Against All Odds / by Gregory Chivers

In 1567, King Philip II of Spain received a letter from one of his subjects in the Philippines. It was a request for permission to invade and conquer China. The bold adventurer making the request estimated a force of eighty men would be necessary. Yes, 80. To conquer China.

The Great Wall of China was the least of this guy’s problems

The Great Wall of China was the least of this guy’s problems

Philip was not mad. He turned it down. Undeterred, the adventurer came up with a new plan. Two years later he sent a revised estimate. Sixty men was all he'd need to conquer the most populous country on the planet.

This fascinating snippet (which I learned from Vermeer’s hat, by Timothy Brook) begs the question, how could anyone conceive of such a mad idea?

Well, history’s full of these mad ideas, and sometimes they work. If you’re a Spanish adventurer in the Philippines in 1567, you’re going to be thinking ‘Why, it wasn’t even fifty years ago Hernan Cortes subjugated the Aztec Empire with a handful of men and guns: no reason I can’t do the same.’

With twenty-twenty hindsight, we know better. Mexico is five times smaller than China, the Chinese were more technologically advanced, and the common cold and influenza did more damage to the Aztecs than any number of Spanish troops could have inflicted. That trick was never going to work in Asia.

None of this stuff would have been visible to our adventurer. He would have been hooked on Cortes glory stories from an early age. He saw a rich, populous, technologically backward nation that was ripe for the taking, just like the Aztecs. If he studied his conquistador history, and I’m betting he did, he would have known all you need to do to take down an empire is break it into its constituent parts, and pit them against one another. For every conquistador slaughtering Aztecs in Mexico, there were a hundred Tlaxcalans or other native American allies fighting to free themselves from the Aztec yoke. The lesson from Mexico was clear - If you can exploit the local politics, you don’t need big numbers.

Were there similar fault lines to exploit in China in 1567? I don’t know, and I doubt our would-be conquistador knew either, but the stress of foreign invasion has fractured China several times in its history, notably in response to Mongol invasions and during the Second World War. To this day, fear of fragmenting haunts China, and fuels their draconian rule of outlying provinces like Xingjian and Tibet.

So, was our adventurer really so mad? I think not. I suspect, like many men of action, he just couldn’t count; like a swashbuckling Brexiteer, he had a bold plan and he wanted to make it happen, never mind that the numbers didn’t add up. He couldn’t imagine the vast unknown territory that lay beyond what he could see, so he convinced himself it didn’t matter. Thankfully for the world, King Philip II put a bullet in this particular mad idea, and saved Spain from a world of pain.

Who’s going to do the same for Britain?