalis (Frankfort 1607). NLA.

The transaction was a verbal one, and indeed while the Portuguese ceased paying a rent in 1849, their sovereign rights were not fully admitted by China until 1887; but from the beginning Macao enjoyed a practical extra-territoriality. As Boxer says, ‘the agreement suited both parties, and consequently had a much longer lease of life than one would expect from an oral arrangement made after much junketing on board the Portuguese flagship.’ The reason for this is well put by Chang, in words nearly as applicable to the Hong Kong of 1957 as to the Macao of 1557.

Meanwhile, between the first arrival off Canton and the founding of Macao, a new sphere of enterprise had been opened: in 1542 or 1543 three Portuguese adventurers had arrived, in a junk and by chance, at the island of Tanegashima, south of Kyushu.

The advantages of Portuguese trade with Japan were mutual; the daimyo of Kyushu were immediately responsive, and especially did they appreciate the virtues of the arquebus, long known simply as the ‘Tanegashima weapon’. There was also an eager demand for European novelties such as time-keepers, whether clocks, dials or hour-glasses, some fine textiles, and leather goods, as well as Chinese porcelain and other Asian luxury items. But commercially these were marginal: the great staple import was Chinese raw silk, superior to the home-grown and in great demand; later on were added fine silk stuffs and, in the 1590s, gold for Hideyoshi’s wars. Exports included swords and other traditional Japanese lines such as lacquer work and, in the next century, copper for the gun-foundries of Goa and Macao; but the staple was silver to pay not only for the silk of China but also for the spices of the Southern Seas: the value of silver in relation to gold in Japan was a little below that in Europe but about twice that at Canton, and the Chinese demand for silver was apparently insatiable. After the initial curiosity had been met, there was little market for most European wares, and the Portuguese trade in the China Seas was essentially a carrying trade in Asian products; but with direct Sino-Japanese trade usually banned, and the silver: gold ratios what they were, this was a middleman’s dream.

For the first few years of contact, trade was in the hands of private venturers coming to various ports of Kyushu, notably Hirado and Kagoshima. The daimyo were in active competition for Portuguese visits, which brought some prestige as well as material benefits; and along with the merchants came the missionaries. As a result of Xavier’s brief mission and the work of such devoted and able successors as Luis Frois, a remarkable number of Japanese—as many as 150,000 by the early 1580s—became Christians, and very many of them far from merely nominal ones, as their steadfastness in fearful tortures and martyrdoms was to– 155 –show. This notable success had political implications, and following Gibbon’s example we may glance at some of its ‘secondary causes’.

Initially, some Japanese seem to have thought that as Christianity was brought from India, it was only a new sect of Buddhism, and hence acceptable in a land of many such sects; conversely, and at a different level, Nobunaga, rising to power in the 1560s, was a bitter enemy of the great Buddhist monasteries, as recalcitrant and over-mighty subjects as any daimyo; one sect at least, the True Land (Jodo) had dangerously radical social tendencies.[31] As a natural consequence Nobunaga showed some favour to the new faith. Christianity had a certain appeal to the poor and oppressed, who were offered new consolations and kindly attention by the Fathers, especially perhaps in the later Franciscan phase of mission activity; conversely again, there was an element of cuius regio eius religio, leading to mass conversions at the lord’s behest. The 1584–6 ‘embassy’ of young Japanese nobles, hand-picked by the Jesuits and carefully shepherded through their splendid receptions in Iberian and Italian courts and cities, was of course designed to such an end: the manipulation of an élite. While some daimyo, including for example Hideyoshi’s very able and loyal general Konishi Yukinaga, became truly sincere Christians, others thought adherence to the foreign belief a small price to pay if Jesuit influence brought Portuguese shipping to their ports: ‘In short, it was the Great Ship’ from Macao ‘which was the temporal mainstay of the Japan mission’. It may well be, as Hall says, that to speak of ‘The Christian Century in Japan’ is really ‘something of a Western conceit’;but, as we shall see, at several points Christianity impinged very significantly on Japanese external affairs, political and economic.

At both ends of the trade, the free-for-all did not long endure: ‘after the Viceroy at Goa got wind of this new Eldorado, the voyage was placed on the usual monopoly footing under the control of a captain-major’ of the China voyage from Goa and Malacca; until 1623 he was also captain-general of Macao while actually at the port, which in the interim was ruled by its own Senado or Council. This Crown appointment was by way of reward for services, royal favour, or purchase, and in addition to the captain-major’s own investment there were also sundry charges and commissions on consignments financed by various parties—Macao merchants, both Portuguese and Asian; the Jesuits, who would not have been able to finance their mission otherwise; Kyushu daimyo, and even Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Naturally so lucrative a post or job was surrounded by much corruption, faction, and intrigue, and there were also of course occasional interlopers, licensed or illicit. After 1550 the China voyage was usually made by only one or two ships a year, presumably in the interests of the royal fisc; but these were great Indian-built teak carracks of 600 to 1600 tons, known to the Japanese as the Kurofune or ‘Black Ships’, a favourite and lively theme of Namban or ‘Southern Barbarian’ art.

At the other end, in Japan itself, the trade was not completely regularised until 1571; before that various ports were visited, sometimes on a political basis.

Jesuits naturally tried to favour those daimyo who favoured them—but this was not conducive to stable trade relations. But the Christian daimyo Omura Sumitada offered an uninhabited peninsula on the first-class harbour of Nagasaki as a secure base, and by 1579 a Christian town of about 400 houses had grown up. Although authorities disagree as to whether there was an actual cession of land, in practice the Jesuit Superior nominated the daimyo’s Governor from about 1580 until Hideyoshi took over the town some ten years later, and even then, after a decent spell, the Church regained an effective if discreet control. The year 1571 saw, then, the founding of the port which for over two centuries from 1641 was to be the only licit point of contact between Japan and the outer world; it saw also the founding of Manila, the spearhead of attempted penetration of China and Japan by Portugal’s rival Spain, and again for over two centuries the only licit point of contact between Pacific America and Asia.

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