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  • Spencer Low

Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro: The King of the Portuguese from Macau

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

A merchant, a pirate, a smuggler, an adventurer, a captain, and even an official representative of the Portuguese authorities: Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro does not attract a lot of scholarly attention, but he was a colourful figure in the history of diplomatic and trade relations amongst the first Europeans in China and Japan.

Portuguese first day cover postcard from 1993 commemorating 450 years since the Portuguese arrived in Japan

Macau in the 16th century was inhabited by a mix of Europeans, Eurasians, and Asians who were constantly on the lookout for commercial opportunities. Wako (倭寇) pirates, generally considered by the Chinese as being Japanese although the reality was more complex, were making trouble along the Chinese coast and throughout the entire region. This led to a severing of political and commercial relations between China and Japan in the first half of the 16th century, which presented the Portuguese with an arbitrage opportunity. They skillfully became the trade intermediaries between the two Asian countries, and their monopoly brought advantages to all parties:

  • The Chinese were able to continue to trade with the Japanese, without breaching the imperial prohibition, through Portuguese merchants.

  • The Japanese were able to acquire large quantities of Chinese silk, which was financed by the silver mines of Iwami (石見).

  • The Portuguese traders were able to achieve fabulous profits.

Landeiro makes his appearance in the second half of the 16th century, and played a significant role in the early development of Macau and in the international commerce of Asia. Landeiro was likely from a family of Jewish origin in the small settlement of Santa Iria near Lisbon. When the Inquisition arrived in Portugal, he is believed to have fled for Goa, and then subsequently to Macau. Somehow, over time Landeiro amassed a personal army of adventurers and mercenaries and with his large number of private trading ships and captains, came to “rule the seas” of China. Because of his vast power and prestige he acquired the name “King of the Portuguese” from Macau.

This period corresponded with the apex of Portuguese trade in Asia before its decline in the following century due to the arrival of the Dutch.

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