Around the turn of the 19th century, people around the world began to receive an unsettling postcard from their friends and family in Hong Kong.
As their eyes scanned the image from top to bottom, they took in an idyll of life in the Orient. Tall mountains soared over swallowtail roofs. Traditional sampans rested on the rocky foreshore. A neat row of moustachioed English gentlemen were enjoying a day out, resplendent in white linen suits and high breeches, walking sticks and pith helmets in hand.
They looked like they should have been standing proudly before a picnic spread of dainty sandwiches and cakes, their wives drawing champagne bottles from wicker hampers below. But they weren’t. At their feet were the severed heads and lifeless bodies of a dozen Chinese men.
The corpses belonged to those who had pirated the steamship Namoa and left Hong Kong in a state of unprecedented shock, insecurity and outrage. This, the postcard seemed to say without a word, is what happens to the enemies of the British Empire in Hong Kong.
SS Namoa was a coasting steamer operated by the Douglas Steamer Company. At noon on December 10, 1890, she set out on her routine run between Hong Kong and Swatow (now Shantou), a treaty port on the eastern fringe of Guangdong that was also home to the ship’s namesake, the picturesque nearshore island of Nan’ao.
Onboard were five European saloon passengers and 240 Chinese deck passengers. Many of the latter were migrants from Guangdong and Fujian who had just spent years working in California and the Straits Settlements, toiling in tough conditions and saving every penny so they could bring their earnings back with them to their home villages.
Mingling amongst them, however, were around 40 pirates biding their time before launching a carefully planned assault on the ship’s crew. They wouldn’t have to wait long. Less than two hours after Namoa slipped from her moorings in Hong Kong, the gang swung into action. English official Charles JH Halcombe recalled the pivotal moment thus:
Several Chinese passengers [during the voyage] came up out of the main between-decks and walked about for some minutes in a seemingly aimless manner; then others emerged from the hatch, until there were between forty and fifty on deck… Suddenly, at a given signal, off came their loose outer garments, and these harmless-looking passengers were armed men; each with a cutlass and two revolvers in hand, and at their appointed stations.
A Danish man named Mr. Petersen, who was the keeper of Lamocks Lighthouse in Swatow, was taking tiffin out in the air when the assault was launched. He was enjoying a cup of claret and a biscuit when the pirates appeared on deck and shot him four times in the head. His was the first person killed aboard the Namoa, but he was not the last.
A Malay quartermaster who struggled with a pirate was shot in the chest and later died of his wounds. Another was thrown overboard. Two cooks, an engineer and an officer were also shot but survived. The first-class passengers holed up inside the saloon together with the captain, Thomas Guy Pocock. The pirates summoned Captain Pocock outside to negotiate but as he approached the door he, too, was shot point blank through the chest.
Having taken complete command of the ship, the pirates set about ransacking the cabins and robbing its passengers of all their belongings. Although colonial outrage would centre on the treatment of the European passengers — “handled in the roughest manner, even to being spat upon,” wailed a missionary onboard — the experience was far more traumatic for those in steerage, who had all their hard work and hope taken away.
Namoa’s new commanders steered her out to sea around Pedro Blanca, an isolated rock pinnacle 85 kilometres east of Sai Kung, before bringing her slowly back to Mendoza Island, anchoring there about 7pm. Mendoza (now known as Xiaoxingshan) lay south of Harlem Bay or Ping-hoi, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that served as the backdrop for the dramatic final confrontations between Chui A-poo’s pirate fleet and the Royal Navy in 1849.
The pirates doused the Namoa’s lights and signalled to a small flotilla of junks awaiting them at the island. They pulled alongside the steamer to bring its booty onboard then ferry the pirates ashore, though not before raiding the galley and enjoying a grand feast onboard.
Heartened by the silence that followed the pirates’ party, crew locked into the saloon soon broke out and took back the ship. Under the command of the chief mate, Namoa limped back into Victoria Harbour at around eight o’clock the next morning. When she was observed returning so soon, bystanders wondered what had happened to her; and as she drew closer and they saw the flag flying half-mast from the taffrail, they knew it had been something terrible.
“The startling news of this outrage created a general feeling of unsafety and consternation among the foreign communities in China,” Halcombe wrote in his memoirs.
The Namoa affair was not the first hijacking of a large vessel by brigands based in or around Hong Kong, nor would it be the last. But it was a wakeup call for colonial authorities who had grown complacent following their defeats of the area’s last major pirate fleets. The audacity of this new breed of pirates was quickly becoming intolerable. A Cheung Chau ferry and a vessel in Victoria Harbour were even targeted at one point. Something had to be done.
Immediate precautions were undertaken to fortify ships. Iron grilles were installed between the bridge, officers’ quarters and first-class deck; coastal steamers were allowed to carry light armaments; and armed sailors were stationed at doorways. Pilot houses became pillboxes.
Hong Kong police quickly apprehended two men based in Shau Kei Wan alleged to have led the operation, but both were let off since they did not originate from Hong Kong and the colonial court therefore lacked jurisdiction. Instead, they let the men fell into the hands of the authorities north of Boundary Street, where justice was less refined. The men were thrown in with 13 other pirates nabbed by Qing officials, four of whom were also involved in the hijacking. Three of the six were said to have been its masterminds.
A mere five months and one day after the Namoa incident, all 15 of the pirates were led to a beach by the Kowloon Walled City yamen and decapitated. The West Australian, far away to the south, applauded this “impressive ceremony”:
For a long time it seemed that the leaders in that diabolical business were to escape with the fruits of their crime. They got, thanks to the apathy of the naval Authorities here, a very favourable start. The police of the colony, if they were to depend on their own efforts, were Utterly powerless. But the Chinese authorities bestirred themselves in the matter in a way that showed they were very much in earnest.
The executioner himself, however, seemed to grew weary with the tedium of taking so many heads. He handed his sword to his 15-year-old son and let the teenager take care of the final four. “The whole affair,” it was reported, “only occupied a few minutes.”
The haunting image of the Namoa executions soon took on a life of its own. In his edited volume Pirates, Ports and Coasts in Asia, Historian John Kleinen writes that pictures of the killing ground “found their way into albums and the obvious postcards for a wider mass consumption,” crediting the Queen’s Road publisher M. Sternberg with producing postcards depicting the pirates on the execution ground. “A situation in which foreigners posed behind or next to dead bodies of condemned criminals was not unusual in these days,” Kleinen writes. “Pictures of severed heads were produced elsewhere in colonial Indochina, Japan and British India.”
The postcard picture later resurfaced in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a study of the outlaw figure as champion of social justice. Kleinen also chronicles its use in depictions of Eight-Nation Army retributions against Boxer rebels and French cruelty visited upon Vietnamese insurgents. In the digital age, one occasionally find it on “historical” Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts, frequently followed by repudiations of Western imperialism.
None of these readings, however, are borne out by the facts. Even the conspicuous white faces on the beach belonged to employees of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a Chinese government agency staffed largely by foreigners. Their presence on the beach was not as spectators or foreign dignitaries but as Chinese civil servants, since the slain lighthouse keeper Petersen had been a colleague of theirs.
Nonetheless, the photograph does still tell a compelling story all its own: one of two great empires, ordinarily at one another’s throats, united in a moment of bloody triumph over a common adversary. In the end, the threat written into that gruesome postcard is not so much addressed to the enemies of Great Britain or the Great Qing, but to the hostis humani generis. This is what happened to ”the enemies of all mankind.”