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Macau Travel Guide, History of Macau

Macau History

Where does the name Macau come from ?

As the case might be in many colonial cities around the globe, Macau got its name as a result of mispronunciation of the local name.


A-ma is the local name of Matsu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen (known in Hong Kong as Tin Hau).




According to a legend, A-Ma managed to stop a violent rainstorm that was about to wreck and drown a fisher boat near the shores of today's Macau. 

The relived passengers decided to name the bay after her, calling it A-Ma-Gau (which means, more or less, "the bay of A-Ma") and a temple, dedicated to the beloved deity, was built in 1488.


When the first Portuguese explorers asked the locals for the name of the place, they were answered A-Ma-Gau and that name eventually became Macau.


A small insight from 'Metropolasia-Man' :

A-Ma-Gau, meaning "The bay of goddess A-ma" was the original name of the place, until Portuguese newcomers distorted it and ended up with Macau 



Ancient civilizations

Archaeological findings, both on Macau Peninsula and Coloane Island, show that human activity in Macau started more than 5000 years ago.


Merchant ships, sailing between Southeast Asia and Guangzhou (Canton) started to use Haojingao as a way stop for refuge, fresh water and food, since at least the 5th century.


The first recorded inhabitants of the area were members of the southern Song Dynasty and some 50,000 followers, seeking refuge in Macau from invading Mongols in 1277. They were able to defend their settlements and establish themselves there. Mong Há has long been the center of Chinese life in Macau and the site of what may be the region's oldest temple, a shrine devoted to the Buddhist Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy).

However, Macau did not develop as a major settlement until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, during the Age of Discovery, when Portuguese sailors were exploring the coasts of Africa and Asia.



Arrival of the Europeans

The first non-Asian visitor to arrive at Macau was the Portuguese explorer, Jorge Alvares, who landed on the shores of the territory sometimes in 1513, during the Ming Dynasty.


His expedition was looking for trade sources in the region and erected the "Padrao" stone crosses in various points around the Pearl River Delta, claiming the land for the king of Portugal. 


Alvares' visit was followed by the establishment of a number of small Portuguese settlements and trading posts on both sides of the delta but Imperial China objected the Portuguese presence on its soil and a series of armed clashes took place between 1517 and 1521.  The Portuguese were expelled from their settlement in Tuen Mun (Hong Kong) in 1521 and it was only in 1553 when they were allowed to build an on-shore trading post in what is today Macau.  


The founding of Macau town

The permission to establish a settlement was given to the Portuguese by the Imperial authorities, as a reward for defeating pirates and to serve as middlemen for trade between China and Japan and between both nations and Europe.


Lisbon obtained a leasehold for Macau in return for tribute paid to Beijing in 1557, and during that same year, established a walled village there.  Ground rent payments began in 1573. China retained sovereignty and Chinese residents were subject to Chinese law, but the territory was under Portuguese administration.


In 1582 a land lease was signed, and annual rent was paid to Xiangshan County.

Soon after the establishment of the trading post, Portuguese and Chinese merchants started to flock to Macau and it quickly became an important node in the development of Portugal's trade along three major routes.  The Guangzhou-Macau-Nagasaki route was particularly profitable because the Portuguese acted as middlemen, shipping Chinese silks to Japan and Japanese silver to China, pocketing huge markups in the process.


A small insight from 'Metropolasia-Man' :

Macau had its first "golden age" in the 16th century, when the Portuguese acted as middlemen, shipping Chinese silks to Japan and Japanese silver to China, and pocketing huge markups in the process 


Macau's golden age came to an end in 1637, when increasing suspicion of the intentions of Spanish and Portuguese Catholic missionaries in Japan finally led the shogun to seal Japan off from all foreign influence.  This meant that no Japanese were allowed to leave the country and no foreign ship was allowed to dock in a Japanese port.


The extremely profitable China-Japan trade route ceased operating and things became even more complicated a few years later, When Portugal lost Malacca to the Dutch in 1641 and the link with Goa was severely damaged.


In 1685, the privileged position of the Portuguese in trade with China ended, following a decision by the emperor of China to allow trade with all foreign countries.  Over the next century, England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, the United States and Russia moved in, establishing factories and offices in Guangzhou and Macau.


Macau did not manage to reverse the decline until the mid 20th century, when gambling became legal and the tiny territory started to enjoy prosperity, once again.



Colonialism and relations with China

Following the Opium War (1839-42), Portugal occupied the islands of Taipa and Coloane in 1851 and 1864 respectively.


In 1887, Portugal and the Qing Government signed the Sino - Portuguese Draft Minutes and the Beijing Treaty, in which China ceded to Portugal the right to "perpetual occupation and government of Macau" (with Portugal's promise "never to alienate Macau and dependencies without agreement with China").


When the Chinese communists came to power in 1949, they declared the Protocol of Lisbon to be invalid as an "unequal treaty" imposed by foreigners on China.  However, Beijing was not ready to settle the treaty question, requesting maintenance of "the status quo" until a more appropriate time.                        


Beijing took a similar position on treaties relating to the Hong Kong territories of the United Kingdom. Portugal designated Macau a separate overseas province in 1955.


In 1974, following the anti-colonialist Carnation Revolution, Portugal relinquished all colonial claims and recognized Chinese sovereignty over Macau.


Portugal and the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations in 1979 and Beijing acknowledged Macau as "Chinese territory under Portuguese administration."  A year later, Gen. Melo Egidio became the first governor of Macau to pay an official visit to Beijing.


The visit underscored both parties' interest in finding a mutually agreeable solution to Macau's status and, after four rounds of talks, "the Joint Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of Portugal on the Question of Macao" was officially signed in April 1987, paving the road to the handover of Macau.


China assumed sovereignty over Macau on December 20, 1999.

Just like its neighbor, Hong Kong, Macau became a special administrative region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China and, just like in the case of Hong Kong, the Chinese government has promised that under its "one country, two systems" formula, China's socialist economic system will not be practiced in Macau and that Macau will enjoy a high degree of autonomy in all matters, except foreign and defense affairs, until 2049, fifty years after the handover.


Modern Macau 

The steady growth of the Macau Special Administrative Region benefited from the support of the Government of China.  Since the establishment of the region, the public security have been improved, and the central government even designated Macau as the city to expand gambling-related tourism.                         


The introduction of "Individual Visit Scheme policy" made it easier for Chinese inland residents to travel back and forth; in 2005 alone, there were more than 10 million Chinese tourists, who made up 60% of the total number of tourists in Macau; the income of the gambling houses in Macau reached up to 5.6 billion USD.  On July 15, 2005, the Historic Centre of Macau was listed in the World Cultural Heritage. The increasing development of tourism became a major factor on the rapid development of the economy of Macau.


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