What would have happened if the greatest Western empire (Spain) had established peaceful diplomatic relations with the greatest Eastern empire (China) in the 16th century? A reflection based on Chenguang, Li Ph.D. thesis «LA ESTRATEGIA CHINA DE FELIPE II: LA VÍA CASTELLANA » (THE CHINESE STRATEGY OF PHILIP II: THE CASTELLAN WAY (1556-1581)
Spain's arrival in the Philippines opened up new projects.
Encouraged by its achievements in the «New World,» Spain began to consider the conquest of China, taking advantage of its recent seizure of the Philippines – a name that refers to the then King of Spain, Philip II. The first China project was proposed in 1565, a year after the Spanish expedition to the Philippines.
On their first voyage there, the Spaniards first landed in the Bisayas Islands. In 1570, as soon as they settled in Cebu, Spanish Admiral Lopez de Legazpi wrote to the Viceroy of Nueva España (New Spain) – as the territories over which Spain ruled in America were called.
He also wrote to the King of Spain, Philip II, requesting instructions on the following steps to be taken in the Philippines. One of them was to move the centre of power from Cebu to Manila, mainly because of its proximity to China and the opportunity for direct contact with that enormous empire.
From Manila, they considered how to approach the China of the Ming dynasty.
The first direct contact with the Chinese was in 1571. Interestingly, it was not a result of the Spanish arriving in China but because the Chinese continued to maintain contact with the Philippines, as they had done for centuries.
It seems that, while the Spanish armada was in Mindoro, a prominent Chinese junk was caught in a storm, and Admiral Legazpi – the first governor of the Captaincy General of the Philippines and founder of Manila – sent his men to their rescue.
In 1572, a group of Chinese merchants rescued the previous year and arrived in Manila with a cargo of goods from their homeland. This event initiated a series of relationships that led King Philip II to attend to more and more requests and projects concerning the «Middle Kingdom.»
From the early years in the Philippines, religious of the Augustinian order, including Diego de Herrera and Martin de Rada, denounced the conquistadors for their system of labour imposed on the indigenous population. In turn, they soon began to propose friendly approaches to the Chinese to preach the Catholic faith in the domains of the Ming dynasty.
The Spaniards already settled, wary of missionaries attitude, food crisis, and a poor economic situation threatened to leave.
First official reception by Chinese in Fujian
In 1574, however, the Court sent the first instructions regarding China, requesting them to establish communication and dealings with China and get to know its inhabitants. In 1575, without initial royal permission, the first Spanish embassy was sent from Manila and was officially received in China by the local government of Fujian Province. The Spanish monarch later learned of this fact through the usual administrative channels of Philippine-Chinese relations.
Spanish officials in the Philippines began to send proposals to the Court of Philip II for the conquest of China. In 1576, the governor of the Philippines sent a letter to his King formally advising the conquest of the Asian empire. However, like so many others, this war project did not have the support of King Philip II. On the contrary, a strategy for China was beginning to be devised based on the good relations that Spain should maintain with its inhabitants. Philip II asked for more information about China and demanded the presence of Martin de Rada at the Court. His death in 1578 in Borneo prevented the Augustinian priest from fulfilling the royal commission, so he was replaced by Augustinian Francisco de Ortega to go to Spain.
The Spanish embassy leaves for China via Nueva España
On 5 March 1580, recalling the proposal made by Diego de Herrera, the expedition led by Martín de Rada to Fujian, and other contacts made from the Philippines, Philip II was formally advised to send an embassy with letters from the King and gifts. The monarch agreed, stressing in particular to be a non-belligerent initiative. Two years later, royal decrees were issued to send the embassy to the Court of the Ming.
The embassy led by the Augustinians left the port of Spain in 1581 carrying a personal letter from the King and gifts for the Emperor of China from where they went to Mexico City, established on the site of ancient Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and capital of Nueva España. One of the most worrying aspects for the Spanish Court were the gifts to be sent: rich dresses, trappings for his royal chamber, saddles, arms and armour, six pieces of silk velvet of different colours, six pipes of great old sherry wine, some valuable watches, a portrait of Charles I of Spain and V of Germany (Philip II’s father) and another of Philip II himself as well as, among other things, horses. A painter and a watchmaker went on the expedition to solve technical problems with some gifts.
The letter, written in a relatively modest and humble tone, was optimistic about the previous contacts between Chinese and Spaniards developed from the Philippine Islands and expressed his gratitude for his diplomats’ good reception. After listing the titles that he held in the letter, Philip II highlighted the knowledge he had of the Eastern empire and the origin of this knowledge. As a Christian king seeking friendship with a pagan king, and in that particular historical context, the monarch could not avoid raising the superiority of Christianity, he presented the Augustinians to the Chinese Emperor and even explained the «advantages» of conversion.
The embassy’s arrival in Nueva España was greeted with applause and deep doubts and protests about the practicality of the embassy. The King was told of the hesitation and indecision in Nueva España about the expedition to China. The powerful Viceroy of Nueva España sent Philip II a series of positive and negative comments concerning the diplomatic mission and especially the gifts sent to the Chinese Emperor.
But, al the end, it all came to nothing.
Among the problems they saw with the gifts was that the Chinese Emperor did not appreciate the presents. They considered that the Chinese were much more prosperous and advanced. They recommended sending the Chinese Emperor more valuable gifts to show the power and wealth of Philip II. On the other hand, they warned him that the enterprise was going to be expensive. Significant amounts of money would have to be paid to the governors of the places through which they had to pass where the Emperor was -the interpreters had also to be well paid to ensure their loyalty and trust. The Viceroy told the King about the costs og going to China, from the port to wherever the Chinese Emperor was, and return to Spain to bring Philip II’s reply.
Although Augustine Ortega justifiably refuted every objection and again recommended to the King to continue with the embassy to China – as he could lose little and gain much, in the end, the vote against the expedition prevailed.
In 1582, the Council of the Indies – the most powerful organisation of the administration in America and the Philippines as it advised the King of Spain in the executive and judicial function – proposed to suspend the embassy’s sending to Ming China to order to sell the prepared gifts.
The King accepted the proposal. The first embassy sent by Philip II to China was thus abandoned.
It could seem that those who boycotted the King’s peaceful initiative to establish relations with China did so because they had more ambitious and warlike plans. Or since Philip II became King of Portugal in 1580 (until 1640), he probably knew that the Portuguese had been defeated by the Ming in the two Battles of Tamao (1521, 1522), both times decisively.
It is interesting to think what would have happened if the greatest Western empire (Spain) had established peaceful diplomatic relations with the greatest Eastern empire (China) in the 16th century. But it is clear that, if the empire was strong and united, it was not easy to enter China by force and, on the contrary, it was advisable to try to enter with a peaceful attitude.
Emperor Felipe II died in 1598 at age 71 at El Escorial Palace near Madrid.