- Spencer Low
How a Portuguese adventurer, Filipe de Brito e Nicote, once controlled Burma's main port
Updated: Mar 5
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is not among the most well-known countries of Southeast Asia. A former British colony, it was starting to develop a tourism industry of some scale until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but the country has a long, proud history and was a major regional power in the past. What is little known is the fact that Portuguese mercenaries served the Burmese kings as early as the 16th century, playing a role in many tumultuous events.
The most famous of these is Filipe de Brito e Nicote, an adventurer born in Lisbon in 1566 who went to Southeast Asia as a cabin boy. Known as Nga Zinga in Burmese (ငဇင်ကာ), de Brito ended up serving a king of Arakan (today's Rakhine state in the west of Myanmar) and became the governor of Syriam, a port city known as Sirião in Portuguese and nowadays called Thanlyin.
Once de Brito had converted Syriam's customs house into a fortress, he declared independence, captured the crown prince of Arakan as hostage, married the daughter of the ruler of Martaban and became nominally a subject of Siam. If all that wasn't enough adventure, de Brito went to Goa in 1600 and had himself awarded the titles of "Commander of Syriam", "General of the conquests of Pegu", and "King of Pegu" by the Portuguese royal court.
Alas for him, Syriam fell to Burmese forces in April 1613. Given that de Brito was said to have forced the locals to convert to Catholicism and to have desecrated Buddhist temples (such as removing a major bell from the historical Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon), he was executed by impalement.
To this day, there is a community of Portuguese descendants in Myanmar called the Bayingyi. Their European forefathers served in the Royal Burmese Armed Forces as gunners and musketeers in the 16th and 17th centuries, and even after hundreds of years this community still maintains a Portuguese identity and the Catholic faith.