Monte Fort
Macau, China

The word China first appeared in Western literature in 1516, in the diary of Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa (died 1521), though it seems likely that there was actually a China before then. In fact, early hominids (persons only slightly removed from apes) first settled in China somewhere between 250,000 and 2.24 million years ago, but it wasn't until the Portuguese explorers arrived that China was blessed with Western Civilization.

Portuguese traders obtained the right to anchor their ships at Macau Harbor in 1535. Macau is across the Zhujiang River Estuary from today's Hong Kong...back then, Hong Kong wasn't much of anything, but there were plenty of other prime trading destinations just up the Zhujiang River.

Portugal built a settlement at Macau, and by 1564 was using this location to command trade in China, Japan and India.

The Society of Jesus, a branch of the Catholic church, was founded in 1534. The Jesuits were proponents of serious missionary work in far-flung places, which tended to put them at odds with the far-flung folks with whom they came in contact. Being good Catholics, the Portuguese thought the Jesuits were a bunch of swell guys, and helped them in their sacred mission whenever possible, such as when they made settlements in weird places like Macau!

One of Monte Fort's cannon, staring down Macau's improbably-shaped Portuguese School
The Jesuits built the Fortaleza do Monte from 1617 to 1626, in the interest of defending the Portuguese settlement not only from the heathen Chinese, who seemed to be everywhere in that region, but also the Dutch, who were busily messing with Portugal's financial interests whenever and wherever possible.

The fort was built on Mount Hill overlooking the city and harbor. Fortaleza do Monte translates as big fort. It mounted 32 cannon, had its own water reservoir, and the capacity for enough stores to withstand a two-year siege.

Monte Fort's guns are reported to only have been fired in anger on two occasions: The only occasion about which there seems to be any documentation was when the Dutch came a-callin'.

On June 24, 1622, a Dutch invasion fleet appeared off of Macau. Hugely outnumbered by the invading force, the Jesuits intended to surrender their fort and town, until a priest accidentally fired a cannon that was pointed at the harbor. Miraculously this unintended projectile struck a Dutch powder ship, which exploded, obliterating a large portion of the invasion fleet. Portuguese Macau was saved, and Holland apparently decided that if a single Jesuit ball could vanquish their invasion, they'd better just leave Macau alone, because they never made another attempt on the outpost.

Although this version of the Dutch invasion attempt is delightful, other accounts suggest that there was some sort of real battle, as the slaves of the Portuguese are said to have borne the brunt of the fighting on behalf of their masters: In the 17th century, Macau was home to 2,000 Portuguese folks, 5,000 slaves and some 20,000 Chinese.

Monte Fort served as the headquarters for the Chief of Staff on City Defense and Superintendent of Macau, and all of Macau remained under Portuguese control to one degree or another until the Second World War (1939-1945). In 1942, The Imperial Japanese, who had occupied most of China, first allowed a limited authority to the Portuguese, but then completely took over in 1943.

Monte Fort, unassailable by people dressed in similar clothing

Upon learning that the "neutral" Portuguese in Macau were preparing to sell aviation fuel to the Japanese at the beginning of 1945, American aircraft from the USS Enterprise attacked Macau in January, February and June, preventing this dastardly exchange. The Portuguese government complained about this unsportsmanlike conduct, however, and in 1950 the US government paid the nice round figure of $20,255,952 as restitution.

Japanese rule of Macau ended in August of 1945, when, fortunately for everybody but the Japanese, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Portuguese administration survived the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949: Not because Chairman Mao (1893-1976) was a fan of the Portuguese in Macau and/or the British in Hong Kong, but because the international community couldn't come up with a resolution to this historical weirdness. A weather observatory was installed in Monte Fort in 1965, but it remained primarily a Portuguese military installation.

In April of 1974, Portugal enjoyed a bloodless left-wing military coup, ending 40 years of right-wing dictatorship. One of the first prorities of the new government was to get rid of Portugal's colonial holdings. In the case of Macau, this process took another 25 years of diplomatic slothishness, and Macau was completely, finally relinquished from the Portuguese grip on December 20, 1999 (Hong Kong, a possession of Great Britain since 1841, was officially handed over to China in 1997).

Monte Fort was demilitarized in 1976, and the Museum of Macau, which presents the history of the fort, Macau and its colonial past, was opened in 1998.