• Petros D

The Battle of Tunmen 1521: The First Naval Skirmish between China and the West

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

By the late 15th and early 16th century, Europeans, namely the Portuguese, were beginning to make their way through well-known sea routes beyond Europe by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in southern tip of Africa. It wasn't long before they encroached upon the Indian Ocean Trade network, the maritime Silk Road where commerce and trade flowed through East Africa, Arabia, India, Malaysia, Philippines, China and beyond for almost a thousand years. Many merchants and sailors became wealthy from this flourishing trade and the Europeans wanted to dominate/ monopolize it.

This desire to become dominant participants in this trade as well as the search for advantages over their Muslim rivals motivated the Portuguese and the Spanish to compete aggressively for wealth and spices abroad. Their invasions of the Americas further increased this competition.



The Portuguese advance was rather intimidating, using power-projection and their gun platform ships to blaze a trail of fire in Kilwa, East Africa, all the way to Malacca/ Melaka in Malaysia where they overthrew the local sultan. By 1513, the Portuguese arrived in the city of Guangzhou-- Ming China's gateway and trading center.


Eight ships arrived in Guangzhou under the command of FERNAO PERES DE ANDRADE who "... had been sent from Lisbon in 1515 expressly for this mission [to reach China], along with Florentine merchant Giovanni da Empoli who had already been in India and Melaka and had transmitted to his Medici masters what he had learned about that 'cosa grandissima' called China." (Wills. Jr, 26-27).

Fernao worked hard to build strong trade and diplomatic relations with the Ming Chinese whose empire was still one of the greatest and most formidable in the whole world. He overcame many frustrating obstacles such as communication issues, cultural differences, and bureaucratic delays to achieve a working relationship.


Portuguese Carrack early 16th century

Fernao's brother Simao de Andrade arrived in 1519 and ended up destroying much of what Fernao had worked hard to build. "At Tunmen, the island center of trade for all foreigners, he built a small fort, ceremoniously executed a Portuguese, and barred other foreigners from trading ahead of him. He and his men knocked the hat off an official who tried to assert Ming authority on the island." (Ibid., 28).

Futhermore, the Portuguese were engaged in preexisting black market trade involving the trafficking of humans where children were being kidnapped even from prominent families. Simao and his men stayed the until 1520 where word of their abusive behavior eventually reached the imperial capital of Beijing.

Nonetheless, a Portuguese embassy made their way to Nanjing to meet the emperor but were later ordered to wait in Beijing. The Chinese officials knew of the Portuguese provocations and what they had done in Melaka to overthrow the sultan who paid tribute to the Ming Empire, and therefore pushed to reject the embassy altogether. The sources aren't clear or conclusive about the Ming government's rejection of the Portuguese.


The emperor died in 1521 before the fate of the Portuguese embassy could be decided, and all dealings with foreigners were suspended. Political unrest grew in the court as officials contended with the eunuchs. Foreigners were also ordered to leave the country at once but the Portuguese refused, as they were not finished with their business in Guangzhou. The Ming navy then "assembled a substantial squadron and attacked the Portuguese and some junks from Siam and Patani that had Portuguese on board. One ship was sunk and many Portuguese and foreigners were killed or taken prisoner." (Ibid., 30).

This ship design began the Song Dynasty and continued well into the Qing Dynasty, changing very little. Military vessels in Ming had fortified high fighting platforms.
Model of Nanhai Chinese ship


Further explained in the text by Chin Keong Ng, "Following the new order from the Court, the Chinese fleet used force on the orders of the Deputy-Commissioner of Guangdong Coastal Surveillance, Wang Hong, to suspend unauthorized trade and expel the foreigners. These contretemps led to the commencement of a long, fierce battle, during which many of the Portuguese trading ashore or on board the vessels were killed or taken prisoner." (Ng, 112). More Portuguese arrived in June and September of that year and each time were beaten off, or had barely managed to escape. These skirmishes continued until 1522 where Portuguese and Ming Chinese contention continued....


"Portuguese early aggressiveness, and lack of naval superiority [over the Chinese] led to disaster." (paraphrased, Wills Jr., 26).






Sources (works consulted and works cited): 1) Ng, Chin-Keong. Boundaries and beyond: Chinas Maritime Southeast in Late Imperial Times = Geng Hai: Ming Qing Dong Nan Hai Yu Chuan Tong Fan Li De Yi Wei. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017.

2) Parker, Charles H. Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

3) Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Marc Jason Gilbert. World Civilizations: the Global Experience. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., Publishing as Prentice Hall, 2015.

4) Wills, John E., and J. L. Cranmer-Byng. China and Maritime Europe, 1500-1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011


Photo credit sources https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/32772581

Nanhai Ship: https://en.unesco.org/…/underwater-he…/nanhai-no-1-shipwreck

Carrack: https://www.britannica.com/technology/carrack

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