Long before British sailors slaked their thirst at the freshwater streams of Aberdeen and accidentally christened Hong Kong Island the Fragrant Harbour, it had another, less alluring name. To Spanish and Portuguese seafarers, it was the northern anchor in a chain they called the Ladrones – the Islands of Thieves. At the turn of the 19th century, the waters that lap our shores were the dominion of pirate admirals with thousands of war junks under their command, terrorising the ships and seaside settlements of southern China.
As long as goods have been carried coastwise and people have lived where they could smell the salt air or hear the crash of waves, the spectre of these sea bandits has lurked just beyond the horizon. But the story of how they made Hong Kong their home is neither monocausal nor inevitable. It is the result of a perfect storm of domestic upheaval, foreign wars, demographic trends and economic policies of the high Qing era.
The first shot in the arm for what American author Gene Gleason called “Hong Kong’s oldest industry” came in the first years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), whose founding emperor declared a “sea ban” in 1371 prohibiting private overseas trade and forcibly relocating coastal communities inland. The policy was suspended by the usurper Yongle, who sponsored eunuch admiral Zheng He’s seven voyages and built a vast treasure fleet of almost mythical proportions to cow neighbours into submission all the way to the east coast of Africa. Apocryphally, he also sought to ferret out his nephew, the true heir to the Dragon Throne, who was believed to have survived Yongle’s coup and spirited away to Southeast Asia.
Zheng’s fleet was turned to ashes by Yongle’s successors, who in 1394 again forbade foreign trade outside the tribute mission schedule. Like the initial ban, this was ostensibly intended to protect the empire from raiders whom they called “Japanese dwarf pirates,” even if Chinese or those of mixed descent were also involved.
Over time, however, it became clear that the ban was not only unworkable but encouraged piracy by making outlaws of shipwrights, fishermen and traders. Later laws made it a capital offence to build a ship with more than one mast, and in 1525 an imperial decree called for the destruction of all oceangoing vessels and the imprisonment of anyone engaged in overseas trade. By 1551, as global trade boomed following Europe’s voyages of discovery, it was illegal for Chinese to sail ships of more than one mast for any reason.
Ming hostility to the maritime sector was matched, if not surpassed, by that of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In 1661, the Kangxi Emperor ordered a Great Clearance, evacuating coastal populations around 25 kilometres inland to starve out support for the Ming loyalist Koxinga, who took Taiwan from the Dutch to use it as base for his ongoing resistance.
Up and down the seaboard, from Shandong to Guangdong, coast dwellers had their homes and ships destroyed. To smell the salt air or hear the crash of waves warranted execution. The ban pushed many southerners to emigrate, prompting Beijing to outlaw the South Sea trade and make both leaving the realm and returning from abroad capital offences.
The sea ban was lifted following the defeat of Koxinga in 1684 and the South Sea trade resumed in 1727. For a time, it seemed as though Chinese would finally be free to ply the open ocean. Thanks to relative peace, improved agricultural technology and the introduction of New World crops, China’s population exploded in the late 18th century and more and more people settled on the shores of Guangdong to make a living from the ensuing trade boom.
In 1757, however, the Qing instituted what became known as the Canton System. All foreign trade was restricted to a single seaport, Guangzhou, to prevent traders from taking advantage of lower tariffs levied in upstart ports like Ningbo. Even within the city, only an oligopoly of compradors was allowed to participate and profit. For the imperial court, it was a matter of control: limiting foreigners’ influence and entrusting a small elite to police their behaviour. But it also meant that even as trade increased, most of the surging coastal population was systematically shut out from it. On land, the small folk were guaranteed lives as nobodies struggling for survival. In spite of its dangers, piracy promised social mobility.
Overpopulation, dispossession and desperation: all the conditions for an explosion in piracy had been prepared. But the match that ignited the tinder was to come from abroad. When a peasant uprising erupted in Vietnam in 1778 and the ascendant Tay Son dynasty spread northward to vanquish the country’s ruling clans, they formed a Faustian pact with Chinese pirates. The outlaws served as Tay Son privateers and effectively became the movement’s navy, participating in every major engagement at sea. Much like Queen Anne’s War had led to the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean, the Tay Son Rebellion plunged southern China into a tumultuous era known now as the Great Pirate Upheaval.
For centuries, Chinese pirates had been amateurs – fishermen who, when their catch was thin, gathered some kinsmen and spent a few weeks marauding to supplement their incomes. It was their role in the Vietnamese conflict that turned them pro. In exchange for fighting alongside the Tay Son, Chinese pirates were outfitted with bigger, better-armed junks and received military ranks and titles that legitimised their seaborne larceny. They also found safe harbour to retreat to after coastal raids when Qing warships gave chase, and the booty they plundered was enough to fund the Tay Son war effort and still present the pirates with a profit. Soon, the then-Vietnamese port town of Jiangping became a notorious pirate hideaway – a kind of Tortuga of the South China Sea.
Having a protected base of operations meant that the pirates no longer had to waste energy on mere survival. Instead, they turned their efforts to expansion. Pirate fleets became so big that even the largest families could no longer staff them, and as gangs expanded new leaders emerged to command these increasingly sophisticated organisations.
Without this period of official sponsorship, historian Dian Murray says that these petty pirates “would probably have remained little more than struggling banditti in the offshore islands.” Even after the Tay Son dynasty itself fell in 1801, they were too well organised to disappear. Now unwelcome in Vietnam, they returned to their home ports in Guangdong, whose 4,300-kilometre-long coastline, with its innumerable bays, hidden coves, remote offshore islands and mountain-ringed harbours, was the perfect haven for pirates.
Although the pirate bands were at their most vulnerable, so too was the Qing court. Beset by the White Lotus Society in the north, a Miao uprising in the southwest, the Huizhou Triad uprising in Guangdong and the pirate-backed Lin Shuangwen rebellion in Taiwan, the central government was powerless to suppress the growing pirate threat. When the Governor General of Guangdong and Guangxi wrote to the emperor in 1800 to request the retention of local salt revenues to double the size of his navy, the Son of Heaven didn’t just say no: he ordered the bulk of existing pirate suppression funds diverted to Beijing in order to bankroll his struggle against a growing list of domestic belligerents. This was done to the delight of the outlaws of the sea.
But those who had been brothers in Vietnam were quick to turn on one another. Seven would-be pirate kings fought bloody and endless battles for leadership of the Cantonese corsairs before eventually agreeing in 1805 to form a confederation with regularised procedures and a strict code of conduct. After one of the chiefs surrendered, their fleets were reduced to six: the Red, Black, White, Green, Blue, and Yellow Flag fleets.
The confederation’s principal founder was local legend, Cheng I, whose piratical pedigree was second to none: he was the great-great-grandson of Cheng Chien, an officer under pirate-patriot Koxinga. But the ancestor did not follow the Ming Loyalist Koxinga to Taiwan in 1661. Instead, he sailed for Hong Kong’s Mirs Bay. In the narrows of Lei Yue Mun, his descendants created a stronghold atop Devil’s Peak to command passage through the mouth of the harbour.
Cheng I’s Red Flag Fleet was the largest and most powerful unit in the confederation, and by 1807 he had tripled his original force to 600 junks operating at Lei Yue Mun alone. Even after his death, the fleet continued to grow stronger under the leadership of his wife, the pirate queen Cheng I Sao, and his charismatic catamite and adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai.
As well as unifying the pirates, Cheng I also gave them a new permanent headquarters. Settling midway along the north shore of Lantau Island at Tung Chung, where the coastline dips to form a protected anchorage bounded by Chep Lap Kok, the pirates were within striking distance of both of the Pearl River Estuary and the Kap Shui Mun sea routes.
Battle hardened, regimented and armed to the teeth, the professionalised pirates of the South China coast leaped into the political vacuum left by a deeply distracted central government. Just as outside forces bred them, however, the arrival of a new cast of outsiders would herald their demise. As Portuguese and British warships also took aim at the pirate threat, an uncommon alliance and a decisive showdown were approaching. Until then, however, the Great Pirate Upheaval had hit high tide.
In Part II, we look at the golden age of piracy under Cheng I Sao and Cheung Po Tsai, and explore how pirates continued to imperil Hong Kong well into the 20th century.