Hong Kong the Pirate Capital – Part IV: Piracy and Prejudice

Sir John Bowring - National Portrait Gallery London

Long before the HMS Sulphur dropped anchor in 1841 and the Union Jack was planted at Possession Point, a different set of colours flew over the islands we now call home: the red, black, and other banners of a fearsome pirate federation that would have made the Sulphur’s landing party look like minnows. The dregs left behind by sea-roving royalty such as Cheng I Sao and Cheung Po Tsai would bedevil the British for more than a century, but never was the battle with these buccaneers more fraught than in Hong Kong’s earliest years.

When the island was formally ceded to Britain a year later, maritime law was still in its infancy. Territorial waters were understood to extend no more than three nautical miles from shore – about the range of a cannon shot. Pirate junks frequently disguised themselves as fishing boats and fishermen, fearing pirates, could be just as well armed. Subterfuge and the ease of escape and plausible deniability kept pirates perpetually out of the Royal Navy’s reach. They preyed on foreign and Chinese ships with virtual impunity and scared off potential investors, settlers and traders. The prospects for this barren rock of a colony did not look promising.

For the beleaguered administrators trying to make a go of this latest, remote outpost of the British Empire, Daniel Richard Caldwell must have seemed like a godsend. He could speak Cantonese fluently, as well as Hindustani, Malay and Portuguese, and counted friends, informers, confidants and political backers in every corner of native society. He somehow knew where the pirates would strike and then where they would fall back to.

But something about him was off. He didn’t grow up in Britain. He wasn’t educated at a public school, nor at Oxford or Cambridge or, apparently, anywhere. He openly took a Chinese wife — a former prostitute no less — and there were even whispers that he himself was “a man of mixed blood,” either part Malay or Anglo-Indian. To those who harboured misgivings about him from the very onset, it would come as no surprise when Caldwell himself stood accused of being a pirate in a corruption crackdown that sent shockwaves all the way to Westminster.

Not everyone could even agree where Caldwell was born; it was either Singapore or St. Helena. It was in the Lion City that he grew up, though, the son of a British soldier who had kept watch over Napoleon Bonaparte in his mid-Atlantic exile. Caldwell was thrown out by his family in 1834, by some accounts, and floated north to China, where he commanded an opium cutter smuggling contraband into the Pearl River Delta. The work was dangerous but paid well, and Caldwell’s dissolute and rakish lifestyle led to an illness that compelled him homewards.

At least that’s one version of his story. A less swashbuckling rendition sees him take up a menial bookkeeping job for a British hong in Canton (as Guangzhou was then known), driven home instead by boredom.

At any rate, he was back in Singapore by 1839, when he joined the British Expeditionary Force sailing north to wage war on China. During Captain Charles Eliot’s Chusan campaign in 1841, during the First Opium War, he came to the attention of his superior Major William Hull Caine for his extraordinary linguistic skills. When Caine later became Hong Kong’s Chief Magistrate, he recommended that Caldwell be kept on as an interpreter to the police and later Supreme Court.

In the 1840s and 50s, the dearth of capable interpreters meant that he became vitally important to the day-to-day running of the colony; he was the main, and at times only, conduit of communication between the government and the Chinese population. When Caldwell left on a return trip to Singapore in 1850, the courts virtually ground to a halt without him.

Caldwell’s local contacts made him especially significant in the fight against piracy, earning him accolades from Royal Navy captains who attested to his pivotal role in the battles against the pirate fleets of Chui A Poo and Shap Ng Tsai in 1849. When he served as Assistant Superintendent of Police for the better part of a decade, he earned a reputation as the only policeman in the colony capable of producing results in the fight against piracy, overshadowing and antagonising superiors who later lined up against him.

Cultivating the network of informants that helped him keep tabs on the pirates’ movements also pulled him ever-deeper into the burgeoning Hong Kong underworld, substantiating the suspicions long harboured by those who resented the presence of a “mixed blood” commoner from the colonies taking a seat at the high table of the colonial government.

In 1856, a new attorney general, Thomas Chisholm Anstey, arrived to root out corruption in the colony. Anstey was admired for his honesty and high-principled nature but considered overzealous and incapable of restraint or balanced judgement. He made enemy after enemy as he went on the attack, and no one was more firmly on his crosshairs than Caldwell.

It was Caldwell’s excellent local contacts that had made him so indispensable to the colonial government, but now it was the very excellence of these contacts that drew suspicion upon him. Anstey accused Caldwell of being unfit to hold his position on account of his consorting with pirates, robbers and prostitutes, and having a financial interest in brothels. In 1857 his close friend and confederate Ma Chow Wong was convicted of being in league with pirates. Amongst his belongings was allegedly incriminating evidence against Caldwell, but these papers were burnt on the orders of Acting Colonial Secretary and Caldwell’s ally Dr. W.T. Bridges. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough dirt then available to take Caldwell down with him.

Instead it was Anstey who was sent packing by an exasperated Governor Sir John Bowring, who exonerated Caldwell of the charges against him and raised him to Registrar General, the highest position related to the colonial population. It was his job to bridge the chasm between the governors and the governed; to help locals understand the administration’s policies and serve as an official to whom they could appeal for help and information. Bowring also added the epithet “Protector of Chinese” and made Caldwell a Justice of the Peace.

Back in London, however, Anstey refused to drop his campaign against Caldwell, and when Bowring was succeeded by the less liberal Sir Hercules Robinson in 1859 a new public inquiry before the Executive Council was called. This time, Caldwell would not be so lucky. Within three years they ruled that that “Caldwell’s long and intimate connection with the pirate Ma Chow Wong was of such a character as to render him unfit to be continued in the public service.” He was stripped of his official titles and forced into exile from the ruling class.

Yet, however much the colony’s rulers may have wished to rid themselves of the troublesome Caldwell, they couldn’t live without him. Time and again, he was recalled to advise the governor on a variety of endeavours involving the native population, from licensing gaming establishments to creating a Chinese detective force and the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.

British colonial discourse at the time — and for generations to come — viewed Eurasians as both a biological and moral transgression, a symbol of impurity, degeneration and moral laxity. For traditional Chinese, too, they were a living betrayal of one’s racial and therefore lineage loyalty. Although Caldwell trod ceaselessly between both the European and Chinese worlds, he belonged fully to neither and inevitably aroused suspicions on both sides.

As in her colonies elsewhere, Britain was dead set on maintaining the Manichean racial division in Hong Kong between ruler and ruled, European and Chinese. The mystique and supposed superiority of the white population was an essential sleight of hand that enabled tiny groups of Britons to cow millions worldwide into submission, and Eurasians like Caldwell were considered so threatening because by their mere presence they undermined this ruse.

For such a prominent figure, so much about Daniel Richard Caldwell remains a mystery. Was he a brazen opportunist or a capable administrator dragged down by court politics and prejudice? A treacherous pirate or lawman hero? An elite or a friend to the common man?

The only remotely satisfying answer, in a style truly befitting the man, is “all of the above.”

Go back to top button