In the pitch darkness of Cheung Po Tsai Cave on Cheung Chau, it’s the sounds that take you back in time. Water gently trickles down one side of the chamber while the ocean swell drums against the other, beating a tune that would have been familiar to the legendary leader of the Red Flag Fleet of pirates. At the end of this spindly passage abutting Treasure Bay, reputed to have been a secret vault for his spoils, a slit of sunlight lures you out onto a rocky outlook above the sparkling noonday sea.
For Cheung, who had risen from a child captive to become the most feared — and revered — pirate in China, it would have been the perfect spot to survey his domain. Ringing the horizon are over a dozen verdant islands of the Ladrones chain — the infamous “Islands of Thieves” over which he reigned supreme during the Great Pirate Upheaval, when Hong Kong was, for a decade, the corsair capital of the South China Sea.
Just two years after he founded a six-fleet pirate confederation in 1805, Cheung’s adoptive father Cheng I died suddenly and mysteriously in Vietnam. Depending on who you believe, he was either blown overboard and drowned in a violent gale, or he was struck by a cannonball as he attempted to retake the country for his erstwhile patrons, the vanquished Tay Son Dynasty (1778-1802).
Despite the loss of their founder and figurehead, the pirates were not rudderless for long. Cheng I’s wife — best known in Chinese as just that: Cheng I Sao (Zeng6 Jat1 Sou2 鄭一嫂) — quickly took the helm, and steered the six fleets from strength to strength. She alone could hold the cutthroat confederation together, but she also saw that she needed someone loyal who could help her manage the daily operations of the Red Flag Fleet and win over the rank and file. To this end, she turned to Cheung. The two allies quickly became lovers as well and later wed.
Resplendent in purple silk robes and a black turban, Cheung became the charismatic new face of the confederation. His men knew him as a just leader as well as a protector of religion, frequently visiting temples on shore and making donations to priests. Some stories even imbued him with an almost supernatural prowess, telling of how he easily easily lifted and pilfered the image of a deity famous for its miracles, which no other pirate could even budge.
Like the great Koxinga, Cheung was also a visionary rebel. Richard Glasspoole, a British officer who fell into the hands of the Red Flag pirates, recalled how Cheung openly spoke of “his intention of displacing the Tartar family from the throne of China,” restoring dignity to the country. Like the triads and other secret societies that evolved from groups loyal to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), many pirates were drawn to the idea of subverting and potentially overthrowing the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) that supplanted it.
Cheung was easily the match of the Caribbean’s most notorious swashbucklers. He combined the theatrics of Blackbeard, the political acumen of Henry Morgan, the Robin Hood romanticism of Black Sam Bellamy and the unstoppable drive of Bartholomew Roberts. But he was far more powerful than all of his Western cousins combined. Thanks to Cheung and Cheng I Sao’s leadership, the confederation doubled in size from 800 junks in 1805 to at least 1,800 by 1809 – ten times the size of the Spanish Armada. Cheng’s flagship, the Peng-fa, fielded more guns than the Queen Anne’s Revenge and held three times as many men.
Recruits flocked to the confederation at this point up to 30 at a time, and as their power grew so too did their ambition. They shifted their sights from coasting vessels to oceangoing junks fresh from Batavia and Malaysia, as well as Portuguese brigs from India and the Philippines.
They also hit upon a new source of revenue that made prowling the open seas redundant: preying upon the provincial salt trade and then cashing in on their fearsome reputation by collecting protection money. The emperor demanded that militiamen be assigned to all salt junks, but the salt merchants themselves found it much more expedient to negotiate directly with pirates and pay them for passports. Fees were assessed by the value of the cargo and collected annually, providing pirates with predictable profits in all seasons.
The pirates were true to their word too: if a vessel under their protection was targeted, their code demanded that compensation be offered for the ship’s cargo plus an additional 500 Spanish dollars for their trouble. As the confederation’s racket grew more sophisticated, they established financial offices along the coast and even a tax office in Canton.
Cheung even brought the fight all the way there to the seat of government in July 1808. At the Bocca Tigris, he drew out the navy’s ships with a small detachment before surging forth from a nearby bay with his main force and encircling them, firing from all sides. Cheung himself stood at the prow of the Peng-fa and, at the height of the battle, was struck by an enemy bullet. Moments later he stood back up, merely grazed, and returned to the prow.
Aiming to sever the pirates’ supply lines, provincial authorities imposed a coastal embargo that prevented all junks from leaving port and recalled those that had already left, forcing the salt tribute to move overland. To these officials’ surprise, however, pirates didn’t just drift idly until they starved — what wasn’t given them, they took. Reaving the southern shores with a new ferocity, Cheung’s fleet engaged local militias in pitched battles that killed thousands.
The following year Cheung returned to Lantau to meet Cheng I Sao, who ordered him to proceed upriver to Canton. Along the way, he seized American traders, ships from the Siamese tribute mission and the brig of the Portuguese governor of Timor. As he approached Whampoa, Cheung demanded a ransom from the governor general himself.
When the Royal Navy offered to help defend Macau and anchor a fleet off the Bocca Tigris to protect local trade in 1804, the governor general ridiculed the thought that they couldn’t handle the pirates themselves. Now, the same officials who had deemed the threat “too contemptible to cause a moment’s uneasiness” was turning to the West for deliverance.
They first asked the the Portuguese, who were delighted to send an armed cruiser after the pirates. “The muddy waters of the river ran red with blood,” according to a Portuguese account of how they chased Cheung from the port of Whampoa. Next came overtures to the British, who dispatched a country ship to free the Siamese vessels. Within a fortnight, the pirates were driven from the Inner Passage and bottled up between Lantau and Lintin.
As the summer of 1809 turned to autumn and the pirates retreated to their base at Tung Chung, a joint Portuguese and Chinese flotilla closed in for a final, decisive battle against the confederacy. As they had hoped, Cheng I Sao was forced to call in assistance from the pirate admirals when her base was besieged from all sides. Qing forces then scuttled cargo carriers to box in the pirate junks and launched fireships into the enemy fleet.
Cheung’s devotion to the gods of the sea and the wind seemed to finally pay off, however, when a sudden change in the wind blew the fireships back at the navy. In the ensuing chaos, he had his large vessels towed out past the wrecks and escaped to the open ocean. After the smoke cleared, both the Chinese and the Portuguese made grand claims of victory and the killing of over a thousand sea bandits, but according to Richard Glasspoole, fewer than 40 pirates fell and not a single vessel was lost. They had fought off the greater assault ever made against them, but soon started to turn on themselves.
Kuo P’o-tai, head of the Black Flag Fleet, was conspicuously absent at the battle of Tung Chung. There was bad blood between him and Cheung, whom he had long envied for his rapid rise and for winning the affections of Cheng I Sao. Kuo ignored the call to come to her aid and was only seen a month later when he ambushed Cheung, just as an exhausted Red Flag Fleet disengaged from a naval skirmish. This confrontation between the Black and Red inflicted far more damage and casualties than the Sino-Portuguese blockade.
It was also Kuo’s parting salvo against his former allies. He surrendered a month later, following negotiations which he insisted the Portuguese mediate. With him came five and half thousand men and over a hundred junks. Cheung swore he would never follow suit, and in January 1810 he defeated the Sino-Portuguese fleet guarding the Inner Passage and seized an English country ship carrying chests of silver. But Kuo’s surrender had already set off an intractable series of events. Within weeks, 9,000 more pirates had laid down their arms. Even Cheung began sending out feelers to test the waters.
By Cheung’s own admission, he decided to surrender later that year because he saw that he was outclassed by the Portuguese warships that now came up against him. During his talks with Chinese officials, Cheung said, “For 14 years you have experienced the power and vigilance of my scepter. You now know from my own mouth that the Portuguese valor was what destroyed it.” This, however, is a poor explanation for why the pirates surrendered at the height of their power. Cheung himself had bested the Portuguese more than once.
Despite his grand talk of toppling the Manchu dynasty, Cheung was driven by the same motive that drew every pirate to the sea: profit. In the end, he was out for the best deal he could get, and the only way for the Qing to neutralise him was to offer just that. To Cheung and Cheng I Sao, it wasn’t capitulation. It was another opportunity for advancement.
Cheung drove a hard bargain and in the end the Governor General agreed to let him retain his own ships and join the anti-piracy campaign, where he climbed the military ladder just as quickly as he had the pirate one. Hunting down his former brothers-in-arms earned him a promotion and a peacock feather, and he and Cheng I Sao lived in Canton under the Governor General’s protection until protests against their presence in the city they once terrorised forced a move to Fujian. After rising to the rank of colonel he became head of the Penghu Regiment, in sole charge of the archipelago’s defence.
So successful was Cheung’s career that in 1820 it caught the attention of an upright mandarin named Lin Zexu, the future anti-opium czar whose actions ignited war with Britain and led to the cessation of Hong Kong. Lin was so incensed that a former outlaw could reach such heights that he petitioned the emperor to demote him. Nothing came of this, however, and two years later Cheung died aged 36 – around the same age that most officials received their first lowly position after a lifetime of study and imperial examinations. Cheng I Sao then returned to Canton with their son and ran an infamous gambling den. Not bad for a former prostitute and the son of an illiterate fisherman.
The years after the disintegration of the pirate confederation were quiet ones along these southern shores. But ratcheting tensions between the British and Chinese and the birth of a new colony at Hong Kong led to both new opportunities for pirates to profit and new blind spots for them to escape punishment.