The Suppression of Piracy in the East Indies and the South China Sea, 1855–69

As trade between Europe and the Far East developed, so did piracy, on a scale that dwarfed the activities of the Caribbean buccaneers of the previous century. It has been suggested that the pirates of the East Indies, now Malaysia and Indonesia, and of the South China Sea, were simply fishermen impelled by hardship to seek a dishonest living. An examination of the facts, unfortunately, suggests that fishing was a last resort when their activities brought commerce to a standstill. The truth was that in both areas pirates operated in fleets large enough to intimidate the local authorities and were just as much a menace to their own people as they were to European traders.

In the East Indies the pirates’ favourite vessel was the rakish flying-prahu, 50 feet long and with a 14-foot beam. The prahu had a high poop and a long bowsprit, and was steered by two oars, one on each quarter. The bipod mast, mounted well forward, carried a jib and a lug-lateen mainsail, with a similar but smaller sail being carried by a mizzen. Usually, one or two heavy swivel guns were mounted fore- and-aft. While this does not seem particularly dangerous, the prahu was the fastest thing afloat and, acting with others in a pack, could easily run down a merchant vessel or escape from a pursuing warship. The pirates of the Indies were a notably savage lot who would willingly slaughter everyone aboard any vessel that offered the slightest resistance, regardless of age or sex.

Small wonder, then, that the appearance of prahu sails struck terror into every merchantman sailing the waters of the Indies. The Dutch, having extensive possessions in the area, strove to contain the menace, as did the Sea Service of the Honourable East India Company in its time, and, of course, the Royal Navy. The pirates quickly learned that even if they felt strong enough to challenge small warships their prahus were soon knocked to pieces by the dozen, with heavy loss of life, so they avoided direct contact as much as possible. The difficulty lay in getting at them, for their lairs lay in fortified villages up rivers too shallow for conventional warships to navigate. Naval landing parties therefore had to proceed upstream in the pulling boats, being sniped at from the jungle-covered banks the while, and sometimes being treated to a dose of grape or langridge from a cannon sited in a cleared fire-lane. As they approached the village, they might find the channel closed with piles and have to proceed on foot. Finally, they would have to storm the stockades of the village itself, supported by nothing heavier than the boat guns. This could involve heavy hand-to-hand fighting against invariably superior numbers. Generally, however, the pirates, more used to butchering helpless victims than confronting disciplined aggression, disliked the experience and took to their heels. Their village was then burned, as were their prahus, and their guns were taken out to sea and dropped into deep water, beyond hope of recovery.

While such punitive raids would put a pirate community out of business for a considerable time, other communities would gladly cash in on the vacuum so created, until they in turn were neutralised. Furthermore, it was inevitable that the landing parties would incur unwelcome casualties. However, the arrival of Crimean gunboats in the area accelerated the rate at which law and order could be imposed, as they could not only proceed further up rivers than conventional warships, but their impressive firepower often broke the enemy’s will before the landing parties could launch their attack.

As might be expected, piracy in the South China Sea was even more of a menace and much better organised. It was, in fact, very big business with long-term financial strategies and entire fleets at its disposal. During the early years of the 19th century a widow named Ching Shih became the most powerful pirate leader ever, having at her disposal no less than 800 junks, about 1000 smaller craft and some 70,000 men, organised efficiently into six squadrons which operated in designated areas. She was quite beyond Imperial control, any naval mandarin who fell into her hands being roasted alive or treated to the Death of One Thousand Cuts. In due course her squadron commanders fell out and came to blows. One, having offered himself and his ships to the Imperial government, was rewarded with the rank of naval mandarin. Others, including Ching Shih, seeing which way the wind was blowing, did likewise, until all the more prominent pirates became nominal members of the Imperial Navy.

That did not mean the end of piracy. Ching Shih’s fleet had simply outgrown itself to the point that it could no longer be sustained with adequate plunder or even sufficient rations. Thereafter, pirates continued to operate in smaller, more manageable numbers. Unlike their brethren in the East Indies, who sought immediate gain, the Chinese preferred to maintain the flow of commerce, charging junk owners protection money or impounding ships, cargoes and important passengers until they were ransomed. The difficulty facing the Royal Navy was that, initially at least, it was unable to engage even the most obvious pirate junk unless it was caught in the act of interfering with British shipping; nor could it mount punitive raids into sovereign Chinese territory in time of peace, despite the wishes of the local population and the mandarins’ inability or deliberate reluctance to tackle the problem themselves. The despatch of Commander E. W. Vansittart of the sloop Bittern, written off the mouth of the River Min on 1 March 1855, illustrates the point perfectly:

The neighbourhood seems infested with pirates; miserably poor boats followed the brig begging assistance; one village sent me a well drawn up petition; another a present of waste paper and joss sticks; fishermen, and passage boats, small traders, all telling the same pitiable story. Landing on Hootow, I was quickly surrounded by peasantry. Desiring the interpreter to ask them why so many fine looking fellows permitted strangers to molest them, they declared it was useless to resist pirates, and so whenever pirates came they, the villagers, ‘hid themselves and cried’. I could not offer any direct support, but trust good may arise indirectly. At various points along the coast we sighted small knots of piratical craft, but without information against them of their interference with our Flag, I could not act.

Having run up the river to within eight miles of the city of Wanchow, I learnt that a portion of the West Coast Pirate Squadron that had detained the English schooner Zephyr was still higher up. I detached the Second Lieutenant with four boats and a strong party to push past them with the flood tide in the grey of the morning, bringing them between the boats and the ship until I communicated with the mandarins. This was fortunate (as) the pirates were thrown off their guard although found with guns crammed and matches lighted. Three were captured without resistance; two escaped inland (i.e. up-river); the five or six others had put to sea shortly before our arrival. The Chief and many of the crews got away, but the 64 remaining Canton men were secured and will be delivered up to the authorities here. The Toutai and Chinese admiral at Wanchow were evidently so powerless that it appeared useless to remonstrate on the permitted outrage against a British vessel almost under their walls, but I thought it well to bring the point forward and was met with pretty sayings and civilities. They informed me that they had lately entered into engagements with these very pirates, on which I offered to hand them over. This the mandarins declined, saying it would be better to carry them to Foochow, and thanked me for taking them.

Given the Imperial authorities’ apparent impotence, much of which can be attributed to piratical threats or bribes, it is hardly surprising that warship captains, free from immediate political restraint, began to take the law into their own hands. On 20 October 1858 Admiral Seymour received the following despatch from Captain Nicholas Vansittart of the Magicienne, following her return to Hong Kong:

I have the honour to inform your Excellency that I arrived at the port and anchored off the town of Swatow in HM ship under my command, on the 13th inst, finding there HMS Fury. Commander Leckie having informed me that he was in communication with the Chinese authorities, with Mr Barton, Agent to Messrs Dent, and Mr Sullivan, Agent to Messrs Jardine & Matheson, concerning 2200 bags of sugar that had been piratically seized on or about the 21st ult from the English brig Pantaloon by a large force from the town of Sow-ah-pow, a well-known piratical town some miles up the narrow channel on the opposite side of the town of Swatow, I requested Commander Leckie (as I was under medical treatment) to continue his inquiries and exertions towards the recovery of the sugar and that I would remain there in case it should be necessary to use force.

On the 15th inst the mandarin of the village near Sow-ah-pow having informed Commander Leckie that the pirates refused to give up the sugar and that he was unable to force them, on the next morning the 16th inst, the Marines and boats of this ship, with those of the Fury, started soon after daylight for Sow-ah-pow, but, although I went myself, I left command of the expedition under Commander Leckie as originally arranged.

Upon our arriving off Sow-ah-pow shortly after 8 a.m., not only was there no mandarin to receive us (information having been given that the boats were coming up to inquire into the transaction), but many hundreds of men, armed chiefly with matchlocks and some gingals, had come down near the water at Sow-ah-pow, which was 1200 yards inland, the men all in good position on the heights, under the lee of the dikes of the water courses, and in among the sugar cane. They immediately opened fire on us and jeered us to come on. The boats returning the fire for some minutes, orders were given by Commander Leckie for the Marines and a party of seamen to land, when the pirates kept up a continual fire, retreating and taking up other positions as they went.

Having taken possession of the heights, the other positions, and advanced to within 50 yards of the town, driving the enemy before us into the said place, Commander Leckie, Messrs Barton and Sullivan and also myself were of the opinion that a good bombardment, from the boats, would be more advisable and more likely to be the means of recovering the sugar than if we went in and set fire to the town. Orders were sent down to that effect, the force that was landing taking up a commanding position at 100 yards from the town. The bombardment was most successful, the shell firing from the boats being perfect, as was also the rocket practice. Another letter having been forwarded to demand the sugar, stating that if they still refused, a second visit would be paid and the town not spared, the expedition returned to their respective ships the same afternoon. The casualties on our side were two severely wounded, both belonging to HMS Magicienne.

Having remained at anchor off Swatow, until their answer should arrive, which I am happy to say is to the effect that they are willing to hand over the sugar and come to any settlement, I left the said anchorage on the 19th inst, leaving the further arrangements to Commander Leckie.

It took the British authorities in Hong Kong some time to discover that the proximate cause of much piratical activity lay right under their noses. One of the biggest of the Mr Bigs in the business ran a successful barber’s shop in the mercantile quarter of the city. There he picked up information regarding the sailings of valuable cargoes and their destinations, which he supplied to the pirates at a price. Other sources of income included protection, extortion and blackmail. It was difficult for Europeans to penetrate the local community, and informers from the latter, if discovered, received short shrift from the triads, the Chinese secret societies that existed to protect and advance sectional interests. To some extent, British registered shipping could be protected by sailing in escorted convoys, although the Royal Navy could not be everywhere at once. The pirate barber, however, was playing a dangerous game in which it was inevitable that he made enemies, and in due course he was obliged to leave the colony for the good of his health.

Rear Admiral Hope relieved Seymour in April 1859 and on 11 March of that year issued an order for a sweep against the pirates. The results of this were recorded by the senior officer involved, Captain Colville of the Niger, in his despatch of 16 March:

Acting on information received at Macao, the whole of the 12th inst was spent in searching for a fleet of piratical vessels cruising in the vicinity of the Tang Rocks, but failing to discover them I weighed towards evening and anchored late off Koolan, with the intention of visiting Tsu-chung, under whose batteries a formidable fleet of piratical junks was known to be lying, the depredators of several valuable cargoes, an owner and Master of two of the captured junks acting as pilots under the able and effective assistance of Mr Caldwell, Register-General.

Accordingly, at seven on the morning of the 13th, I proceeded with the boats in tow of the gunboats Clown and Janus and after a run of 14 miles came within sight of a large flotilla of heavily armed junks and row-boats hauled under the protection of what we subsequently discovered to be regular defences consisting of a water stockade with a double ditch and high stockaded embankment armed with 36 guns protecting the whole sea face of and flanks of Tsu-chung.

Directing Lieutenant Wells in the ten-oared cutter to examine a suspicious junk to windward whilst the Janus overhauled two others to leeward, I took the remaining boats directly in towards the central force of junks, leaving the Clown to cover our movements but with peremptory orders to fire only in case the shore batteries opened on the boats.

However, it soon became evident that the enemy were prepared for a determined resistance; the crews of the junks joined the villagers, who with violent ejaculations and waving white flags on which the character ‘Hoong-Kin-Wong’ (a triad king) was prominent, invited us on, at the same time a heavy fire of round and grape opened on our advance. Forming behind a knoll of land, insulated by 500 yards of shallow water from the left extreme of the stockade, leaving the pinnace to cover the landing, and much assisted by the very excellent shell practice of the gunboats, the storming party dashed waist deep at the stockade and receiving a fire of grape entered the embrasures of an eight-gun battery, bayoneting the defenders who crowded the inner ditch and appeared paralysed by the vigour of the proceedings! After a short hand-to-hand encounter they retired precipitately, and now was seen the extraordinary sight of sixty bluejackets and Marines chasing 500 armed men through brakes and narrow acclivities for nearly two miles in the rear of the works! In this movement great numbers of the enemy were killed and it had the effect of turning the sea defences thus rendered comparatively harmless.

The storming party were now joined by the men under Lieutenants Blake and Wells, who by a judicious detour to the right had materially assisted to the discomfiture of the pirates. Every house in the town was a magazine in which large quantities of arms and munitions were stored. I consequently directed the village to be burned, eight large piratical fighting junks and eleven fast boats shared a similar fate, their guns having previously been sunk in deep water. The thirty-six guns of the land defences were also destroyed. Considerable resistance was offered by two of the junks, the boats being repeatedly hulled.

When I bring to Your Excellency’s notice the very large force of men consisting of at least 1300 effectively armed, with a necessary perfect knowledge of locale and the determination they evinced in opposing our landing, I cannot but feel astonished at our good fortune – not a casualty occurred whereas the loss to the enemy could not have been under 180 men. After communicating with a mandarin junk force just arrived from Macao with the information that seven pirate junks were at anchor off Li-wan-mun opposite Moto, the boats returned to the ship at Koolan.

On the 14th, having despatched the Niger to await my arrival at Macao, I proceeded with the whole boat force to examine the numerous crannies to the west of Broadway en route to Li-wan-mun. In Sykee, a bay opposite Koolan, four piratical junks, with guns numerically formidable, were driven on shore and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers. In the largest an English Red Ensign was found. In a deep inlet to the north of Soochow three others were captured and destroyed.

Arriving at Li-wan-mun, I was informed that seven junks had slipped a few hours previously and run higher up the creek. The villagers in pointing out their position were graphic in their account of the barbarities they were committing and hailed our arrival with the most enthusiastic rejoicings. A hamlet had been sacked and a passage boat taken that very morning. Advancing until dusk, I anchored and prepared, by getting pilots, for prosecuting my search in the morning.

On the 15th we weighed at daylight and piloted by boatmen who had been robbed by these pirates on the evening of our visit, threaded the remainder of the tortuous reach connecting Broadway with a river running in a parallel direction. The piratical squadron were shortly discovered ahead using every effort to escape. When the sternmost mounting 24 guns was brought to, she proved to have been a rice boat captured in January from the Hong Kong Chinese merchant who accompanied Mr Caldwell. I caused her, therefore, having previously removed the guns, to be restored. Seven large passage boats were likewise released.

The gunboats were now unfortunately taking the ground. I despatched the boats to capture the remainder, a service I am bound to add most ably executed, the pinnace under Mr Blake, the senior lieutenant present, after a running fight of one hour and a quarter driving one of nine guns on shore, her crew being immediately pounced upon by mandarin soldiers. Another junk of 12 guns, after a vigorous resistance in which two stink-pots were thrown into the boats of Janus under Lieutenant Knevitt, was carried by boarding, and three others mounting respectively seven, nine and 22 guns were captured and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers with the two cutters in co-operation with the Clown.

Exclusive of the crew who fell into the hands of the mandarins, 21 pirates were killed on this occasion by the fire of the boats, and the guns, mostly 18- and 24-pounders of American manufacture, were sunk beyond means of recovery. I then returned to the ship at Macao, arriving at midnight, from whence I proceeded this morning to join your flag.

Given repeated hammerings such as this, the pirate menace would probably have been solved even earlier than it was, save that the débâcle at the Pei Ho River a few months later not only reduced the number of gunboats available but also demonstrated that the Royal Navy was fallible. The losses, however, were quickly made good. The replacements had conventionally shaped hulls and were thus less lively in heavy weather. They included several slightly larger barque-rigged gunvessels, up to 185 feet long with proper holds and improved accommodation, armed with one 68-pounder rifled muzzle-loader and four 24-pounder howitzers.