– Marco Carvalho
To talk about Macau is to talk about the long Catholic legacy that, for almost five hundred years, has been closely linked to the Portuguese presence in East Asia. The city is home to the oldest Diocese of the Far East, but the influence of Jews and New Christians – Jews that were forced to convert to Catholicism – in the early years of Portuguese rule in southern China was far more relevant than one could expect. New Christians exercised control over commerce, secured the territory’s defenses and kept the Inquisition at bay. Such an influence extended to Japan, where they were amongst the main allies of the Society of Jesus, argues Lúcio de Sousa. A researcher at the University of Foreign Studies in Tokyo, the Portuguese scholar revisited the early years of the City of the Holy Name of God in an interview with O Clarim.
Nagasaki was one of the cities that Pope Francis visited during his recent trip to Japan. It’s an emblematic city not only in the historical context of Catholicism in Japan, but also in terms of the relationship between East and the West. This secular relationship would not have been possible without Macau, a city with which Nagasaki has always had very strong connections…
I don’t think it’s merely an important connection. It seems to me that it is the connection, the most important link of them all, a fundamental one. There was a period in which this kind of ties with Macau were cut, starting from 1640. This connection ended up being resumed in the 19th century, when Japan reopened its doors to foreign nations. When the first diplomatic representations were established in Nagasaki, Macau was once again at the forefront of this process. The Souza family, for example, is a family from Macau. It is a family that has roots both in Macau and in Singapore. At least one of the descendants of that family still lives in Japan. I spoke to him personally; he showed me some of his family documents, from the time when the family came to Japan. At a later stage, I studied their importance within the European diplomatic circles in the city of Kobe. Macau’s importance is undeniable. It may be more or less visible, depending on the approach. However, one thing is indisputable. It is the real connection. Without Macau there wouldn’t be Nagasaki, there wouldn’t be Portuguese in Japan, at least organized in the way they were organized. And the Catholic religion wouldn’t also be in Japan. It is through Macau that a platform for teaching and education is created. This platform will serve not only to educate Europeans, but also Japanese missionaries. Annually, several groups of Japanese students travel to Macau to study at the Jesuit College. They would then return to Japan with the aim of converting the Japanese people.
Missionaries arrived in Nagasaki from Macau, but they were not alone in this endeavor. There were also converted Jews trying their luck in the Far East. This was a more usual phenomenon than one might suppose, as evidenced by some of the investigations you conducted…
Yes, yes, yes. Macau was at the periphery of the Empire. It wasn’t exactly easy to get to Macau, but if it wasn’t easy for New Christians or converts, it wasn’t easy for the judiciary either. The Portuguese who lived in this region of Asia and settled in Macau, a good deal of them were fugitives. We need to have in mind that a considerable part of the crew that embarked in the boats that took part in the Indian commerce were actually criminals. They were felons. As soon as they arrived in Goa, they tried to escape from the reach of the Portuguese judicial power and some of the places where they could live more safely were Malacca and, later, Macau. The Portuguese presence in Macau itself was a conditioned presence. In other words, there was a Portuguese colony, but this Portuguese colony was not one hundred percent Portuguese because we were talking about a shared territory, over which Chinese power was also exercised. It was a very negotiated and very fragile presence. Macau became a good place for New Christians, especially after 1560, when the Inquisition in Goa was created. At the time, the first communities of New Christians in Goa and Cochin were also dismantled, in the context of a wave of persecution that extended to Malacca. Macau began to be officially colonized in 1557. There are reports that Portuguese people lived in the region in 1555. If I am not wrong, Fernão Mendes Pinto details this aspect in one of his letters. However, Macau became an open place for all these fugitives. This group included people who had been degraded and criminals, of course, but among them, there were also New Christians fleeing India. We should not ignore that commerce in Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries – and even earlier, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – was essentially controlled by large families of Jewish origin. King D. Manuel I, when he decided that the Jews could no longer live in Portugal, invented this idea of a fictitious mass conversion. And why did he do so? Because economically the Jews were a presence both unavoidable and indispensable in the Portuguese society. It is not possible to find in any other European court a painting where the Portuguese royal family is depicted together with the bishops and with a religious figure who was not a Christian: he was a Jew, a rabbi and he had with him the Torah and that Torah is open. This demonstrates the importance of Jews in the Portuguese society and the important connections they had with the royal family itself.
The first Chinese woman to arrive in Europe, arrived by the hand of New Christians. Who are we talking about?
I am interested in studying the macro movements of history, but we must not forget that it is the people that make history. Apart from studying the great movements of history, I also became interested in recovering the memory of those Asian figures that, in one way or another, came into contact with Europe and the European culture. Among them, there is this girl, from Guangdong province who, around 1560, travels from southern China to Japan. She was baptized on the boat that took her to Japan. We will find her again among the passengers of two boats that transported essentially women. These women were essentially destined to become sex slaves under Portuguese soldiers and merchants. She was sent to Malacca and from Malacca she travels to India, where she was sold. She ends up going to Cochin, where she will be sold to a Portuguese or Indo-Portuguese woman named Lalanda de Menezes. She was resold in Goa, where a very wealthy family of New Christians – a family called “Milão” – bought her. From Goa she goes to Lisbon, where she will work as a cook for this family. She ends up being freed by the Milão family, but continues to serve the family and, because of the Inquisition, when this family becomes a target of persecution, she will play a fundamental role, taking advantage of the condition of being a slave to allow this family to flee to other European countries, to places where the Portuguese Inquisition had no roots. She ends up dying in Hamburg. The family keeps moving and finally settles in Amsterdam. I happen to have the contact of a descendant of that family, with whom I speak from time to time.
You mentioned an important issue that is rarely addressed. When it comes to slavery, we tend to evoke mainly the Atlantic slave trade, but the Portuguese and the European Empires also promoted slavery in Asia…
Yes. Slavery is not a phenomenon that arises with the Portuguese Empire. It dates from the beginning of humankind, ever since different tribes tried to submit each other. This system remained untouched for millennia and will be exploited by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French… It was exploited by all the European powers, without any relevant exception, the last of which was probably Belgium, isn’t it? King Leopold of Belgium was one of the most brutal monarchs and probably the person that most profited with the 19th century slavery system. Concerning Portuguese slavery, the first thing one can say is that it was a very diverse enterprise. Portuguese slavery in Asia is very different from the kind of trade practiced in the Atlantic, because it was not controlled by the Crown. It was born spontaneously and it remained, spontaneously until the 19th century, at least in Macau, where we would find the example of the coolies. The coolies would not be seen legally as slaves, but in practical terms, the conditions in which they worked and lived, were very similar to slavery. There is this idea, somehow Americanized, that slavery involves Africans and cotton fields. Or this Brazilian stereotype, of the slaves who would work on the big coffee farms and who served the Portuguese masters. Of course, this kind of slavery was a reality, but in Asia slavery somehow a different business. Slave labor was not used in large plantations. Slaves were essentially used for domestic labour. We have women working as slaves, for example, in Macau. Most of the local families had slaves. These slaves were of very different origins. They could come from Korea, from India, Bengal, from Japan or all over Southeast Asia, from Malaysia to Timor. The origin of these women was very diverse, but it changed, depending on the historic period we are talking about. We have a first period in which Chinese slaves were predominant, a second period in which the predominance is already Japanese, then it is Korean, then it is again Chinese and then we find a lot of slaves from Southeast Asia. There are different lines that we should have in mind when we approach this topic, but slavery was not only evident. It was also widespread.
And in Japan? Who were those slaves? Did the Jesuits have slaves?
Of course, the Jesuits tried to erase that presence from their records, but if we – and I wrote about it – take a look at the books with the rules that the Jesuits maintained in Japan, one of the chapters addresses precisely the way they were supposed to treat slaves and what they could or should do with them. It addresses the way they should acquire them, how they should educate them and all that. These writings reveal precisely what they tried to hide, the fact that they had and acquired slaves. Besides, when we started to study the documents of those slaves – mainly of Chinese and Japanese origin – that end up in America, some of these documents that have been preserved demonstrate that the passport that allows them to be sold abroad was emitted by the Jesuits themselves. The Jesuits were the ones that created this sort of passport. They were the ones who assessed what the person’s status was, who legitimized that person as being a perpetual slave and who would allow him to be sold in any port, when this was not generally their condition.
I had one last question regarding what remains to be investigated concerning the establishment of relations between Europe and Japan. Are Japanese history and the history of Japan’s contacts with the outside world already fully explained?
It depends. It is not very easy to answer that question. There are a lot of stereotypes being applied to different countries and Japan is no exception. One thing is to visit a country as a tourist and another, completely different, to settle in that country. As we get to know a culture deeply, we realize that there are several traits of that culture that do not fit in those stereotypes. So as long as there is history, there are different approaches and as long as there is imagination and willingness to analyze, to investigate, new things can be discovered about a culture. It seems to me that it is still an open area. As long as Japan exists, that will always remain an open area.