Although there is archaeological evidence of human presence in Macau from as early as 4000BC, the area seems to have been a sparsely populated region of China throughout its early times, with the notable exception of the influx of 50,000 refugees during the Mongol invasion of China in 1277.  

The development of the Macau peninsula as an established settlement arose from a trade agreement between the Chinese and Portuguese, with Macau serving as a suitable rented harbour from 1557, which quickly became an important link in Portuguese trading routes from India, Japan and Malaya. 

Particularly lucrative for the Portuguese was their emerging monopoly in the market between Japan and China, previously hampered by piracy, with Portugal serving as highly profitable middlemen, and Macau the ever-expanding beneficiary. 

The union of the crowns of Spain and Portugal, between 1580 and 1640 further enhanced the power of Macau as a major trading post, but would also bring Macau, now a partly Spanish controlled territory, into the conflict between Spain and Holland known as the ‘Thirty Years War’. 

Although several Dutch attacks of Macau, including the major battle of 1622, were successfully repelled, Dutch military interference with the then Portuguese port of Nagasaki would lead the Japanese to close all trade to foreigners in 1639, which brought to an end one of Macau’s most prosperous trading relationships. A further blow to Macau’s prosperity would be the capture of Portuguese Malacca by the Dutch in 1641. 

Macau’s fortunes would further decline in 1685 by China’s decision to end Portugal’s monopoly on Chinese trade by establishing trading partnerships with other nations including Britain, Holland, France and the United States of America, all of whom subsequently set up offices in Macau. 

Although its powerful trading influence had declined, Macau was by now a well-established city, and continued to act as a significant hub in world trade. In 1842, however, nearby Hong Kong was ceded to the British by China and the phenomenal success of that colony and its deep-water harbour would finally eclipse Macau’s importance as the major port of the region. 

In 1849, Portugal’s response to the emergence of British Hong Kong was to expel Chinese officials and declare Macau a free port, independent of China, a status which would later be ratified by a treaty with China in 1887. During this time Macau had also become a pivotal port in the infamous export of Chinese slaves around the world, and further diversified its economy by becoming a major centre for gambling. 

The first half of new century would see the European powers engulfed by two world wars, and although Macau, due to its neutrality, escaped the fate of Japanese occupation during World War II, the post-war dynamic of the colonial powers was already on the wane, and the takeover of China by the communists in 1949 would irrevocably alter the balance of power in the region.  

However, China’s new government prudently had no immediate desire to reclaim either Macau or Hong Kong, recognising the reality of their huge future commercial benefits to Chinese trade, and concentrated their efforts on the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the mainland. 

By the 1980’s China was assured enough to enter the world of global capitalism and, in 1984, had concluded an agreement with the British for the handover of Hong Kong, and a similar deal was reached with the Portuguese in 1987 for Macau, which would see both colonies returned to Chinese rule in 1999 as Special Administrative regions.

Keen to cash in on the enormous commercial potential of both former colonies, China has invested huge sums of its now enormous economy into Macau to develop its high tourist potential, and an ambitious project to build a bridge to span the 65km between both colonies is now nearing completion.

 

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