Marcus Alberto da Silva

The concluding moments of the trial played themselves out according to the best Hollywood clichés: the packed courtroom – even the corridor was full of people  waiting to hear the outcome –  the excited ‘ripple’ of reaction at the verdict, which meant the judge had to threaten to clear the court, the rush to congratulate the acquitted man… His co-defendant was duly declared innocent too, in spite of having fled in the middle of the trial (his current whereabouts were unknown).[1] It was a suitably dramatic ending to a trial that had gripped Hong Kong in late July and early August 1950. This was strange. The case was a complex one and the subject matter not particularly compelling: an alleged conspiracy to procure false evidence in an accidental manslaughter charge. Yet on the day when the ‘first accused’ appeared in the dock the account of his cross-examination was spread over three pages of The China Mail.[2]

The reason for this interest was that this ‘first accused’ was Marcus da Silva, arguably the colony’s most prominent lawyer, and, for those who cared to cast their minds back to those dark days, a war hero, who had courageously smuggled money into Stanley, spied for the British Army Aid Group, and then steadfastly resisted the violent attempts of Colonel Noma’s Gendarmes to make him incriminate himself and others.

Mr. da Silva died six years after his acquittal, at the age of 48; before the coming of the internet his story had effectively disappeared from public view but now the outlines at least are visible in contemporary newspapers from both Hong Kong and the United States.

Marcus Alberto da Silva was born on March 1, 1907 and educated at St. Joseph’s College. He was admitted to practise as a solicitor in the Supreme Court in 1930[3] and he joined Mr. D’Almada Remedios, who was then a partner with Mr. Leo D’Almada senior.[4] From 1933 onward he operated a one-man practice. He stayed in Hong Kong after the surrender, remaining uninterned because of his Portuguese nationality.

On September 23, 1945, shortly after his return from Free China at the end of the war, he was asked – or volunteered – to make a broadcast over Hong Kong radio to try to persuade people to charge a reasonable price for the goods and services they provided – the Government was aiming to restore something like pre-war prices to the Colony after the massive inflation of the Japanese occupation. In the course of his broadcast Mr. da Silva gives a general picture of occupied Hong Kong that’s very much in tune with all the other accounts in English, of the grimness and the terror of this period:

Then – Hong Kong by night was a dull, drab blot against a duller, drabber night sky.[5]

‘Fear’ and the ‘cracking of the whiplash’ were, he told the listeners, the weapons of Japanese rule:

 (E)ach and every one of us walked around Hong Kong furtively looking over our shoulders, afraid to talk, afraid to whisper – every vestige of freedom – that inalienable right of every human – taken from us.[6]

But Marcus da Silva hadn’t allowed this fear to stop him from acting. In late 1942 he approached the American Chester Bennett, who had agreed to forego the June 29 repatriation in order to remain in Hong Kong to help the Stanley internees with the purchase of extra food. Bennett had also been smuggling money into the camp and the Portuguese solicitor wanted to help:

Chester I want something to do. I want to help. I know you didn’t get out of Stanley for your health. Bennett gave him a grin and replied, ‘Marcus I’ve been waiting for you to come to me. I knew you would.’ And the big American businessman and the dark energetic little Portuguese lawyer teamed up to get money into Stanley.[7]

What follows – based on interviews with Bennett’s wife and da Silva himself – is important testimony as to methods used to raise money and smuggle it into Stanley:

They did it by having Chinese guards on food trucks entering the camp bring out promissory notes from people of standing in the community Bennett and Da Silva would then take the promissory notes signed by internees of known standing in the community. Bennett and Da Silva would then take these notes to rich Indian and Swiss merchants and asked them to advance Jap military yen in exchange  for promissory notes, pointing out that when the  Allies won they would be worthless anyway.[8]

 Most accounts I’ve read focus on the work of the uninterned bankers in raising relief funds, and it takes nothing away from the courage and resourcefulness of men like Grayburn and Hyde to realise that Chester Bennett and Marcus da Silva were active in this field too. Here’s the rest of Boyle’s account of their smuggling technique:

Da Silva would collect the money and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm – (figure illegible- perhaps 40,000) to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans. This went on for several months They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[9]

Bennett had been a spy as well as a smuggler, working with Charles Hyde and collecting shipping data and either relaying the information by messengers or by sending it aboard a Chinese junk which pulled out of the harbour and passed it on over concealed shortwave radio.[10] Da Silva naturally wanted to join in these activities too, but I’m not sure from Boyle’s account how far this had happened before their arrest. A shocking development threatened their ability to do anything at all.

Some time in April they were brought news of Hyde’s arrest: a Chinese secret agent employed by the Gendarmerie came to Bennett:

‘The Japanese have prepared a blacklist in Hong Kong of people they suspect,’ he warned, ‘and you and Da Silva are both on it. You had better stay under cover.’ [11]

In an astonishing act of bravery, the two men discussed the situation and decided to ignore advice to go into hiding and then escape from the Colony: they reasoned that the internees needed the money they were sending in, and that the shipping information was too valuable to the Allied cause for them to stop. They understood that their arrest was now only a matter of time, and they knew that torture would follow and death would be the most likely outcome.[12]

Instead of going into hiding they decided to tighten and intensify their operations. Da Silva agreed to take over the main burden of Hyde’s espionage work while Bennett concentrated on smuggling funds to internees. The lawyer felt that the espionage ring had been too loosely organised and set out to tighten it.

In April 1943, not long before their own arrest, they designed an ambitious three-pronged resistance program and sent it off for approval by higher authorities. They planned to set up an intelligence section to gather information about the movement of shipping in and out of Hong Kong, to incite resistance among the local population against the Japanese –  partly by arranging the assassination of Chinese and Indian agents of the Kempeitai as a warning to other traitors –  and to retain the loyalty of Indian troops being used to guard the Canton railway by raising enough money to secretly provide each soldier with ten yen a month  to buy cigarettes.[13]

By 1946 Marcus da Silva had come to think that the enterprise was always doomed:

I believe now that it is impossible for Europeans to conduct espionage successfully by themselves in a predominantly Oriental community occupied by other Orientals…It is too easy for them to check your associates and torture them into giving you away.[14]

Before they received a reply as to their three point plan, both men were in prison.  At 7 a.m. on May 14, 1943 Marcus da Silva was arrested at his residence,[15] and later on the same day the Gendarmes came for Chester Bennett.   In his 1945 radio broadcast Mr. da Silva said a little about his experiences as a prisoner, held in a tiny cell in Mongkok Gendarmerie:

In May 1943 the Jap gendarmes took me in as a political suspect for a period of two months and they gave me everything they had in the way of tortures and beatings.[16]

He wasn’t exaggerating; to start with, he was whipped and accused of getting false Portuguese papers for his neighbour George van Bergen (also arrested on May 14) so that he could remain at large and act as a British spy,[17] a charge the solicitor denied even after the war. Howard Torr – a notorious Chinese assistant of the Kempeitai – tried everything he knew to break Da Silva, but he refused to admit to anything or to incriminate anyone else.[18]

He was also accused of being a British spy himself and in contact with Colonel Lindsay Ride; when he denied everything he was burnt above the right knee with a hot poker and subjected to other hideous tortures. When Torr threatened to bring in his younger brother Carl and his (Marcus’s) family, da Silva pointed out that he and Carl had been friendly with Torr before the war, and that the Chinese had even been an ‘occasional client’ of his.[19]

It was his religion – presumably Roman Catholicism – that kept him going during this unimaginably dark time. In his 1945 broadcast he said that in his suffering he almost came to feel that there was no God – ‘almost’ because without that belief ‘it would have meant sheer madness, the madness and insanity of blackest despair’. There are, indeed, a number of accounts of people driven to insanity by the squalid cells, the meagre rations and the brutality to be found in a Kempeitai prison. Others sought refuge in death.

Mr. Da Silva won his freedom in a remarkable way; unfortunately the details are not fully clear, but the general picture can be pieced together from a number of accounts. Boyle’s is the most straightforward: after all efforts to break him had failed, a Chinese Gendarme – presumably Torr – offered him his freedom for $5,000. The solicitor smuggled out this information to his wife, who approached Mr. Hattori, the Japanese head of the Foreign Affairs Department, who ordered da Silva’s release and the arrest of the Gendarme.[20] Colonel Noma, the head of the Gendarmerie at the time, gave a different version at his post-war trial for war crimes: he claimed that he’d ordered da Silva’s release because of insufficient ‘proof’, and that he refused an application for his re-arrest for the same reason. He took responsibility for the escape of this ‘very important spy’ and said so in a report to the Governor General.[21]

Another piece of the jigsaw is supplied by American author Emily Hahn in her autobiographical China To Me (1986 ed.,  417-8) Ms. Hahn, writing originally in 1944, tells us that she can’t give the full story, and it seems that Marcus da Silva’s name might have been one of the things she left out. In her account, Howard Tse (aka Torre/Tore/Tau/Tse Chi – I think the accounts that use these names are all about the same man), the Chinese Gendarme who tortured Mr. da Silva, had been terrorising the Portuguese community by arresting men and making their families pay bribes to get them out. These releases did actually happen, except in two cases in which Hahn thought Tse/Torre harboured old grudges – perhaps something had occurred to annoy him during the social and business encounters mentioned above, or perhaps Hahn was wrong and Torr knew that, unlike most of his other victims, Mr. da Silva really was a member of the resistance. In this account, it was Hahn who took details of Tse’s activities to Hattori – the Portuguese were the charge of the Foreign Affairs Department – and urged him to act.  Hattori was a decent man who did what he could for those he was responsible for, but he was understandably scared of the Gendarmes. Hahn pressed him and eventually, with great reluctance, he ‘went to bat for the Portuguese’, steadfastly staying at the wicket until the match was won. Tse fled and ‘his little private extortion prison’ was emptied. My guess is that both Mrs. Da Silva and Emily Hahn urged Hattori to act, and that Noma’s account, self-serving although it undoubtedly was, is probably also true: Hattori was a civilian with zero authority over the Gendarmes, who were a branch of the Army, and only someone as senior as Noma could have released Da Silva against the will of Tse’s Japanese ‘patrons’ in the Kowloon Gendarmerie. In any case, it seems that Torr ended up in prison, where he nevertheless continued his pro-Japanese activities.[22]

Whatever the details of his release, in November 1943 Marcus da Silva fled with his family to Macao. I don’t know if his escape had been planned long in advance, or if it was a response to the assault on the Portuguese community that began at that time: Charles Henry Basto was arrested on charges of spying on November 1 (he was executed the next year) and Portuguese bankers began to be seen by the Stanley internees in the grounds of Stanley Prison some time before Christmas.[23] In any case, his flight came just in time. The Japanese soon realised they’d made a mistake in releasing him and sent four agents to Macao on a fruitless mission to kidnap him and bring him back.[24] Eventually, the solicitor made his way to the safety of Free China.

The escape was organised by BAAG operative Mr. William Chong, who took him out along with another prominent Portuguese citizen, probably Leo D’Almada, Marcus da Silva’s old boss:

They both are very famous people in Hong Kong which I never met them before, I don’t know who they are because I wasn’t in Hong Kong long enough to know them, so I brought them out…to safety but I, my job, I never ask them for their last name. I never tell them who I am or what I am doing. All they know about me is “Bill” and they, ah, I don’t know this person is Leo and the other one’s Marcus da Silva… So they are very important people in Hong Kong. They were…captured by, tortured by the Japanese, and they escaped, and my job, I brought them home[25]

After his escape, Marcus da Silva sent a messenger to Mrs. Bennett suggesting she accompany him to the safety of Macao, but she declined, and was arrested in 1944 on suspicion of continuing her husband’s activities. She survived, and both she and Mr. Da Silva acted as witnesses in war crimes trials.

Mr. da Silva returned to Hong Kong from Kunming on September 9, 1945 and joined the British Military Administration as Prosecutor on behalf of the Crown in the cases of those accused of treason and collaboration. He had worked as a one-man practise since 1933, and he resumed this a few months after his return. At the time of his arrest in 1950 he’d built up an extensive practice with twenty staff [26]

In February 1946 he was given the honour of leading for the Crown in the committal proceedings that launched the Colony’s first war-related trials. Six men were involved, including the notorious George Wong (executed), J. J. Richards (15 years), and a Swiss man, a Red Cross official to boot, [27] – the accusations against a neutral European made the case an international sensation at the time (charges against this man were withdrawn under an amnesty, but Mr. da Silva, again appearing for the Crown, made it clear that he was still considered guilty, and the next week he was deported for life from Hong Kong). Two Chinese Gendarmes, So Leung and Tsui Kwok-ching, were accused of a number of outrages, including taking part in da Silva’s own torture.

As this and the subsequent trials – both for treason and for war crimes – proceeded, Marcus da Silva played a prominent part as prosecutor and as witness.  And then, in the strange reversal with which I began this account, he appeared in the dock himself, accused, along with film director Shao-Kwai Tam, of conspiracy to bribe a witness to give false evidence in the case of an actress, Cheung Dik-chan, accused of manslaughter as a result of a driving accident. The trial opened on July 24, 1950.[28] Appearing for Mr. da Silva was H. G. Sheldon, once a thorn in the side of Franklin Gimson in Stanley Camp, but now a pillar of Hong Kong’s legal establishment. The man Mr. da Silva was charged with attempting to bribe was disgraced Hong Kong policeman William Henry Cowie – variously described as a rogue, a rat and a man of evil reputation[29]– and Sheldon seems to have had little difficulty in destroying his credibility as a witness, and with it the Crown’s case. It seems that Marcus da Silva had a number of influential enemies in the legal world, or so Sheldon suggested, hinting that his client had been set up. Perhaps that had something to do with his hot temper: at one point he apologised to the court for a former outburst,[30] and I get the impression of a man of huge energy and dynamism who might seem rather intimidating to anyone standing in his way. It’s sad that the last years of Mr. da Silva’s life were darkened by this allegation, but the trial ended with his complete vindication and the resumption of his distinguished post-war career.

Marcus da Silva became ill at the end of 1955, but insisted on carrying on his work.  He died at St. Paul’s (‘the French’) Hospital in Causeway Bay on Monday, February 20, 1956. Two days later tributes were paid at a special sitting of the Full Court. The sub-headings of the China Mail report speak for themselves: Able Advocate-Sheer Hard Work- Great Courage-Penetrating Mind-Strong Personality-Wonderful Man-Rare Combination.[31] Acting Attorney-General Arthur Hooton, who had prosecuted him in 1950, said that no man ever worked longer hours – 80 hours were not a full working week to him – and that he never came into court unprepared as to either facts or law.

He was a man of indomitable courage, who had insisted on carrying on the fight during the war even when he knew the odds were completely against him. It’s not surprising he always expected to beat his illness and get back to work.


[1] China Mail, Saturday, August 5, 1950, page 1.

[2] August 1, 1950, pages 3, 4 and 13.

[3] China Mail, February 22, 1956, page 10.

[4]Hong Kong Telegraph, December 19, 1930, page 14.

[5] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[6] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[15] China Mail, June 26, 1947.

[16] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[17] China Mail, June 6, 1947, page 2.

[18] China Mail, March 8, 1946, pages 1 and 5.

[19] China Mail, March 8, 1946, page 5.

[21]China Mail, February 12, 1947, page 3.

[22] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 260.

[23] G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 189-190.

[26] China Mail, August 1, 1950, page 3.

[27] China Mail, February 20, 1946. For the withdrawal of charges see China Mail, April 18, 1946 pages 2 and 5, and for the deportation, April 24, 1946, page 2.

[28] China Mail, July 25, pages 3 and 11.

[29] China Mail, August 2, 1950, page 3.

[30] China Mail, August 3, 1950, page 11.

[31] China Mail, February 22, 1956, paged 10.

2 Comments

Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, Portuguese in Hong Kong, Stanley Camp

2 responses to “Marcus Alberto da Silva

  1. Pingback: The French Hospital Arrests: A Synthesis Of Sources | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: The European Far Left in Hong Kong 1938-1941 (1): Definitions and Personnel | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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