Marginalization of European Mercantilism in China

The members of the first Portuguese embassy to arrive in China in the early 16th century were arrested and beaten to death by the imperial authorities of Canton. The mouths of their corpses were stuffed with their own genitals, and their heads were then sawn from their bodies and strung up in the city square. This was done in response to Portugal’s military activities in Malaysia. Being an imperial power themselves, the Chinese understood colonial expansion and recognized that the Portuguese were clumsily and brutally carrying out just such a venture in the Indian Ocean. Expecting a reprisal for the slaughter of their emissaries, the Chinese Emperor ordered the construction of a war fleet to repel a Portuguese counter attack. None came. Portugal in the 1520’s hadn’t the strength to challenge the JiaJing Emperor. It remained in the East Indies and consolidated its power there.

Thirteen years passed and the quarrel was forgotten. To the Chinese, the presence of Portuguese ships in the east was an insignificance. When Portuguese traders again appeared in the Pear River Estuary in 1835, it was not a cause for anxiety among the officials in Canton. They permitted the storm-beaten merchants to anchor in a remote harbor and haul their goods ashore to dry. The Portuguese would continue returning to this place for many years to trade with the Chinese. In the 1550s they erected warehouses to store their purchases, which made them able to trade while their ships were away. They paid Canton 20 Kilos of silver each year as rent, and in return, the local authorities allowed them to construct domiciles and maintain a permanent presence on the swampy peninsula where they were established. This trading outpost was the beginnings of Portuguese Macau, one of a few colonial footholds Europeans held on the Chinese mainland. Throughout history most of China’s economic and diplomatic contact with the West has been conducted through Macau and neighboring Hong Kong located on the opposite side of the estuary. This was and to a large part still remains one of the only access points to Chinese markets permitted to Europeans. Early merchants in the Pearl River delta had to adhere to the Emperor’s strict terms on trade. They were to remain at all times in Macau or Hong Kong and were restricted from traveling elsewhere in China. They could stay only during designated trading seasons. They could not carry firearms. And, most important to the Chinese authorities, they could trade only in silver and had to keep the Emperor’s weights and measures. This meant that the Europeans could not exchange their own goods with Chinese buyers. They essentially had to resort to paying for everything in currency. This did not initially deter European traders because, in truth, they did not have goods to offer that the Chinese would have wanted. China had a hand in every major trade market and already had everything available to them for better prices than what European traders could offer them. It wasn’t until the Portuguese and the British began smuggling opium into the country from India that they could finally achieve a trading advantage.

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