Weapons of Yesteryear

canhoesWeapons of Yesteryear

Portuguese cannon foundries in Macao. (October 2011)

The name Krupp is one that must be familiar to a great many people. The German weapons manufacturer has supplied equipment to armies around the world for over 400 years.

The Krupp family first appear in historical documents in 1587, when Arndt Krupp joined the merchants’ guild of Essen. Arndt, a trader, arrived in the city just before a major plague epidemic took hold. He survived to become one of the city’s wealthiest merchants, buying up properties from families who had fled the city to escape from the disease. After he died in 1624, his son Anton took over the family’s affairs. Anton became responsible for the manufacturing of cannons during the 30 Years’ War (1618–1648). This marked the start of the family’s long association with the arms industry, lasting right up to the present day.

But most people probably don’t know that the making of cannons (at least modern cannons) was not invented by the German Krupps. Far from it. The manufacture of bronze and iron cannons for use on land and sea had been developed by the Portuguese decades beforehand.

This was the technology that enabled Portugal to bring half the world into submission. Thanks to the efforts of Afonso de Albuquerque, they were able to ensure Portuguese supremacy on the trade routes to India. Albuquerque used bronze and iron cannons (especially the latter) to his advantage, to dominate the Persian Gulf. The result was a cutting of trade links between the Italian republics, Persia and the Arab countries.

He was likewise able to conquer Malacca and its strait, which allowed Portugal to control trade between Europe and the Far East for more than two centuries.

But who was responsible for making the cannon that enabled an empire to rise from nothing? Until that point Portugal had been merely a small country at the far western fringe of Europe. How could it achieve this manufacturing feat?

The answer lies in Macao. Here, a master engineer from Portugal named Manuel Tavares Bocarro set up a cannon foundry.

The Krupp family business continues today. But Bocarro’s only lasted for two or three generations. His name was lost as different business lines took over, and is only kept alive in the annals of history.

Lime, bronze and iron

Tourists who visit Macao today are taken to the St Paul’s Ruins, the Kum Iam Tung Temple and the Barra Pagoda, among many other sites. Only rarely do they venture into a small and much-changed neighbourhood nestled in the shadow of the Portuguese consul general’s residence. It lies just over 200 metres from the Praia Grande Palace, which now houses the government seat of the Macao Special Administrative Region.

Practically nothing remains of the old properties in this neighbourhood. A small 19th century two-storey building stands awkwardly beside tall, modern edifices that reach towards the sky. Few passers-by have any historical awareness of the ground they are treading on.

The neighbourhood is known locally as Chunambeiro. According to historian Charles R. Boxer in ‘Macao Three Hundred Years Ago’, the word is derived from an Indian term for the lime obtained from seashells. Indeed, oyster-shell lime kilns once stood here. It also became the site of the old artillery foundry and powder magazine run by the famous Manuel Tavares Bocarro in the 17th century.

The two-storey Ricci building that nowadays houses the “ Estrela do Mar” school has a long past. It once served as the initial base of the great English trading company Jardines & Matheson – opium traders and tea merchants. But the foundations of this yellow-painted building have borne much more history than that. This was, in fact, the location of the foundry that cast the bronze and iron cannon made by master Tavares Bocarro.

Unsung hero

A search through historical records reveals scant details of Bocarro’s life.

In 1625 Manuel Tavares Bocarro arrived in Macao. He had travelled from Goa, where he had learned his craft from his father – namely managing the family foundry. At that point the foundry was situated in Chunambeiro, next to the Bom Parto Fortress and at the foot of Penha Hill.

The foundry went on to become famous for its metallurgical techniques, where Eastern and Western expertise converged. Over the years,it produced countless cannon, bells and statues. Although we know about the cannon and bells, not a single statue is known to have survived the passage of time.

Charles R. Boxer stated that “in 1623 Dom Francisco Mascarenhas, first captain general of Macao, signed a contract with two ‘Chinas’ to cast cannon at the colony’s foundry”. He added that “the main source of supply for the Portuguese forts and fleets in India continued to be Macao. Here a Sino-Portuguese foundry was ably run by Manuel Tavares Bocarro, son of Pedro Tavares Bocarro, head of the Goa casters. They manufactured both iron and bronze cannon”.

The chronicler António Bocarro wrote the following about Macao in 1635: “This place has one of the world’s best cannon foundries, whether of bronze, which has been here a long time, or of iron, which was done by order of the Viceroy Count of Linares. It’s where artillery for the whole State (of India) is continually cast, at a very reasonable price.”

Construction of the Chunambeiro landfill is dated at 1871. In 1873 work began on extending Praia Grande Street from the Chunambeiro landfill to Bom Parto. Before then, the Barra residents had crossed Santa Sancha Hill to get to Praia Grande, one of the city’s most isolated areas, containing only a few country houses.

Arrival in Macao

Manuel Bocarro arrived in Macao in mid-1625. He worked until the end of that year as an assistant at the Caza da Fundição (Foundry House). In 1626 the foundry was freed from management by ‘two Castilians’. This meant that Manuel Bocarro was able to dedicate himself entirely to producing iron and bronze cannon. The first cannon he cast was a 36-calibre that was active for centuries on the Monte Fortress. It is known in history texts as the ‘Mandarin Artillery Piece’.

In 1627 Manuel Bocarro cast several large cannon that could shoot stone projectiles weighing 50 lb each. All the cannon were dedicated to saints: St Alphonse, St Ursula, St Peter Martyr, St Gabriel, St James, Pope St Linus and St Paul, among others. For many years they defended Macao from their fortress positions. During the Pacific War (1937–45) they were all removed, and sold to the Japanese in exchange for rice. The St Lawrence and St Ildephonsus cannon are exhibited at the Tower of London, while those dedicated to St Anthony and St Michael belong to the Woolwich Museum.

In the Jakarta Museum’s inventory, the following artillery piece is described as item no. 27012: “Cannon; once the ‘holy cannon’ of Jakarta,origin: probably cast by the Portuguese, captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese at Malacca (1641).”

The ‘Holy Cannon’ is traditionally deemed to be of Portuguese origin and has been carefully studied by M. Neyens and K.C. Crucq. The latter wrote: “Finally, I’d like to say something of vital interest regarding the Holy Cannon of Batavia. Lisbon’s military museum has a cannon presumably cast by Manuel Tavares Bocarro which was shot with the same shape as our Holy Cannon, which again confirms the Portuguese origin of the Batavia cannon. It is now most probable that this cannon was cast by Manuel Tavares Bocarro. In this regard, Bocarro used a special soldering technique that allowed him to add grips to move the pieces, as well as fittings such as the dolphin handles that even today distinctively mark his artillery pieces.”

Manuel Tavares Bocarro’s life may be an interesting subject for historians, but what he produced in iron and bronze can still be seen in various museums around the world.

Buried in history

Unfortunately, little remains of Bocarro’s life and work in Macao – the territory Bocarro operated from. Historians have only identified a small cracked bell at St Michael’s Chapel next to the Guia lighthouse. It serves as a reminder of the golden days of Bocarro’s foundry, though even this is seldom mentioned in local guidebooks.

Legend has it that nearly three centuries after Bocarro’s death, Marshal Wellington used a number of his cannon. They proved very effective in many clashes and battles during the Peninsular War (1807–14), which resulted from the French invasions of Spain and Portugal.

The discovery of the Portuguese galleon Sacramento is a notable find. It sank in 1647 while transporting a cargo of Bocarro cannon from Goa to Lisbon. In 1978 divers were able to recover these bronze cannon, which were still in good condition. They had been cast in Macao in 1640, the very same year that Portugal recovered its independence from Spain. According to Charles Boxer, it was the first large cargo of cannon transported from Macao through the Dutch blockade.

The furnaces of Manuel Tavares Bocarro’s foundry are now forever lost under the foundations of buildings that began encroaching on the slopes of Penha Hill in the 1980s. Even the Jardines & Matheson building now overlooks a reclamation area that did not exist when the great 17th century cannon and bell maker worked in the area.

The discovery of the furnaces where Bocarro’s cannons, bells and statues were cast is an impossible task. Yet it is still worthwhile to seek out that small broken bell, still preserved at the Guia Fortress, just a few short metres from the lighthouse.


By João Guedes in Macao

(Issue N. 9, October 2011


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