A Brazilian account of Hong Kong from 1879

The route of the Vital de Oliveira on Brazil's first circumnavigation of the globe The route of the Vital de Oliveira on Brazil's first circumnavigation of the globe

The first diplomatic mission from Brazil to China took place from 1879-1882; it also included Brazil’s first circumnavigation of the globe (sailing east in this case). An account—Primeira circum-navegação brasileira e primeira missão do Brasil à China (1879) by Marli Cristina Scomazzon and Jeff Franco—has recently been published. This excerpt about the delegation’s stop-over in Hong Kong and Macau has been translated from the original Portuguese and is published with permission.



Primeira circum-navegação brasileira e primeira missão do Brasil à China, Marli Cristina Scomazzon Jeff Franco (Dois Por Quatro, February 2022)
Primeira circum-navegação brasileira e primeira missão do Brasil à China, Marli Cristina Scomazzon, Jeff Franco (Dois Por Quatro, February 2022)

The corvette’s arrival in Hong Kong became a party. It was the afternoon of 28 May; and, for a long time, the crew did nothing more than answer the salutes of a large number of warships from various parts of the world that were in port. Some even counted the number of shots from the Vital de Oliveira: “there were 11 salutes.”

As soon as they anchored, they received on board Agostinho Guilherme Romano, Brazil’s consul in Hong Kong, who accompanied them that night to land for a visit to the city’s Portuguese association, the Club Luzitano . The crossing from Singapore had taken eight days, “with favorable winds and a propitious sea”. Commander Noronha noted that from Aden there had been lightning every night, but that was all. “At 3:17 in the afternoon of May 28, we anchored in Victoria Bay with eight fathoms of water, muddy bottom … The English corvette Cosmus and the hulk Victor Emmanuel were anchored in the harbor; the German frigate Prince Adalbert and the Italian corvette Victor Pizzani, under the command of the Duke of Genoa.” Fifty miles from the entrance to the harbour, the corvette received, at Ladrona Grande [1]Dawanshan Island? ed., a junk that helped her in piloting.

Victoria Harbour, although sheltered, had suffered enormous damage from a typhoon in September 1874, which had also devastated Canton and Macau. “In Hong Kong there are naval resources of all sorts, and England has made a small armory where she repairs her ships. The climate is so hot and humid that the hygrometer is always kept at the maximum limit of its range; the rains are frequent and the mountain tops are usually veiled in fog. The SW monsoon, whose regularity is so well-known, blew for three days, giving way to Northeast, which was the dominant wind direction during the 19 days we were in Victoria Harbour. The number of junks and steamers, both in the harbour and on the canals and coast, is remarkable.”

The city of Hong Kong, on a mountainous island, had been “ceded” by China in 1842 to England, and had become a flourishing place, with its free port. Disembarking at Victoria Harbour “is easy, the quay is all stone and the streets are lively and busy. Beautiful stretches of tree-lined road with a gentle slope encircle the mountain on which a large part of the city is built, making it easy, comfortable and pleasant to ascend, usually by chair for a modest price.”

Water Jets

The correspondent of O Apóstolo wrote that the corvette was surrounded by little boats of Chinese merchants offering objects and trinkets of all kinds. “It is difficult to restrain, on one hand, the natural desire to acquire so many curious things; and on the other, the ardor of the sellers. If we let them operate freely, they would approach the ship in a mob; to repel them we are forced to resort to this weapon already known in this arena, the fire hose.”

The Brazilians’ first impression was one of enchantment at a world completely different from anything they had ever known. “We are seeing pass before our eyes, as in a dream, all that we have been accustomed to see since childhood in fantastical books or wonderful tales: and now it is the heavy junk, with its stern in the air, its three masts sloping differently, its sails of mats unfurling from top to edge, and its numerous garrison, sitting indolently or looking with curiosity at the colors of the new flag that appears on its waters; … and, completing the panorama, a natural vista worth of admiration, laughing like ours, gilded with a thousand reflections, and adorned with beautiful buildings that seem to climb up Victoria Peak, lost among thick verdure, and indolently watching themselves in the green mirror of the waters of harbour waters. What a panorama! How well the sacrifices of the long and arduous trip are repaid by the spectacle that can be seen here, and the intimate satisfaction of knowing we are almost at the antipodes of our beautiful Brazil.”.


All the staff of the diplomatic mission disembarked in Hong Kong. Ambassador Eduardo Callado and his family, accompanied by Secretary Henrique Lisboa, left immediately for Shanghai. The division chief, Silveira da Motta, stayed on the corvette until she left port on 17 June 1880.

From Hong Kong, officers of the Vital de Oliveira visited Macau and Guangzhou. In Macau, they went to see the hospital of the Chinese colony, which caught their attention because “the rooms for the sick were dark and without ventilation; the beds of stone, having a wooden cylinder as a pillow, a tile drain, which serves as a urinal, beside the bed. Some of the patients have only a woolen cloth as a cover. The doctors do no physical examination; they listen to the patients’ statements, look at them and prescribe them panaceas. Then they visited the cave where Luís de Camões, exiled in Macau, would retire to write his epic Os Lusíadas. “Today the cave is completely transfigured, since it belongs to a wealthy Portuguese citizen, Mr Lourenço Marques.”

Henrique Lisboa, secretary of the diplomatic mission, recalls that on “my arrival at the poetic grotto, where tradition has it that Camões completed the exquisite work (Os Lusíadas) that immortalized his name; this grotto is located within a private property, whose owner is happy to provide access to the picturesque site, where, in the shade of lush vegetation, the Lusitanian bard sang the glories of his ungrateful homeland. In a cavity between two rocks is a bust of the author of The Lusiads, surrounded by inscriptions from visitors paying homage to a glory now universally recognized. It gives on to a splendid view of Macau and its placid bay, and it is understandable that such a pleasant refuge would give rise to such sublime inspiration.” For Elysio Mendes, on the other hand, the grotto “was built with detestable arches, which deprive it of all its wild poetry and primitive charm. Elysio, Callado, Saldanha da Gama, Motta, and Vissière wrote poems and tributes to Camões that are still in the event’s memory book.


A charming description of Hong Kong is given by Henrique Lisboa. “Hong Kong or Victoria is situated north of the island of Hiang-Kiang [sic], ceded in 1842 to England, as a result of the war which, in the name of civilization, that nation waged on China to impose on it the use of opium. Only a small village of two thousand fishermen or pirates then existed on the site where the city now stands. Today the population of Hong Kong exceeds 150,000 … One objective that especially pre-occupied the first governors of Hong Kong was the extinction of the pirates that infested these parts. An English naval division was permanently employed in this project of merciless extermination, in which no quarter was given even to women and children. In the year 1855, in two expeditions of this sort alone, 84 junks were destroyed and four thousand pirates perished. However barbaric such a procedure may be, it is the reason for the near extinction of piracy. Only one or two cases of mad audacity have occurred in the last 20 years, and this has been due to the relaxation of the precautionary measures generally adopted. Even today, merchant ships, whether steamers or sailing ships, still sail these seas, armed on a war footing. In the coastal liners, there is a special compartment, closed by strong iron bars, in which the Chinese passengers are locked up and their movements watched by sentries with drawn swords and guns … The main opium warehouse was established there, and this baneful merchandise, which was then only imported by smuggling, became more and more in demand from year to year. In 1858, the annual importation of opium from China rose to 75,000 boxes, from 10,000 to 15,000 which it is estimated were previously introduced by smuggling.”


A few days before arriving in the port of Hong Kong, there had been two serious cases of heatstroke. The most critical was with second lieutenant Henrique de Pinto Bastos. To make matters worse, the climate in Hong Kong was excessively hot […] and Galdino tells that “the heat during the day is horrible, the air you breathe is stifling, leaving the body prostrate the organism. However, at dusk the weather becomes humid, considerably cooling the air.”

The doctor was also surprised by the dress and habits of the Chinese and came to respect them. “Their garments are invariably the same: whether they wear the colored silks or the white robes, they are always loose and appropriate to the climate. The queue is without question, every Chinese man is obliged to wear it; only when condemned are they obliged to cut it off, an exceedingly harsh penalty among them. The women also wear wide pants and a long dressing gown that goes down to the bend of their knees. Their hairstyles are diverse and some are quite strange. Some walk barefoot or in sandals; others have had their feet bound since childhood, deforming them in such a way that they can hardly walk … Their living quarters are clean, as are the interiors of their places of business. They take daily baths in the morning, always keeping their clothes clean.

“It is a mistake to proclaim that the Chinese are an indolent people, we observed the opposite; we saw them active everywhere; it was rare to see them begging … The Chinese are very intelligent, duplicating with perfection any work that they see done … The patience they exhibit in resolving any difficulty is unmatched. They are very sparing in their meals: rice is the basis of their diet, with the addition of pork (which they are very fond of), cat, dog, etc.; spicy sauces and plenty of vegetables … Good body hygiene is commonplace, but their cities are poorly built and filthy … There has been great confusion in judging the Chinese people by observations made in some parts of their coastline. There is great difference between the Chinese from the north or south of the empire. The former are vigorous, work-loving, intelligent and good-natured. The latter are generally weak, not given to work, weakened by the abuse of opium. Emigration, of which we have such a bad memory, was of addicted individuals, mostly beggars. They were men who, seduced by the few coins they were given in advance, cared little about what their end would be … Instead of workers, we imported beggars and pirates. But the colonization of coolies from the north should be of great use to our farming.”


The Brazilian delegation decided to take advantage of their time off and visit Macau. The city occupied by the Portuguese since 1563, for taxes, was very important because of its trade, exporting to all the West the industrial specialties of China. But it began to decline after the British took over Hong Kong.

The inhabitants of Macau “constitute a curious type worthy of study, emigrating in their entirety to earn a living under the protection of the English colony. What sustains that colony today … is the tax on gambling houses.” At the time of Vital de Oliveira’s passing, Macau had a population of 25,000 Chinese and 5,000 Portuguese. According to the doctor, the city “is divided into a Chinese and European neighborhoods. The European part contains good public and private buildings …, also worth visiting are the Chinese temples, public gardens and the farm where there is the famous grotto of Camões (exiled in Macau where he wrote Os Lusíadas). Getting about, as in Hong Kong, is done in small chairs carried by two coolies. The streets are generally narrow, with many slopes.”

In Macau, they were received by the Brazilian consul, the baron of Cercal, Alexandrino António de Melo. Also the Portuguese governor, Joaquim José da Graça, hosted the Brazilian delegation and even gave them a well-attended dinner. “That day, Macau was dressed in finery. The governor’s palace was illuminated at night. The next day, the Portuguese warships hoisted the Brazilian flag on the big mast and the infantry guarded the place where the ministers embarked.”

Motta recalls that they went on a pilgrimage to the legendary cave of Camões. “Camões! Macau! Here are two words that sum up by themselves the prestige of the Portuguese empire in the Orient surviving its annihilation through the centuries!”

The crew also visited Canton, “the Chinese city par excellence, with its varied industries, its labyrinth of narrow streets lined with beautiful stores and riddled with signs of a thousand colors, with its floating district and the incessant buzz of a population of two or three million inhabitants.”


The 19-day long stay in Hong Kong allowed the repair of various malfunctions that the ship had in its hull, rudder, and other places. The ship also needed repairs to the engine. In the meantime, on 6 June, the corvette participated enthusiastically in a tribute: a 21-minute gun salute at 8 am to mark the death of the Emperor of Russia, “which occurred on Saturday night. The salute took place at the Shore Battery and besides the Brazilian corvette Vital de Oliveira, the German frigates Luise and Prinz Albert and the Russian frigate Asia also participated. In the port, several consuls and high government officials.”

The stop in Hong Kong also yielded a slight diplomatic incident. The fact was not mentioned by any of the Brazilians who wrote about the trip and the diplomatic mission, but it was strongly emphasized in the report by journalist Elysio Mendes, Portuguese owner of the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Gazeta de Notícias. “In all the English possessions, through which the ship passed, the governors always favoured the mission.”

However, “the governor of Hong Kong did not send his compliments and the rear admiral Mr. Silveira da Motta understood that he should not visit him either,” reports Elysio, who met with the Brazilians in this port and continued on into China, together with the diplomatic mission.

In the sequence, the journalist registers his interpretation of the fact. “It is well known that the English government is most opposed to the aims of the embassy [the Brazilian diplomatic mission to China], and that as long as it can, by pressure of any kind whatsoever, and even by intrigues and the means of its selfish policy, upset its calculations, it will do so obstinately. What it did regarding the slave trade, it wants to do regarding the Chinese emigration. Philanthropy? Sympathy? Love of humanity? Dedication to the great principles of freedom? Disinterested protection of the inferior races? It seems that all virtues have come together in England to exercise the noblest of missions, and to, like the missionaries of the faith, strip off their robes to cover the nakedness of other peoples? Yet the truth, it is sad to say, is hidden in the thin layer of their immeasurable selfishness. The truth is that Chinese emigration takes place in the ports of the British possessions, by means that, if they save face, do not deceive their authorities, who are closing their eyes, nor the perspicacity of those who follow these businesses closely. Singapore and Penang are possessions enriched by the Chinese. Steamers loaded with them leave for Demerara, all of them with paid tickets, but who then have to pay for their work. What is not convenient is emigration to countries that can compete with their colonial products. If the love of humanity were the sentiment which animates her not to consent to Chinese emigration through her ports or those of the empire to other countries, would she not better exercise her brilliant role by ceasing to poison with opium those she protects with the loyalty with which Judas kissed Christ? … She, who fought with frenzy and honor for modern civilization against the slave trade, fed, defended and imposed with the force of her weapons the opium traffic, introducing it in the empire by smuggling, exactly the way the slavers introduced the slaves in Brazil.”

Camões Tercentenary

In Hong Kong the ambassadors, entourage, commander and officers were invited by the Portuguese community to attend the party in memory of the tricentennial of the death of Luís de Camões, the immortal Portuguese poet, on 10 June 10 1880. The party, a literary and musical soiree, followed by supper and dancing, was all brightened by the Vital de Oliveira‘s band.

In the main hall of the Club Lusitano, a bust of the poet was displayed and underneath it the Portuguese and Brazilian flags were intertwined. The governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Pope Hennessy, was at the party with his staff. The ceremony began with the entrance of “about 12 girls carrying bouquets of flowers placed around the pedestal of the bust of Camões. The party went on until 4 o’clock in the morning, with an hour’s break after midnight for supper.” Silveira da Motta recalls that “these antipodean cousins of ours gave us a gracious reception, of which I have the most pleasant memories, especially for Counselor AG Romano, the Brazilian Consul there for many years.”

Interrupted trip

In Hong Kong it was decided that the Vital de Oliveira would not continue with the China mission. The ship was to return without delay to Brazil, “by the shortest route”, and all military personnel attached to the diplomatic mission were also to return, with the exception of the frigate captain, Saldanha da Gama, Silveira da Motta’s secretary.


On leaving Hong Kong harbour on 17 June 1880, the corvette was escorted to the east bar by Division Chief Silveira da Motta in a steam boat.  The day before, Motta had written two letters to Commander Noronha. In one, he stated the corvette’s route, which was to make “a call at Yokohama, San Francisco and Valparaíso, from where it will cross the Strait of Magellan to reach the South Atlantic Ocean. After weighing all the considerations of seasons, winds and monsoons, as we have done together, this is the shortest defeat, at least the safest, and the one that offers the double advantage of always being accompanied by favorable winds in the China and Japan Seas, and a good season in the North and South Pacific, while allowing reaching the Strait of Magellan at the most favorable time to cross it.

Marli Cristina Scomazzon and Jeff Franco are authors of Primeira circum-navegação brasileira e primeira missão do Brasil à China (1879) as well as A Caminho do Ouro: norte-americanos na Ilha de Santa Catarina (2015) and História Natural da Ilha de Santa Catarina: o códice de Noronha (2017).

Notes   [ + ]

1. Dawanshan Island? ed.