In August 1578, Portugal’s young King Sebastian planned and personally led an audacious military expedition against Ottoman forces in Morocco. It was a disaster. Four hours of heavy fighting left 8,000 dead on the Portuguese side. English-Wikipedia tells us that those killed included Sebastian, whose body was never found, and “almost the whole of the Portugal’s nobility. 15,000 were captured and sold into slavery.
For two years, Sebastian’s elderly uncle, Henry, a cardinal, occupied the throne in Lisbon. Then in 1580 CE, the arcane succession rules of the Portuguese monarchy– and some adroit Spanish military maneuvers– allowed Spain’s King Philip to take over Portugal and all of its global empire.
Up to that moment, only Portugal and Spain had commanded truly global-girdling empires. Thus, Spain’s swift takeover of the Portuguese metropole felt like a globally unipolar moment for many in the court of the wily, experienced ruler in Madrid. British historian Henry Kamen has written that Castilian poet Juan Rufo lauded a new era of “one sole shepherd and one sole monarchy.” Another Castilian writer, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, noted that, “The empire of Spain is over twenty times greater than that of Rome ever was.” (These quotes are from Kamen, Empire: How Spain became a World Power, 1492-1763, p.304-05.)
Nine years before 1580 a Spanish-led fleet had defeated the Ottomans’ powerful Mediterranean fleet at Lepanto, bringing what Spanish/Castilian writers described as an era of peace to that region. In 1580, a rebellion by some of Philip’s subjects in the Netherlands– mainly, but not exclusively, Protestant Netherlanders– seemed to have been largely contained. Spain’s various imperial projects in the Americas had been going well; and with the takeover of Portugal Spain had now consolidated its position in India and in East Asia… With the arrival of the news from Portugal there was, as Kamen commented, “every reason for imperial pride” in Madrid.
In early November 1580, Philip sent out a series of letters to inform Portugal’s overseas territories of his new overlordship . The letters arrived in Goa, the capital of “Portuguese India” in early September 1581; in Malacca, in present Malaysia, ten weeks later; and in Portugal’s fairly well-established outpost in China, at Macau, in March 1582. Spain’s own communications channels, which went the other way around the world– from Iberia to (and across) Mexico, and thence to Manila– delivered the news of Spain’s victory to Macao a little faster. (Parker, p.50.) Perhaps the Spanish administrators and sailors along the way felt more motivated than Portugal’s to hurry the news along?
In 1588, all the Castilians’ dreams of world domination would be devastatingly dashed ashore in the wreckage of the “Great Armada” that King Philip had sent to conquer the new imperial contenders in Protestant England. But for a few years before 1588, Castilian/Spanish conquistadors on many continents were plotting to take over the whole world.
In East Asia, from the tiny foothold they had established in the Philippines, they were planning nothing less than the conquest of all of China. In this article, I’ll trace the origin of that ambition and what became of it.
It must have taken a few months for the momentous news from Portugal to reach the Spanish commanders in the Philippines. But you can imagine the excited glint in the eyes of the Spanish commanders when it finally did, since for some years prior to 1580 many of them had been thinking about and actively planning for a significant expansion of their empire’s footprint in East Asia. This was the empresa de China, the “China project”, described by British historian Hugh Thomas as, “essentially an expedition to submit some parts of China, perhaps all of it, to Spanish rule.” (H. Thomas, World Without End, p.260.)
Thomas cites a letter that the chief notary of Manila wrote in January 1574, in which he estimated that China could be conquered by “fewer than sixty ‘good Spanish soldiers’,” He writes, too, that later that year the Spanish Governor of the Philippines sent back to the “Council of the Indies” in Spain two (poorly drawn) maps of China with a note that he hoped for Spanish expansion into “all these rich lands.”
Thomas wrote that the prospect of a Spanish invasion of China “preoccupied” not just the commanders in Manila but also the Viceroy of New Spain, to whom they reported. He added that in October 1574, [the Viceroy] reported to King Philip that he had not yet found the right person to lead the expedition against the Ming emperor. He was looking for a new Hernándo Cortéz.”
I put that latter emphasis there, since it is clear from what Thomas writes over the pages that follow that the two great precedents still very lively in the minds of imperial leaders in Manila, New Spain, and Madrid were the stunningly easy victory that Cortéz had won over the Aztec empire in 1521, and Pizarro’s almost equally stunning conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532. Conquering China, they hoped, could be just as easy!
In June 1575, a first small exploratory expedition set out from Manila. Thomas writes that, “Some of those on board the vessels believed that they were about to rival Cortéz’s andPizarro’s extraordinary achievements…” That expedition included two friars: throughout all of Spain’s empire-building ventures since the second voyage of Christopher Columbus, the church authorities in Spain and in Rome had been key– and enthusiastic– participants.
That expedition fizzled. The Chinese authorities who met the expedition peaceably when it arrived in Fuzhou were prepared to give Spain a trading post on an island facing Taiwan, analogous to the one they had earlier given Portugal in Macau. But first, they wanted the Spaniards to return a well-known Chinese pirate called Lin Fung to their authority. But Lin Fung, who had been in Spanish custody, managed to escape.
The following year, a new Spanish Governor of Manila, Francisco de Sande, started planning for another, bigger expedition. Hugh Thomas, p.264:
He wrote to King Philip on 6 June  that he had devised a plan for the subjugation of the Ming dynasty with four to six thousand men who would be sent from both Peru and New Spain…
Governor Sande made several suggestions as to how a Mexican-Peruvian task force could conquer China by means of a very just war (‘una guerra justísima‘). Were not the Chinese soldiery beneath contempt, being ‘idolatrous, sodomite, given to robbery and to piracy?’… Sande thought that the most intelligent course would at first be to conquer just one province, on the assumption that its population would welcome the conquerors as liberators
Sande received no reply to this letter, or one making the same arguments that same year, to the “Council of the Indies” in Madrid. And nor did the King reply to a follow-up letter that Sande sent in 1578. But meantime, the idea of conquering China was gaining support among Spanish officials in the Americas, one of whom wrote to Philip that, ” it would be easy to recruit 4,000 men in Central America and embark them on six galleys to be sent direct to China.” But the Council of the Indies advised the king (HT, 266) that it might not be so easy since, they estimated, “the emperor [of China] had an army of nearly 5 million men… with arquebuses, pikes,and swords, bows and arrows, as well as war machines of different kinds, such as were used in sieges in Europe.”