Pioneers in the Middle Kingdom (5)

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

In this week chronicle we conclude the brief analysis about the pioneer missionary approach in the coastal region of southern China.

In the center of our attention is still the Jesuit Francisco Peres who, in 1564, traveled to Canton in Manuel Penedo and Manuel Teixeira’s company. The letter that Peres wrote to the ecclesiastical authority of Goa gives us one more account of these continuous attempts to make contact with the Chinese authorities.

As expected, the powerful local mandarins asked the emissaries a public testimony of the gifts to be included in a future embassy. The religious men apologized, saying they were not able to provide that type of information, thus eliminating the possibility of holding any embassy. It is important to remember that the quality and quantity of those gifts were paramount to the success of any embassy sent to the Emperor of China. And even with the promise of greater riches, nothing was guaranteed. The possibility of getting an audience with the Heavenly Son was indeed very small. Extremely frustrated with their efforts, the priests returned to Macau in time for the arrival at that fast growing port of two important characters: Luis de Melo, who lived on the island of Sunda (now Java, Indonesia) and João Pereira, captain general of the fortress city of Malacca from 1556 to 1557. Both were wealthy merchants; both had the king’s authorization to trade with Japan. To this end, they were well equipped with the necessary items for living in Macau while awaiting the arrival of the monsoon, as was normal practice at the time.

Tempted by the more-than-predictable excellent business opportunities in Macau, they did not hide their claims to someday become general-captains of the city. And, moving very quickly, they created rival factions that soon came into conflict. The tension was such that, it can be said, the city ran the risk of being involved in an internal war. Predicting future problems, Peres and the vicar João Soares intervened in these disputes, managing to appease the discord. The power would eventually be delivered to João Pereira by the General-Captain Diogo Pereira. Although they had the same last name there was not between them any kind of kinship.

At that time piracy in the South China Sea waters posed a very real danger. Japanese wakos were the most feared pirates.

Let’s talk here of an incident that, in the long run, would favor the Portuguese and, to some extent, determine their continuation in Macau. Here goes: two thousand Chinese soldiers who had fought against the Japanese pirates, having received no salary, decided to start practicing piracy. And they did it in such a scale that it came to threaten the Canton ports. Cornered, the mandarins decided to ask for help from the Portuguese, renowned for the excellence of their military equipment and personal skills. Three hundred Portuguese responded to the call. Divided into two squads, one led by Diogo Pereira, and the other by Luís de Melo, they took immediate action. After a fierce battle lasting only half an hour, all the rebels were killed or captured, without a single casualty on the Portuguese side.

Diogo Pereira then asked the Chinese general to sponsor an embassy. The military acquiesced, and Portuguese merchants, accompanied by Father Francisco Peres, headed once to Canton, where they arrived on 21 November 1565. While traders tried to close some good deals, Francisco Peres was negotiating the entry of missionaries into China. For this purpose, he presented to the General Treasurer, who chaired the foreign affairs of the court, two memorials: one in Portuguese and the other in Chinese. He asked, in essence, permission to enter China, to teach a doctrine that was “God Almighty’s offering” to the Emperor, to the rulers of his empire and to his people. One of the attendants asked: “Do you know Chinese?” As the answer was no, he added: “Well, then begin to study our language, and later you will surely be our teacher of your religion.”

As for the embassy, it ​was once again rejected by the emperor, apparently, due to disturbances caused by the Portuguese in previous years.

Seeing once again his desire to enter China frustrated, Francisco Peres and a fellow man founded in Macau, in December of that same year, next to St. Anthony’s Chapel, the Company of Jesus’ first residence, who would later serve as a hospice where assistance was given to missionaries destined for Japan. That would be the Company’s first permanent home and would suffer changes over time, as evidenced by a number of boards currently posted on the facade of granite.

In a way it can be said that the presence of the Jesuits in Macau is almost simultaneous to the founding of the city.

To conclude this chapter, it would be unfair to forget Baltasar Gago, missionary in Ceylon and Southern India, where he preached among several Christian communities of  fishermen. Like Peres and other priests, Baltasar Gago was bound for the mission in China, by St. Francis Xavier’s order. However, due to the failure of the embassy, ​he ​eventually headed to Japan, where he preached for eight years. Weakened by illness he left this archipelago bound for Macau aboard a reed that a storm wrecked off the coast of the island of Hainan. There he remained, in the company of the other survivors, for five months. One of them would be sent by land to Canton, to ask help from the Portuguese who lived in Macau. The messenger arrived in the City of the Holy Name of God in January 1, 1561, and soon local authorities sent a ship to Hainan in order to rescue the priest Baltasar Gago and companions. All arrived in Macau, safe and sound, a few days after Easter of that year.

PHOTO CAPTION: The missionaries did their best to prepare embassies to the Emperor of China, but didn’t have much success.
PHOTO by Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

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