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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.




On April 20, 1586, in the recently established Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines, representatives of the church, military, crown, and citizenry met to discuss the conquest of China. There was no dissention in the matter. Everyone present agreed it ought to be done. What needed to be discussed instead was how. And it was, in particular and remarkable detail. The gathering mapped out how many men and ships and muskets and cannons were needed; where cannon balls and bullets could be purchased most cheaply; how much money was required; what gifts ought to be taken; and dozens of other matters to ensure the plan’s ultimate success. It would be, the assembly concluded in a memorandum to King Philip II in Madrid, “all that the human mind can desire or comprehend of riches and eternal fame ….”[1]

The idea of conquering China was not new to the Spanish. It had begun to take shape in Mexico, or New Spain as it was called, nearly six decades before, when the Orient was still only vaguely understood as lying somewhere on the far side of Balboa’s recently discovered “Southern Sea.” In 1526 the conqueror of New Spain, Hernan Cortes, wrote to Emperor Charles V requesting permission to lead an expedition across the Pacific “to discover a route to the Spice Islands and many others, if there be any between Maluco, Malaca and China, and so arrange matters that the spices shall no longer be obtained by trade, as the king of Portugal has them now, but as Your Majesty’s rightful property; and the natives of those islands shall serve and recognize Your Highness as their rightful king and lord.”[2] Cortes did not specifically mention the conquest of China, but it was likely somewhere in the back of his mind, the final step in the spread of the Spanish Empire in Asia. Just as the conquest of the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola had preceded the conquest of the American mainland, so would the seizure of the islands of Asia provide a base for a move against the Asian mainland itself.

It took the Spanish three decades to master the 9,000-mile ocean crossing from New Spain and establish a foothold in Asia. The pioneering expedition, five ships and 500 men led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, sailed west across the Pacific in 1564. Possession of the coveted Spice Islands had long since fallen to Portugal, and so Legazpi made for the Philippine Islands, where there was no conflicting Portuguese presence. Legazpi made his first settlement on the island of Cebu at the heart of the archipelago, then moved to Manila in 1570, which was regarded as a more favorable site. These early years were hard for the Spanish. With the Philippine natives engaged only in subsistence agriculture, food was difficult to obtain. The Portuguese additionally became a menace, attacking the settlement at Cebu in 1568, then returning in 1570 to demolish the fortifications. And then there were the Chinese pirates, a veritable army of them aboard a fleet of seventy warships. They attacked the struggling Manila colony in 1574, burned much of the town and took many lives.

Despite these difficulties, the Spanish had not been in the Philippines for five years when individuals began urging a move against China. One of the first was the Augustinian friar Martin de Rada, in a letter to the viceroy of New Spain in 1569. The Philippine colony was fairing poorly, de Rada wrote, so poorly that people were dying of hunger. But the effort was worthwhile, for “If his Majesty wishes to get hold of China, which we know to be a land that is very large and rich and of high civilization, with cities, forts, and walls much greater than those of Europa, he must first have a settlement in these islands….” The enterprise, though outwardly daunting, stood in de Rada’s opinion a great chance of success, for “the people of China are not at all warlike. They rely entirely on numbers and on the fortification of their walls. It would decapitate them, if any of their forts were taken. Consequently, I believe (God helping), that they can be subdued and with few forces.”[3]

Four years later the ship’s captain Diego de Artieda took up the cause in a report sent directly to the Spanish monarch King Philip II in Madrid. He repeated de Rada’s assertions of the Chinese being an easy target for conquest, and offered to lead a preliminary expedition to explore the coast and ascertain “how both trade and conquest must be carried on there.” All he needed was two ships of 250 tons each, and a total of just 80 well-armed men. As for the Philippines, which were yielding little in the way of riches, Captain de Artieda advised that they be abandoned, “for it grieves me to see so much money wasted on a land which can be of no profit whatever.”[4]

In these two men, de Rada and de Artieda, we see the two motivating forces behind the call for the conquest of China: religion and riches. For de Rada and other religious men who would take up the cause, armed conquest was seen as the only way to convert the Chinese and thereby save their souls, for the authorities there would not allow missionaries to enter. The only Christian presence permitted in the country was the Jesuit mission at Portuguese Macao, and even here proselytizing was limited to the port itself, for the Portuguese did not wish to anger the Chinese and put their lucrative commerce at risk. The Jesuits generally accepted this and remained circumspect in their work. For them penetrating China became an undertaking of decades: decades to learn the language and customs, to make powerful friends and cultivate influence, to instill a curiosity of western science and thought that in time could be turned into acceptance of Christianity itself. Augustinians like de Rada did not agree with this slow, almost glacial approach. Nor did the Dominicans. To them China was too promising a mission field to be allowed to lay fallow. With its high level of civilization, they argued, Christianity was certain to be well received, and the spread of the faith sure to be rapid. If the authorities there were determined to resist, then clearly they had to be overthrown, for they were standing in the way of one of the greatest conversions in the history of the church.[5] As pressure built from these quarters for the conquest of China, the Jesuits at Macao became apprehensive that the Spanish would seize the country and its mission field and leave them with nothing, and so some joined the bandwagon and began urging conquest themselves.[6]

As a sixteenth century Christian, Captain de Artieda likely shared de Rada’s concern for the souls of the Chinese. As an inheritor of Spain’s New World conquistador tradition, Chinese wealth also would have been very much on his mind. It was a wealth the likes of which the Spanish had never encountered before. To begin with, the land was so immense that it tended to boggle the mind. One report enthused that just “one of its hundred divisions … is as big as half the world itself.”[7] It was good, fertile land as well, not swamp or jungle or desert, enough to carve up into thousands of prosperous encomiendas that would enrich their owners and in turn the treasury of Spain. And the people there seemed to lack for nothing. They were not interested in the substantial goods the Spanish had to offer, let alone the cheap baubles the Indians of the New World had once traded for gold. As the concerned viceroy of New Spain reported to Philip II in 1573, the Chinese produced or had commerce in every imaginable European, New World, and Asian export, from silk and sugar to cotton and wax. “[T]o make a long matter short, the commerce with that land must be carried on with silver, which they value above all other things….”[8]

To encapsulate, then, the thinking of men like Diego de Artieda: Why should the Spanish content themselves with scratching out a meager existence in the Philippines when a far greater prize lay just a few days’ sail to the northwest, seemingly unconquerable but in fact easy prey?

The entreaties of de Rada, de Artieda and others for the conquest of China did not receive the approval of King Philip II. Enthusiasm in Manila for the project, meanwhile, continued to build. It was in 1576, when Philippine governor Fransisco de Sande took up the cause, that the pressure to launch an expedition ratcheted into high gear and led to the creation of an elaborate and more realistic—albeit still fantastic—plan. In a dispatch to Madrid dated June 7, de Sande estimated that four to six thousand well-armed Spaniards would be needed to accomplish the task, plus some Japanese and Chinese pirates who would join the enterprise, presumably lured by the prospect of booty. They would sail to the southern Chinese coast, only a two-day journey from northern Luzon, aboard a fleet of galleys built locally using the trees that grew so plentifully on the island. Once there, a force of two or three thousand men would storm ashore and seize one Chinese province. “This will be very easy,” de Sande assured the king, for the people “generally have no weapons, nor do they use any. A corsair with two hundred men could rob a large town of thirty thousand inhabitants. They are very poor marksmen, and their arquebuses are worthless.” After that, all the other provinces would fall to the invaders, for the Chinese were a downtrodden people and would take the opportunity of the Spanish conquest to revolt against the Ming. “[F]inally,” de Sande concluded, “the kind treatment, the evidences of power, and the religion which we shall show to them will hold them firmly to us.”[9]

In a separate letter to King Philip, de Sande, perhaps sensing parsimony in the royal court, pointed out that the planned conquest would cost Madrid very little, “as the Spanish people would go without pay, and armed at their own cost…. The only cost will be for the agents, officers for construction and command of galleys, artillerymen, smiths, and engineers, and the ammunition and artillery. Food can be supplied to them here, and the troops are energetic, healthy, and young. This is the empire and the greatest glory which remains for the king of the world, the interest which surpasses all others, and the greatest service to God.”[10]

Governor de Sande, like de Rada and de Artieda before him, did not receive approval from Madrid to go ahead with his plan. What was holding Philip II and his government back, after Spain had profited so handsomely earlier in the century from its conquests in the New World?

To begin with, there was mistrust in Madrid of colonial functionaries on the far side of the globe. This was prudent for the simple reason of distance: it took up to two years for communications to reach Spain from Manila, and an additional two years for a reply to make its way back. This tremendous time delay meant that Philip had no current information on affairs in Asia, and no way to manage the course of events. Giving any sort of approval, limited or otherwise, to the China adventure thus would have been like unleashing a landslide: once begun it could not be stopped or controlled. It was therefore too risky. Considering the distances involved, it made sense to keep men like de Sande on a very short leash.

A second practical reason advising King Philip against the China plan was money. He did not have enough of it. He in fact spent much of his reign on the verge of bankruptcy, and tumbled wholly into it on three separate occasions. At various times entire shiploads of New World treasure never even made it to Spain, but were diverted directly to creditors elsewhere in Europe. By the time of Philip’s death in 1598, interest payments alone on the spiraling national debt consumed 40 percent of his government’s income.[11] Francisco de Sande addressed this problem in his proposal by stressing that the conquest of China would cost the crown very little. But what if the endeavor proved more difficult than anticipated and reinforcements had to be sent? And even if conquest could be achieved with ease, what of the decade or more of financial drain that would be required to integrate the country into the empire as a wealth-producing colony of Spain?[12] As with the matter of distance, there was too much risk here, the risk of taking on more than the treasury could bear.

Finally, and most importantly, the principle of conquering China would not have appealed to King Philip. “I have no reason to be driven by ambition to acquire more kingdoms or states,” he wrote in 1586, “…because Our Lord in his goodness has given me so much of all these things that I am content.”[13] Philip undoubtedly was sincere when he made this and similar statements. His main concern was not conquest, but rather defending and maintaining the empire that had been left to him by his father, the Emperor Charles V. It was a concern shared by the graying heads that governed the empire from Madrid. Their approach to defense was definitely aggressive, and sometimes appeared to the enemies of Spain to be wholly offensive and not defensive at all. Fundamentally, however, it was defensive. Spain did not have the manpower or wherewithal to garrison large numbers of troops in all of its far-flung provinces and ports, idly on guard against possible attack. To ensure the safety of the realm, it was sometimes prudent to strike enemies and rivals first, before they had a chance to attack or otherwise cause trouble.[14] Virtually all the conflicts that embroiled Spain throughout the 1560s, ‘70s and ‘80s can be seen in this light, either as defensive or preemptive—at least as perceived by King Philip.[15] The proposed conquest of China, on the other hand, was neither of these. China did not threaten the Spanish empire or Spanish interests. Philip therefore saw no reason to attack it. To do so would have upset the status quo, the fragile world balance that he sought to maintain.

This concern on the part of Philip and his government with preserving the status quo, particularly in Asia, became even more pronounced following Spain’s annexation of Portugal in 1580. After securing the throne in Lisbon, Philip sought to calm Portuguese fears, win their loyalty, and thus bind them to him. He did so by being moderate and generous, and by promising, among other things, to maintain the Portuguese empire and keep it separate from the Spanish.[16] Authorizing a move against China would have abrogated that promise. It would put Portuguese Macao at risk, disrupt that colony’s lucrative trade with Japan, and challenge Portugal’s long-established interests in Asia. And that would alienate the Portuguese and drive them further from him. For King Philip, even the vastness of China would not have been worth it. Securing his hold on Portugal was much more important.

King Philip II thus did not approve de Sande’s proposal. His reaction to the idea can be seen on de Sande’s memorial itself, written in the margins by an anonymous court clerk in Madrid:


[I]n what relates to the conquest of China, it is not fitting at the present time to discuss the matter. On the contrary, he [Governor de Sande] must strive for the maintenance of friendship with the Chinese, and must not make any alliance with the pirates hostile to the Chinese, nor give that nation any just cause for indignation against us. He must advise us of everything, and if, when the whole question is understood better, it shall be suitable to make any innovation later, then he will be given the order and plan that he must follow therein. Meanwhile he shall strive to manage what is in his charge, so that God and his Majesty will be served; and he shall and must adhere strictly to his instructions as to conquests and new explorations.[17]



Governor de Sande continued to urge the conquest of China throughout his remaining tenure in office. He made his final entreaty in a letter to Philip II on May 30, 1579, the year before he left the Philippines to return to New Spain. In the margin of the document is written the date the letter was received and read in Madrid—June 4, 1581—and the comment “Seen, and no answer is required.”[18]

The pressure to proceed with the conquest of China continued unabated throughout the governorships of de Sande’s successors, Gonzalo Ronquillo (1580-83) and Santiago de Vera (1584-90). It culminated with the creation of an even larger and more detailed plan, tabled at a general assembly convened by Governor de Vera in Manila on April 20, 1586. This time the envisioned expeditionary force would be comprised of several hundred Spaniards currently residing in the Philippines, 10,000 or 12,000 reinforcements sent out from Spain, and if possible 5,000 or 6,000 local Indians and an equal number of Japanese recruited by Jesuit missionaries in Japan—between 20,000 and 25,000 men all told. It was additionally suggested that the Portuguese be invited into the enterprise to make the invasion force even more overwhelming, so that its “mere presence and a demonstration will suffice to cause the Chinese to submit, with no great bloodshed.” Otherwise the Chinese, who “are so numerous,…will be deluded and offer resistance; and as the Spaniards are brave fighters, the havoc and slaughter will be infinite, to the great damage of the country.” (It was of course impolitic to say so, but involving the Portuguese and ‘sharing’ China with them would additionally serve to avoid conflict over spheres of influence in Asia, where the demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese interests remained in dispute. The line had been fixed in 1494 at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic, but due to the limits of geographical knowledge it remained unclear where this meridian lay in Asia when it was extended in 1529 to encompass the world.) Great care should be taken in selecting the men to lead the expedition, “for it is very probable—nay, almost certain—that if this be not done, things will fare just as they did in the island of Cuba, and in other countries that were once thickly peopled and are now deserted. If the Spaniards go into China in their usual fashion, they will desolate and ravage the most populous and richest country that ever was seen….”

Governor Santiago de Vera was recommended to lead the expedition, aided by officers appointed from amongst “the Castilian and Portuguese citizens of these islands, who have merited it by their loyalty, labors, and services, both because they have won and kept this land and because they have had much experience with the country and the people. Besides they are already acclimated and used to the country, its climate, heat, and rain; wherefore their help and counsel should be highly valued, and they deserve recompense and preference in every way.”

The Manila plan was specific about the arms that would be required. In addition to each soldier’s personal weapons, a number of items were requested sent out from Spain “for emergency”: 500 muskets, 4,000 pikes, 1,000 corselets, “one thousand Burgundian morions from Nueva España,” and an unspecified number of arquebuses. Four artillery founders were requested to manufacture cannons on site, plus “one or two machinists for engines of war, and fire throwing machines, and a few artisans to make pitch….”

Gunpowder and bullets were not required. Anything not available locally could be purchased cheaply from China. So too could cast-iron cannon balls for large and medium-sized guns, for the Chinese were selling these for just “two or three reals apiece, while the manufacture alone costs eight or ten reals here.” (The Manila document evinces no awareness of the irony here.)

A good deal of money would be unavoidably needed, to pay the Japanese mercenaries and cover miscellaneous expenses. The sum of 200,000 pesos was suggested. Blankets and bolts of fabric for clothing for the troops were also requested sent out from New Spain, plus an abundant supply of presents from Spain, “to win over some of the mandarins and other persons of importance,” including “España velvet, scarlet cloths, mirrors, articles of glass, coral, plumes, oil paintings, feather-work, globes, and other curiosities, and some red and white wine for the same purpose.”

The staging area for the expedition would be the mouth of the Cagayan River on the north coast of Luzon. From here the voyage to China, King Philip was assured, could be made in only two days. (This estimate, like de Sande’s a decade earlier, was optimistic. From northern Luzon the nearest stretch of Chinese coast is 700 kilometers away, and thus a voyage of four days or more. The longer but less exposed island-hopping route via the Batan Islands and Taiwan would have taken even longer.) The vessels required for the trip were “galleys and fragatas with high sides, which are the best kind of craft for this purpose.” These would be constructed at the Cagayan staging area from local timber. Master shipwrights were needed from Spain to oversee the work, plus experienced crews to man the ships. Cordage, anchors, and grappling tackle were also needed. These could be sent from the colony of Goa on the Indian coast.

After embarking from their Cagayan base, the Spanish expeditionary force would make for the coast of the Chinese province of Fujian, several hundred kilometers northeast of Macao. Portuguese forces meanwhile would thrust simultaneously into Guangdong province from their colony at Macao. The two armies, accompanied by Macao-based Jesuit priests serving as interpreters and guides, would then independently slash their way north to Beijing and establish themselves in ultimate authority there—being careful to leave the existing Ming government apparatus in place because it was so effective at maintaining order amongst the huge population.

As for timing, the memorandum strongly advised that the invasion be launched as soon as possible or not at all, for the Chinese were becoming increasingly wary. A few years previously, presumably when de Sande had submitted his proposal, their vast country could have been snatched “with no labor, cost, or loss of life; today it cannot be done without some loss, and in a short time it will be impossible to do at any cost.” It was therefore essential that the king give his immediate approval to the plan, for it “offered to his Majesty the greatest occasion and the grandest beginning that ever in the world was offered to a Monarch. Here lies before him all that the human mind can desire or comprehend of riches and eternal fame….” [19]

After this memorandum was drawn up and signed by the fifty representatives present, it was sent to Madrid in the hands of the Spanish Jesuit Alonzo Sanchez, one of the most aggressive advocates of the plan. For reasons previously outlined, Philip II was predisposed to reject the idea when Sanchez arrived a year and a half later. The argument against it soon became even stronger with the receipt of a communication from the Jesuit leadership in Rome condemning the scheme and castigating Sanchez for involving himself in it. If there was any life still left in the idea by this point, it was snuffed out entirely by the destruction of the Spanish Armada sent against England in the summer of 1588.

And so the Spanish plan to conquer China fizzled and died. But one question still remains: If King Philip II had given the scheme his approval, how far might the conquistadors of Manila have gotten? Were they foolish to think that China could be conquered with the few thousand men Governor de Sande envisioned in 1576, or with the 25,000 of the 1586 plan? Or might they have succeeded?

There was indeed bravado here, the stunning boldness of the sixteenth century Spanish, the same boldness that prompted Francisco Pizarro to set out to conquer the Inca empire in 1530 with less than 200 men. Pizarro, of course, succeeded in his quest, as did Hernan Cortes in the 1520s, who conquered the Aztecs with only a marginally larger force. The Aztec and Inca empires, however, were Bronze Age cultures. They did not possess iron swords and pikes, let alone muskets and crossbows, and had never even seen a horse. They had never experienced the ferocity of warfare as waged by Europeans, they were bewildered by Spanish ways, and were frequently compromised by their own hospitality and beliefs. The Chinese of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), on the other hand, were every bit as technologically advanced at the Spanish, they were well versed in the arts of war, they knew a great deal about the outside world extending all the way to Europe, and constantly strove to be on guard against foreign encroachment by land and by sea.

The Chinese thus were not weighed down by the same disadvantages that hampered the Incas and Aztecs. Their vaunted military power, however, was not as overwhelming as they liked the outside world to believe. At the start of the Ming dynasty, the Hong-wu emperor created a self-sufficient army that was to sustain itself by farming government land. In this manner he provided the state with a force of two million soldier-farmers that, at least at the beginning of the dynasty, cost the state very little. This notion of a self-sufficient military that could switch as needed from peacetime pursuits to a wartime footing had worked well for the Mongols in the preceding Yuan dynasty, the transition from nomadic horseman to warrior having come naturally to those foreign invaders. But it did not work for the Ming. Its domesticated army became just that, domesticated; farming communities where military discipline was forgotten and the arts of war seldom practiced. They were never fully self-sufficient either, but came over the years to require more and more government support, first in the form of grain shipments, for the soldiers were unable to grow enough for themselves, and later, when grain became scarce, in silver.[20] Eventually even this was not enough to keep the soldiers from starving. They rarely received the entire sum they were due, and corrupt officers frequently withheld the rest. It therefore became common for men to bribe their officers to allow them to leave the garrison to engage in outside work, often never to return. This practice, coupled with unrecorded deaths and desertions, had drastically reduced the size of China’s army by the mid-sixteenth century, even as the cost of its upkeep was spiraling upward. It has been estimated that in some extreme cases garrisons were reduced to only two or three percent of their nominal strength.[21]

At the time when the Spanish were planning the conquest of China, therefore, Beijing possessed nowhere near the two million soldiers recorded on its grossly outdated troop rosters. It may have had only a tenth of that number. This vastly diminished force was not large enough to simultaneously defend the empire against the multiple threats that were assailing it at that time: Mongol invasions across the Great Wall, Jurchen incursions in the northeast, trouble along the border with Burma, a mutiny amongst its own garrisons in the north. These threats instead had to be dealt with one by one. In campaigns that typically took many months to prepare, army units had to be shifted across vast distances before a large enough force could be amassed to deal with a problem. It was a ponderous and thus dangerous method of self-defense, for it was effective only against equally ponderous threats.   

It was when China had to deal with a fast moving opponent that the weakness of its defenses was most clearly revealed. In the 1550s, for example, Mongol raiders easily penetrated China’s supposedly well-guarded northern frontier to haul off whatever prisoners and loot they wanted, then moved on to pillage in the vicinity of Beijing. They moved so quickly that the Board of War had difficulty mustering just 50,000 men from garrisons near and far to repulse them, this despite the fact that there were supposed to be more than 107,000 soldiers stationed within the capital itself.

An even more extraordinary episode occurred in 1555. In the autumn of that year a small band of pirates landed on the southeast coast aboard one or two ships and rampaged inland all around the former capital of Nanjing, looting towns along the way without encountering any opposition from the 120,000 soldiers that the Board of War’s troop rosters asserted were garrisoned nearby. “Finally,” concludes the official account of the affair in the Ming dynasty annals, “they were caught up at Yang-lin-ch’aio and exterminated. Throughout this episode there were only sixty to seventy persons, yet a distance of several thousand li was covered, the casualties totaled almost four thousand killed and wounded, and the raiding lasted more than eighty days.”[22]

So to return to the question: Could the Spanish have conquered China? Almost certainly not. It is likely, however, that they would have pushed their enterprise surprisingly far, for their army, like Altan Khan’s Mongols and the pirates of 1555, would have been fast moving by virtue of its relatively small size. It is conceivable that they could have marched a considerable distance north, perhaps even to the gates of Beijing, before the ponderous machinery of the Board of War placed an appreciable army in their path. By then, however, serious attrition would have begun to pick away at the Spanish, attrition from the hardships of the journey and the fighting on the way. Unlike in Mexico and Peru, moreover, the Spanish would not have had much success recruiting local support and co-opting native armies. The Chinese heartland through which they would have marched was too homogeneous for that.

One possible outcome to the enterprise, had it been launched, could have been a rapid march north towards Beijing, while the Board of War roused itself to the threat and then took steps to respond, followed by a battle somewhere south of the capital that would have seen the Spanish annihilated or at least badly beaten. If by some miracle—and conquistadors had a propensity for conjuring these up—the remnants of the Spanish army managed to get away and retreat back to their beachhead on the south coast, the Chinese would have slowly followed, amassed a great army, and then wiped them out.

That the planned conquest of China was not merely a Spanish flight of fancy is borne out by the fact that it was eventually attempted—by the Japanese. Since as early as 1586 Japanese dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi spoke of conquering China once he had completed the reunification of Japan. In 1592, with all of Japan his and more than a century of civil war at an end, Hideyoshi dispatched a 158,800-man army from his invasion headquarters on the island of Kyushu across the Tsushima Strait to the Korean port of Pusan. It marched up the peninsula to within 200 kilometers of the Chinese border before finally bogging down for want of reinforcements and supplies. Significantly, it took Beijing more than half a year to send an army of any size to Korea to counter this threat and eventually push it back. If Hideyoshi’s army had bypassed Korea and proceeded directly to the Chinese coast by sea as the Spanish planned to do, the outcome might have been very different indeed.

In Manila, meanwhile, the thirst for Asian mainland conquest had not abated. Without approval from Madrid, the grand vision of seizing China was replaced by a more modest scheme that was beginning to attract attention: the conquest of Cambodia. According to a pair of adventurers recently arrived in Manila from that place, a Spaniard named Blas Ruiz and the Portuguese Diego Belloso, the kingdom was weak and its monarch desperate for Spanish help to resist Thai incursions from the west. The scheme had much to recommend it: a kingdom that was by all accounts rich, with fertile fields and abundant trade goods; a location near the mouth of the Mekong River, which the Spanish believed would give them mastery of all Indochina; a local military that was reportedly weak; a king ready to welcome the Spanish with open arms.

The expedition to conquer Cambodia set sail from Manila at the beginning of 1596, without approval from Madrid. It was comprised of a frigate and two junks carrying 120 Spaniards plus Filipino natives and Japanese mercenaries, likely no more than three or four hundred men all told. The enterprise was poorly planned and led, was hampered by foul weather and plagued by bad luck. It ended in failure three years later. Many of the participants were killed.[23]



1. “Memorandum of the Various Points Presented by the General Junta of Manila,” signed by Governor Santiago de Vera, Bishop Domingo de Salazar, and 48 others, in Emma Blair and James Robertson, trans. and eds., The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 (Cleveland: A. H. Clark, 1903), vol. 6, 197-198.

2. Hernan Cortes to Emperor Charles V, (Sept. 3, 1526), in Anthony Pagden, trans. and ed., Hernan Cortes: Letters from Mexico (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 445.

3. Martin de Rada to the Marquis de Falçes, Viceroy of New Spain, July 8, 1569, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 34, 227.

4. Diego de Artieda, “Relation of the Western Islands called Filipinas,” (1573), in Blair and Robertson, vol. 3, 204-207. In a report sent to Philip II just a few months later, Legazpi’s notary, Fernando Riquel, outdid de Artieda by claiming that China “could be subdued and conquered with less than sixty good Spanish soldiers.” (Hernando Riquel and others, “News From the Western Islands,” Jan. 1574, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 3, 247.)

5. Domingo de Salazar, the first bishop of the Philippines, called China “the greatest and best kingdom in the world,” and its conversion to Christianity “one of the largest conversions ever seen since the time of the primitive church.” (Salazar to Philip II, June 24, 1590, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 7, 219.) By the time he wrote this in 1590, however, Salazar had retracted his support for the conquest of China, claiming that the idea that it was closed to missionaries was a falsehood spread by the Portuguese. To support his revised thinking, he quoted numerous instances of missionaries journeying to China and being treated well (i.e. they were not imprisoned or executed) before being sent away. Salazar seemed to think that continued efforts by missionaries to enter the country would eventually bear fruit. This was quite an about-face from the opinion he expressed in a letter to King Philip II six years before: “I say again that not only can your Majesty enter China sword in hand and by force of arms open a gate for the gospel, but…your Majesty is bound to do so.” (Quoted in Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe. Volume I: the Century of Discovery. Book One (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 300.)

6. The Portuguese Jesuit Melchior Nunes Barreto, for example, wrote in 1569 that: “If the princes of Europe, instead of quarreling among themselves, would undertake to extend the Kingdom of Christ and force the sovereign of China to grant to the missionaries the right to preach and to the natives the right to hear the truth, the Chinese people would easily be converted, because our morals and religion find favor with them.” (Lach, 297.)

7. Martin Enriquez, Viceroy of New Spain, to Philip II, Dec. 5, 1573, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 3, 211.

8. Ibid., 212.

9. Francisco de Sande, Governor of the Philippines, “Relation of the Filipinas Islands,” June 7, 1576, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 4, 58-59.

10. Fransisco de Sande to King Philip II, June 2, 1576, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 3, 312-314.

11. Geoffrey Woodward, Philip II (London: Longman, 1992), 33.

12. Even the conquests in the New World had not borne immediate fruit: the colonies there remained a financial drain throughout the 1510s and ‘20s, and did not really begin to pay off until the 1540s.

13. Quoted in Geoffrey Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 6.

14. Ibid., 7.

15. Even the armada that Philip sent against England in 1588 can be seen as fundamentally defensive. While Philip certainly would have welcomed England’s capitulation and conversion to Catholicism, he was more concerned with neutralizing the Elizabethan navy, which was hindering his attempts to reassert Spanish control over the rebellious Netherlands, birthplace of Philip’s father, Charles V, and one of the core possessions of the Spanish crown. (Woodward, 86.)

16. Patrick Williams, Philip II (Houndmills, Bassingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 171.

17. Francisco de Sande, Governor of the Philippines, “Relation of the Filipinas Islands,” June 7, 1576, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 4, 94.

18. Francisco de Sande to King Philip II, May 30, 1579, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 4, 144-147.

19. “Memorandum of the Various Points Presented by the General Junta of Manila,” signed by Governor Santiago de Vera, Bishop Domingo de Salazar, and 48 others, in Blair and Robertson, vol. 6, 197-229. (The meeting was held on April 20, 1586; the memorandum was signed on July 26.)

20. From 1480 until approximately 1590, the annual cost of maintaining China’s border garrisons increased by almost nine times, from 559,000 to 4.94 million ounces of silver. (Albert Chan, The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 197-98.)

21. Ray Huang, 1587. A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), 160.

22. Ming Shih, chapter 322, in Kwan-wai So, Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the 16th Century (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1975), 181.

23. Accounts of the Cambodian expedition can be found in Antonio de Morga, Events in the Filipinas Islands (originally published as Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas in 1609), in Blair and Robertson, vol. 15; and Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, A Brief and Truthful Relation of Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia (originally published as Breve y Verdadera Relacion de los Successos del Reyno de Camboxa in 1604) (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1998).

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