Over the course of three days in the summer of 1849, Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita (1818–1880), who was born exactly 200 years ago today, earned a place for himself among the most controversial figures in Macau’s history.
Today Mesquita’s name can be found across the Macau Peninsula on street signs and monuments, but he is far from a household name and many local residents cannot say who he was or what he did.
The story begins with the appointment of the widely unpopular Governor João Maria Ferreira do Amaral, who was deployed to the Portuguese enclave in 1846 with a directive to overturn de jure Chinese sovereignty in Macau.
Amaral angered the Chinese inhabitants of the city when he ordered them to pay taxes to the Portuguese administration (instead of imperial mandarins as had been the case for hundreds of years) and the proposal that some of the city’s Chinese graves be relocated to make way for a road extension. By some historical accounts, it was during Amaral’s tenure that the Portuguese unlawfully occupied the then-islands of Taipa and Coloane.
His actions, poorly received in nearby Guangzhou, eventually culminated in his assassination on August 22, 1849, just a few hundred meters from the Chinese border. Some 2,000 incensed Chinese soldiers seized the opportunity and amassed along the border of Macau and the nearby Chinese fort at Baishaling and began firing on the walls of Macau.
On August 25, a junior artillery officer by the name of Mesquita volunteered to lead an assault on the fort against all odds, accompanied by just 36 soldiers and a small artillery piece. Preceded by a single artillery shell which was fortunate enough to find its target, Mesquita led a charge against the enemy position causing the garrisoned Chinese soldiers to panic and retreat.
The discord across the border simmered thereafter and the young artillery officer returned to Macau as a national hero.
“In this way, Mesquita became a hero. Accidentally, perhaps, but one of the so-called romantic heroes [nonetheless],” writes João Botas, a Portuguese journalist and the blogger behind Macau Antigo, a rich archive of the city’s history. “And people sometimes need heroes. But it is not unreasonable to say that without his action[s], the story would most probably have been different.”
But this story has a tragic end. Years of discrimination against his Macanese ethnicity are what modern historians say drove Mesquita to insanity, culminating in the murder of his family and his suicide. As a consequence, Mesquita was denied both a military funeral and a Christian burial during the 19th century.
“Like other prominent figures in the history of Macau, the life of Colonel Mesquita is little recognized in Macau, the land where he was born,” Botas told the Times in an interview.
“He was considered a hero during the 19th century and today that is something to remember. But most people [in Macau] don’t know the story – except for the Macanese community,” agreed Jorge Morbey, a historian and president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC) between 1985 and 1990.
Mesquita might be glorified as a hero in the Portuguese and Macanese communities, but having assaulted a Chinese fort during the early years of the “Century of Humiliation,” he qualifies as a villain in the story of modern China.
A bronze statue of the soldier was toppled by dissidents during the 1-2-3 Incident of 1966, when months of tensions in Macau ignited riots and subsequent police repression, all with an undertone of resistance to foreign occupation.
This villainous view is unlikely to change in the near future, especially with the adoption of a standardized history textbook in Macau. Prepared in part by entities under the supervision of the mainland’s Ministry of Education, the textbook is unlikely to recount the story of Amaral and Mesquita in a balanced manner, if at all.
For Botas, that would be unacceptable. “It’s one of the most important aspects of Macau’s history,” he remarked to the Times, adding, “Of course his story should be taught in schools.”
Former IC President Morbey was behind the establishment of a committee of Portuguese and Chinese historians tasked with bridging gaps between the various accounts of the Amaral-Mesquita story in the late 1980s. The committee was later disbanded. Today Morbey shares a skeptical view of how the subject matter is likely to be covered in Macau’s schools.
“If they cover the events in schools it will be in a bad light, because the events were bad from the point of view of the Chinese,” he said.
In future, Macau students might have to look elsewhere for alternative historical narratives of the Amaral-Mesquita story. Fortunately, there are plenty of clues dotted around the city.
Two hundred years on several roads on the Peninsula still bear his name, while today the colonel’s gravestone can be found beside the entrance of San Miguel Cemetery, decorated with the title “Heroic defender of Macau.”
Yet the most well-known Mesquita tribute is the Portas do Cerco, or Border Gate monument, built by the Portuguese administration in 1849 to honor both Mesquita and the deceased Governor Amaral. The dates August 22 and August 25 are inscribed on either side of pastel yellow monument, while the somewhat ironic message, “A pátria honrai, que a pátria vos contempla” (Honor your motherland, for your motherland looks over you), is plastered across its top.
“A pátria honrai, que a pátria vos contempla” is motto used by the Portuguese Navy and inscribed on all ships of its armada. It is used on the Border Gate monument to refer to the distinguished career of Amaral who served in the Portuguese Royal Fleet.