Macau and its role as a Portuguese colony

Last Edited: 04 Jan 2021

Portuguese sailors in the Age of Discovery were exploring the coasts of Africa and Asia. They established posts in Goa in 1510 and conquered Malacca in 1511. In 1513, under Jorge Álvares, sailing in a hired junk from Malacca, the Portuguese landed at Lintin Island in the Pearl River Delta in China. A stone marker was erected claiming the island for the King of Portugal, Manuel I. Interested in establishing trading relations with the Chinese, the Portuguese sent a diplomatic and trade mission to Canton. Over the next few decades, the Portuguese had on and off good trading relations with the Chinese. Finally in 1557, the Ming court gave consent for Macau to become an official Portuguese trading base. In 1573 ground rent payments began. The Chinese retained sovereignty but the territory was administered by the Portuguese. After Macau became a Portuguese settlement, both Chinese and Portuguese merchants flocked and established themselves there, although the Portuguese where never numerous (numbering just 900 in 1583 and only 1,200 out of 26,000 inhabitants in 1640).

Macau’s golden age was in the late- seventeenth century, the settled early years of the Qing dynasty in China. Other European merchants also began to arrive and their trade flourished. It grew steadily from approximately 1750 with the arrival of British merchants belonging to the Honourable East India Company. Under Royal Charter, the Company had a monopoly of trade to China until 1813, after which there were scarcely any restrictions from the point of view of the foreigners. Tea was becoming the favoured drink of the growing middle class in Europe, while imports of opium into China were out of control. Macau became the base of operations for an increasingly diverse European community. In addition to the Portuguese, whose total population now numbered about 5,000, significant numbers of British, French, American and Danish merchants arrived. The Portuguese were not party to the growing tensions between British merchants and Chinese officials which led to war in 1839. However, the British victory, in what has since been known as the First Opium War, had a major economic impact upon Macau.

Macau from Penha Hill c1856

In the two-and-a-half centuries since the Portuguese occupation, Macau’s harbour had gradually silted up and was no longer able to receive large ships. The British choice of Hong Kong as a port from which to conduct its China trade was based upon the knowledge that it was a capacious and sheltered deep-water port. A British garrison occupied Hong Kong Island in February 1841 and with it came a number of Portuguese settlers from Macau. This was one of several waves of emigration from Macau, which had by now become a sleepy backwater with quaint crumbling architecture surmounted, appropriately enough, by the impressive ruins of St Paul’s Church and the still older forts of a bygone age of peril. After China ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1842, Macau's position as a major regional trading centre further declined as larger ships were drawn to the deep water port of Victoria Harbour. In August 1874 a great typhoon flattened much of Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong recovered, but impoverished Macau did not, and more people left. Even the guns in the Monte Fort, built in the 1620s to repel any future Dutch attack, were sold for scrap by a penurious government desperate to raise some extra money.

From this rather brief historical account, we can understand why some of the Cordeiros were amongst the Macanese that left Macau in search for work elsewhere. Amongst these was Ludovico Miguel Cordeiro, the ancestor to the Cordeiros in Singapore. Records indicate that he boarded a passenger steamer from Hong Kong to Singapore in 1876 (two years after the typhoon of 1874) at the age of 21. Whether he spent some time in Hong Kong before going to Singapore has not been determined. Albano António Cordeiro Jr., a cousin of Ludovico moved to HK and started a family there. As did Procópio Antonio Cordeiro Snr. who was the grandfather of Thomas Joseph Cordeiro, husband of Eleanor Ruth Cordeiro (at present we have not yet established that Procópio Cordeiro Snr comes from the same Cordeiro family.)