Spain and the Conquest of China

China was in its sights, but the Spanish court's dithering meant the nation's conquistadors would never plant their flag on the Middle Kingdom

Hugh Thomas

The extraordinary plans and dreams which many citizens of the great city of Mexico had in the late 16th century for the conquest of China are the object of my attention. This was a direct consequence of the conquest of the Philippines, carried out from Mexico’s shores in the 1560s. Those islands entered the imagination of Europeans when Magellan’s marvellous expedition touched on them in 1521. 

Magellan was a Portuguese who had been commissioned to carry out his global voyage by the Spanish crown. He called the archipelago the islands of San Lázaro, but the name did not last. Magellan was killed in battle on the island of Cebú. His arrival had been resisted by the naturales whom he and his fellow explorers called Indians. The command of a much reduced expedition passed to Juan Sebastián de Elcano, a Basque who eventually demonstrated the sphericity of the earth.

Magellan’s mistake was to have spent more on manzanilla, before leaving Sanlúcar de Barrameda, than he did on gunpowder which could have saved his life. These adventures raised the question of where Portuguese interest ended and where the Spanish responsibility began. 

The Pope in 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had drawn a line dividing Spanish from Portuguese interests in the region of the Atlantic and Brazil. But no one knew for certain that the world was round — the uncertainty in the East was resolved in 1529 by a treaty at Saragossa. By that agreement the Spaniards gave up all interest in the legendary Spice Islands, the Moluccas, and abandoned all contact beyond latitude 17 degrees to the west. In exchange, the always penurious King of Spain received from rich Portugal the princely sum of 350,000 ducats.

The treaty of Saragossa might have ended Spanish interest in the East Indies and the mysterious islands of San Lázaro, but speculation about the archipelago continued; thus the apparently immortal Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés’s great friend and deputy, “son of the sun”, as he was known to the Mexicans because of his fair hair, organised a fleet whose aim would be to visit and perhaps colonise those islands.

Alvarado’s expedition never got under way for reasons connected with the Chichimec rebellion in New Spain, but one of his commanders, Ruy López de Villalobos, did set off across the Pacific and reached the far south of the archipelago. He was outmanoeuvred by the Portuguese but he left his mark on history, by naming the islands “the Philippines”, after the young Spanish regent, Philip — the future Philip II.

One of those on López de Villalobos’s fleet was Andrés de Urdaneta, a friar as well as a pilot. He took a long time to return across the Pacific to Mexico, but when he arrived there he gave a report of what he had seen to the Viceroy Luis de Velasco and Velasco commissioned López de Legazpi to establish a Spanish presence in the Philippines.

Legazpi was a Basque originally from Guipúzcoa where he, like his father, had been a notary (escribano) and which he continued to be when in Mexico. He acted on behalf of the town council and he founded a cofradía, la Dulce Niña de Jesús. In 1565, when he set out across the Pacific, he was an elderly widower with nine children. Legazpi established himself first of all on the island of Leyte, then he went to Mactan, where Magellan had died. Finally he went to the large island of Luzón. The conquests of these places and others were relatively easy since, as an Augustinian friar, Martín de Rada wrote, “The Philippines had neither lords nor kings who ruled over large stretches of territory. Rather, the typical polity was a small pueblo which constituted a tiny republic of its own managed by a kind of oligarchy. The exceptions to this rule were those places such as indeed Manila, where Muslims had established a more ambitious, and I suppose effective, regime.”

Those Muslims, said Fr Rada, were as much conquistadors as the Spaniards were and probably both less subtle and more brutal. Legazpi found it easy enough to persuade the indigenous people that they, the Spaniards, were liberators as well as new masters. All the same, Legazpi’s expedition experienced some difficult moments in the first years for the naturales refused for a time to grow anything which the Spaniards might like to eat.

Legazpi founded a Spanish city at Manila on the site of the previous large Muslim town at more or less the same time as one of his grandsons, Juan de Salcedo, and a deputy commander, Martín de Goití, began the conquest of the rest of the large island of Luzón. Manila became the Spanish capital of the islands.

The Manila galleon, which carried Chinese products such as porcelain or silk, to Acapulco in New Spain, to exchange for silver, then began its long, remarkable history. About now there began the Spanish romance with the idea of carrying on the conquest of the Philippines into China. First Legazpi himself can be found to be writing to King Philip to propose the building of six galleys to “run down the coast of China and reach agreements with rulers on the mainland”. Very soon an Augustinian too wrote of China as if it were already the next item on the Spanish imperial agenda: “To conquer so big a territory and one with so many people it will be necessary to have people ready to deal with anything which may happen, even though I have been told that the Chinese are anything but bellicose.” That was in a letter of July 1569. 

From now on the Spaniards began to collect information assiduously about China, from not only the Portuguese and Philippine merchants in the islands, but also from Chinese immigrants and traders (“sangleys“) in Manila and elsewhere.

At the same time Legazpi, now approaching 70, was proving himself to be a conquistador second to none. He wrote again to the king that “with God’s help we could easily, and with not too many people, subject them”. In February 1572, after some delay, Viceroy Enríquez in New Spain, who remained the supreme authority for the Philippines, gave instructions of a new kind to Juan de la Isla, earlier one of Legazpi’s captains, to carry on a little further, the discovery of China. He was to be given three good ships. King Philip in Spain, no doubt exhilarated by the news of the recent great victory of the Spaniards and their allies at Lepanto, seems to have personally approved. The instructions of Enríquez to de la Isla not only approve a journey of exploration but “the seizure of Spanish land”. 

Thus it was that the “China project” (la empresa de China) established itself in the minds of the Viceroy, the Council of the Indies in Castile and the governor of the Philippines in Manila.

In those days the ambitions of the Spanish conquistadors seemed limitless as can be seen from a letter sent home to Castile in January 1574 by Hernando Riquel, the chief notary of Manila. That official actually thought China could be conquered by fewer than 60 good Spaniards. In July of that year Guido de Lavezaris, the new governor of the Philippines (Legazpi had died), told the Council of the Indies that he certainly hoped for Spanish expansion into those lands: “I trust that there may be support for this work worthy of gods to enlarge and increase Your Majesty’s dominions, and, at the same time, to carry true knowledge of the Catholic faith to so many who are barbarous and blind…”

The prospect of a Spanish invasion of China began to preoccupy Viceroy Enríquez — that was natural since it was up to him to choose the right person to lead a Spanish expedition to the country of the Ming. In the end he named Juan Pablo de Carrión, another of Legazpi’s earlier lieutenants, and with experience in the Moluccas. Carrión was completely convinced of the benefits of conquest: “Those islands [that was China] are so well provided for and so rich and so large in comparison with the Philippines, that it would be worthwhile doing almost anything to reduce them to Spanish control.” He offered to build and fit out at his own cost two galleons and two pinnaces to undertake the conquest.  

King Philip continued to be interested in these remarkable dreams, but he was now so preoccupied by the rebellion of the Netherlands that no decision was made. Still, letters continued to flow across the Atlantic to discuss what might be done on the other side of the Pacific; and the Chinese offered for their part, to set up a small commercial enclave on the coast of Fujian comparable to what was being done for the Portuguese in Macao. This would be led by Augustinian friars backed by a small unit of Spanish soldiers headed by yet another old comrade of Legazpi, Miguel de Loarca, an Asturian who had achieved a large encomienda on Otón. For the Philippines had been divided up into encomiendas among the conquistadors like all Spanish colonies in the Americas. (An encomienda was a grant of people for whom the conquistadors would have responsibility and benefit.)

The first Spanish expedition set off for China from Manila in June 1575. Some of the soldiers in the flotilla which sailed off north believed that they were about to rival the achievements of Cortés and Pizarro. However the religious members arranged to stay in China, the soldiers returned, their appetites stimulated, to Manila. 

By then, yet another governor had taken over there. This was Dr Francisco de Sande, who was educated (he had been at Salamanca University), ambitious and persuasive. He wrote on June 6, 1576, to King Philip that he had devised a plan for the subjugation of China by four to six thousand arquebusiers and pikemen, partly from New Spain, partly from Peru. Sande made several suggestions as to how this imperial army could conquer China by a very just war. Were not the Chinese soldiery beneath contempt? Though there were many of them, they were idolatrous sodomites, given to robbery and piracy. That was the kind of comment that Spaniards had often made when contemplating a new conquest. There were certainly equivalent remarks made in New Spain (i.e. Mexico). Sande thought that the best course would be first to conquer one province and convince the population that the Spaniards were liberators. Had that not occurred in relation to Cortés’s policy towards Tlaxcala, and also the Totonaca near Veracruz? Spain would then use the Chinese collaborators to help the subjection of other provinces, rather as Spaniards had used the Mexica after 1521. 

These ideas began to take hold everywhere in the empire. Thus Diego García de Palacio, judge of the Audiencia (supreme court) of Guatemala, told the king in a letter of March 1578 that it would be as easy as it was desirable to recruit 4,000 men in Central America and embark them in galleys for China. The king should be asked to help by sending bronze with which to make guns.

The Council of the Indies was doubtful about this. The emperor of China was said to have five million men under arms with good weapons, so the conquest might not turn out to be so easy as Judge Palacios thought it would be. The king was now equally dubious “as to your idea of conquering China which it seems to you we ought to do now.” He wrote to Governor Sande: “It really seems that now is not the moment to discuss the matter.” Instead the king wanted to send presents to the emperor in Peking. These included portraits of himself by his favourite court painter Sánchez Coello.

But the cause of conquest was far from lost. The change back to a military stance was largely inspired by a strong and determined Jesuit, Alonso Sánchez, who set off for what he called the “kingdoms of China” in March 1582. When he returned to Manila he reported that it was impossible to preach the gospel in China without military backing. He talked constantly of the startling benefits which the enactment of the “China project” would yield Spain. But he thought that his predecessors in the debate had probably underestimated the numbers of combatants necessary. He, in fact, thought that 10,000 men would be needed to complete the conquest though a mere 200 would be adequate for the capture of Canton.

Fr Sánchez found himself talking in Manila to a receptive audience. The Bishop of Manila was at that time Domingo de Salazar, a Dominican of many qualities. He was thought of as a kind of Philippine Las Casas. Previously he had been in New Spain and had learned enough Nahuatl to be able to preach well in it. He rarely agreed with the governor, who was now Diego Ronquillo, but on this occasion they both accepted that 8,000 men and 12 galleons would be enough to defeat China and take over its empire as Cortés had taken over the Mexica’s empire and Pizarro the Inca.

In the spring of 1583 a meeting was held in Manila of a junta especially appointed by Governor Ronquillo to discuss “the China Project”.

There was some dispute as to the legitimate right of the King of Spain to embark on a conquest of this nature. Bishop Salazar began what he called a juridical-theological process leading to a plan for a conquest which he sent to the Pope. He insisted that any such conflict would have to be called “a just war”. The governor wrote that in his view conquering China would present little difficulty. He urged that 8,000 soldiers should be found.

It is fair to notice that many Spanish colonists were becoming unhappy at the way that dreams of conflict seemed to be sweeping the archipelago. The Portuguese, newly annexed to the Spaniards after the death of their last independent monarch, thought that war would damage their commerce and Portuguese Jesuits, with their much longer experience of the East, tried to distance themselves from their Spanish colleagues. 

Yet in the spring of 1586 the strongest support was given by the religious community in the Philippines to the idea of conquest. The juntas generales of all the religious brotherhoods in the archipelago were called together by the president of the Audiencia. These holy men argued that China could easily be prised open to the Spanish benefit by an army of 10,000 to 12,000 men led by the governor of the Philippines. This army could be raised anywhere in the realms of the king but the religious leaders thought that Basques were to be preferred. Six thousand Japanese could be easily found and 500 African slaves would be helpful. Careful attention should be paid to the arms needed. Money would have to be available to suborn certain mandarins.

The resolutions of this remarkable meeting concluded with an indication of the large number of new encomiendas which would be set up in China, not to speak of a new generation of judges, dukes, marquises and viceroys who would have to be named. New universities, monasteries and military forts would be founded.

 From the beginning, mestizaje with the Chinese would be encouraged for Chinese women were known to be “serious, honest, retiring and faithful and honourable subjects of their husband and usually of great grace, beauty and discretion”. The conquest of China, the provincials of the orders thought, would surely be followed by that of India, Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam and the Moluccas, Borneo and Sumatra.

Very soon volunteer soldiers began to arrive in Manila from New Spain and even Cuba, while a Japanese captain offered 6,000 men for service either in China or Borneo. The Cubans were led by Francisco de Luján. Perhaps if things had gone well, he would have become Marquis of the Yellow River.

Alonso Sánchez was named procurador of the orders in the Philippines and he returned to Spain to give King Philip an appraisal of the possibilities.

Philip saw Alonso Sánchez three times. As was customary on such occasions, he appointed a committee to study the recommendations which had come from Manila. The committee was well staffed by distinguished men. In the course of their deliberations Alonso Sánchez, who had a sense of proportion, saw that the news of the defeat of the Invincible Armada in August 1588 necessitated a delay before the king could turn his mind to another great maritime expedition.

Then Claudio Acquaviva, the general of the Jesuits, begged Sánchez to go to Rome to talk things through with the Pope. He did so, though he found himself seeing five pontiffs because Sixtus V, Urban VII, Gregory XIV, Innocent IX and Clement VIII succeeded one another with rapidity.

The idea of a military expedition to conquer China was never explicitly abandoned. But nothing was done. Like the great civil servant that he was, King Philip thought that procrastination and silence provided the right reaction to the ideas of the Philippine governors and their religious allies. Senior civil servants should not reply to letters if they do not know what to say.

Thus the great opportunity was lost. The age of Spanish expansion was almost at an end. Christianity did not, alas, become the dominant religion of China as it had become in New Spain.

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