Whether still here to visit or lost completely to time, the forts of Macau are the strongholds of many stories. These vital defences once protected the city and its people over more than 400 years.
Every day in Macau, thousands of visitors traipse up the hill to spend a few hours inside Mount Fortress. Often they head up there simply to see the exhibits on show at the Museum of Macau, which sits inside the fort’s walls, or they just climb the streets for the spectacular views over the city. However, while they’re relaxing on the grass, enjoying the peace and tranquillity, they’re unlikely to imagine what it was once like within this historic structure. Once upon a time, these fortifications bore witness to fierce fighting as Macau was defended against attackers who had come from across the oceans.
The most violent battles Macau has ever seen took place during the 17th century, as the Dutch attacked the territory, intent on seizing the territory and thus the Portuguese trading monopoly with China. So Mount Fortress was of huge importance, playing a key role in the city’s defence. However, despite the attacks, the Portuguese held Macau for nearly 450 years. Their fortifications were designed to repel invaders from the sea, like the Dutch, the British and even pirates – but never China, whose emperors allowed the Portuguese to stay but were often suspicious of their intentions. So Beijing did not allow fortifications that faced inland – only those that protected the city from attack by sea.
Mount Fortress – ‘Fortaleza do Monte’ in Portuguese – may be the best known and most recognisable of Macau’s forts but it’s certainly not the only one. Guia Fortress in the nearby parish of St Lazarus, with its chapel and lighthouse, is equally important as a structure that has protected Macau in the past. And then there’s São Francisco Fort, which was also vital in defending the city from the Dutch. It’s now demolished and instead home to São Francisco Barracks in Cathedral Parish but, like Mount and Guia fortresses, the site is nevertheless worth visiting not just for what you can see but for what you can learn about its history.
The Portuguese established their settlement in Macau in 1557. Initially, they built no fortifications – the Chinese government opposed the idea and the main purpose of the new arrivals was to use the sea to trade, so they did not consider a fortress of any kind necessary. But the lucrative East Asian trade with China, Japan and the Philippines attracted the envy of other European maritime powers, especially the Dutch and the British. In 1601, a Dutch fleet arrived in Macau for the first time. The admiral sent a boarding party, however the Portuguese attacked them before hanging 18 of their number and sending two to Goa.
In 1603, the Dutch returned. They opened fire on the city and plundered a cargo vessel. The next year, they tried to begin trade with China but the Portuguese prevented it. So the Dutch decided that they had no alternative but to seize Macau. Aware of this threat, the authorities in Macau began to build fortifications, most facing the sea but a handful facing inland. And so Mount Fortress, Guia Fortress and São Francisco Fort were born – three structures that would defend the city during an attack.
The Dutch fleet, equipped with 13 ships, 1,300 men and three cannons, arrived off the coast of Macau on 21 June 1622, with three warships bombarding the city with cannonfire a day later. They also opened fire on São Francisco Fort and were able to land their cannons. The Portuguese defended fiercely, however – from Mount Fortress, they fired several guns, causing many Dutch casualties. One story tells of an Italian Jesuit priest, Giacomo Rho, who fired a cannon shot from the fortress at the passing Dutch. His shot landed on a barrel of gunpowder in the middle of the Dutch formation and the ensuing explosion injured many of their soldiers and destroyed most of their ammunition. The Dutch were thrown into disarray as a result. The Portuguese also attacked the Dutch at the foot of Guia Hill and drove the forces back. The battle ended in a total victory for the Portuguese, with almost 200 Dutch soldiers dead compared to just four Portuguese. All three fortifications had played a vital role in the battle.
The Dutch attack convinced the Portuguese to complete the fortifications they already had in place and build more. However, it wasn’t long before the Chinese forced them to demolish those fortifications that were facing inland – but they allowed those that faced the sea. Many of these structures have remained standing since then.
Built in conjunction with the Jesuits between 1617 and 1626, Mount Fortress was the city’s principal military defence structure. It was equipped with cannons, military barracks, wells and an arsenal that held sufficient ammunition and supplies to endure a siege lasting up to two years. The fortress covers an area of 10,000 square metres, in the shape of a trapezoid. Its four corners protrude to form bulwarks.
The Portuguese put 32 cannons around the walls and watchtowers on two southeast corners. In 1965, the fortress was converted into the Meteorological Services and later opened up to the public. Built on top of Mount Hill, Mount Fortress offers an incredible panoramic view of the city, with the Ruins of St Paul’s nearby. On 15 July 2005, the Historic Centre of Macau was officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with Mount Fortress and the Ruins of St Paul’s becoming the significant historical monuments in its centre.
The Museum of Macau opened on 18 April 1998 and has since welcomed visitors from across the globe who get to see numerous exhibitions as well as being able to wander the fortress’ ramparts outside. The museum consists of two underground levels and a third one above the fortress’ top platform where the old Meteorological Services is housed. The architectural character and special configuration of the architecture has been retained and preserved.
The other key location in defeating the Dutch was the defences at Guia Hill, which is also open to visitors today. This is the highest point on the Macau peninsula, at 94 metres above sea level. Initially, it was ignored by Portuguese military leaders because it was outside the main area of settlement. But they changed their mind after the Dutch attack of 1622 and decided to fortify it as one of the most strategic places in the city. The walls were built of granite blocks and the garrison lived close to the gateway, where the storerooms were also located. The current fort dates back to around 1637 and records from 1835 and 1846 show that it had five bronze and 15 iron cannons.
Inside the fortress is Guia Chapel, which was built around 1622 by Clarist nuns who lived at the site before they set up the Convent of St Clare. In 1998, during routine conservation work, elaborate frescoes were uncovered in the chapel which depict representations of both Western and Chinese themes. They display religious and mythological motifs, a metaphor for the culture and history of the city. Also within the fortress walls is the 15–metre–high Guia Lighthouse – the first modern lighthouse on the China coast – which was built in 1865 but had its lantern mechanism replaced in 1910. However, the original structure remains and the lighthouse continues to help mariners as it has done for the past 154 years.
The hill is also home to military tunnels that were built in the 1930s and led to cannons emplacements to form an important defensive network. There is a large – and rusting – electric generator that was used by the soldiers who were once stationed there, pumping up water from a reservoir. Visitors to the fortress can see their uniforms, helmets, caps and rucksacks from the early to mid–20th century.
The photographs on the walls in the fortress give a glimpse of life in the first half of the last century – soldiers from the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, soldiers from India in the Moorish Barracks, which is now home to the Marine and Water Bureau, and a Japanese officer visiting Macau during World War Two. He was a reminder of the ever-present threat of invasion at that time. Guia Fort remained a heavily guarded military area until 1962. In the 1970s, it was opened to the public and the tunnels were opened in 2001.
The Fort of São Francisco cannot be overlooked as well when it comes to its importance to Macau’s history. It was also particularly important in the defeat of the Dutch. In 1622, its battery fired and sunk some of the Dutch vessels and killed 70 men. In 1629, the Portuguese improved the battery and turned it into a fort. At the northern end of the Praia Grande, it covered the bay in front of Macau.
Records from 1833 show that the fort had seven bronze and 11 iron cannons. Later, however, it was demolished to make way for the São Francisco Barracks. Construction started in 1864 and the Battalion of the First Line took over the premises on December 30, 1866, with the engineers building a defensive wall of granite blocks facing the sea. Visitors today can see the wall, as well as the handful of cannons which stand on top of it. Next to the site is the Military Club – still one of the most popular private clubs in the city – which dates back to 1870.
The Portuguese military used the premises as their headquarters until their withdrawal and then it was taken over by the Security Forces. Inside its walls is a museum containing cannons, rifles and swords, as well as a model of a three-man military band, a mine detector, a model of a diver, a collection of radios and crests and badges.
If an army that never fires a shot is the most successful army, then the defence of Macau has been a remarkable success. The only armed conflict with China in 442 years occurred on 25 August 1849, when imperial troops opened fire from a fort at Pak Shan Lan. The authorities were angry with Macau governor João Maria Ferreira do Amaral for closing the Chinese Customs House in March that year and insisting that farmers outside the city wall pay taxes to his government and not the Chinese mandarins.
On the Macau side was a howitzer and 36 men led by Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita, a sub–lieutenant. His cannon fired a shell which landed in the middle of the Chinese troops before he led his own troops into a successful charge. In the decades that followed, relations between Portugal and China were often tense – but there was never fighting. Macau survived the years that followed the Xinhai revolution of 1911 unscathed and it was the same during the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and Guangdong province. The Japanese forces could easily have invaded Macau but they chose not to, preferring to leave it as a zone of neutrality, as Portugal was in Europe. The new government that took over in 1949 also left Macau alone.
So, since the days of the Dutch attacks, Macau’s fine fortresses were never seriously tested. And their cannons were never fired in a serious battle. But that isn’t a problem for the city. It means that some of them, like Mount and Guia, are still there for tourists and locals alike to visit, admire and learn about Macau’s colourful and successful military past.
The Fortress of São Tiago da Barra was once a strategic stronghold
It isn’t just Monte, Guia and Sao Francisco forts that make up Macau’s impressive history of important fortifications. The Fortress of São Tiago da Barra was another structure that was, from the 1620s, a defensive site of strategic note.
Originally equipped with 16 cannons when it was built in 1629, ‘Barra Fort’ was actually based on the former site of a simpler defensive fortification previously built by the Portuguese in 1622. It was strategically important at the time because the commander of the fortress was directly appointed by the King of Portugal and was not subject to call by the Governor of Macau. Barra was, in fact, the only fortress built on the order of the King of Portugal.
The fortress wall measured 110 metres long and 40 metres wide, forming a rectangular platform rising three metres above sea level. Its location was perfect as, at the time, it ensured effective control on all maritime activities in the area and also guarded the water entrance towards the city’s Inner Harbour. In 1981, the fortress was converted into the five-star Pousada de São Tiago Macau hotel in Avenida da República. The hotel was temporarily closed in 2017 due to the construction of the nearby Barra Transport Complex, which includes a light rail transit (LRT) link, and will not re-open until that project is completed over the next few years.
Mong-Há Fort was built in 1849
Another fort worthy of considerable note is Mong-Há Fort, which lies at the summit of Mong-Há Hill near Ling Fong Sports Centre in the north of the city. The fort, which is Macau’s youngest in its collection, is part of a greater military reservation – the Military District of Mong-Há, which included the Mong-Há Barracks.
The main fort complex was built in 1849 – although construction work continued until 1866 – by governor Ferreira do Amaral to protect the Macau’s northern sector as a precaution against a possible Chinese invasion following the First Opium War between Britain and China, which took place from 1839 to 1842. The brick-walled fort boasted an overall area of 650 square meters and held 10 artillery pieces with a firing range capable of reaching the Portas do Cerco or Barrier Gate, the structure which separated Macau from the Mainland.
The Portuguese military establishment withdrew completely in the 1960s, so the fort and the Military District were deactivated, with public housing being built in the area in 2008. Since then, Mong-Há Fort has been open to the public and it is now a popular tourist spot with fabulous views of the northern part of the city.
HEADER: Mount Fortress, with the Museum of Macau nestled inside, stands majestically in the heart of the city
TEXT Mark O’Neill | PHOTOS 秋綾