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Chinese Piracy

Although piracy has been stamped out in Western waters, the coastal waters and rivers of China are infested with pirates who are not deterred by the elaborate precautions which are nowadays made against attack


THE TYPICAL NATIVE RIVER CRAFT of China is the junk, which has survived with little alteration for thousands of years. In the early days of merchant shipping in Chinese waters, the pirates would attack and board sailing ships from junks. With the advent of steam the pirates changed their tactics, and they now generally embark disguised as passengers.

THERE are many people who hold a comforting belief that piracy is dead, and that the overseas traveller is now as safe as the traveller in an English railway train; but the naval officer who has the job of policing the seas knows perfectly well that there are a score of areas in which piracy would become rife in a month were it not for the fear of the man-of-war. In Chinese waters the danger of an outbreak of piracy is always present.

The most important factor which will always be of paramount influence is that the average Chinese does not see anything immoral in piracy, which is to him an excellent means of earning a living as practised by his forefathers for countless generations. It is a living accompanied by an element of risk, but that does not worry him unduly. The local mandarins always made a large part of their income by piracy, for they could never be sure of their official pay. Nowadays the republican officials, local mayors or temporary generals take precisely the same view of this opportunity of making money.

In the early days of European trade with China the pirate always had to be reckoned with and all the ships were armed. The East Indiamen carried their two long tiers of guns, and standing orders always enjoined particular care while vessels were in Chinese waters. At a later date, when there was peace in Europe and the ordinary merchantman was no longer armed, the clippers in the China tea trade always carried their battery of guns and a full supply of muskets and pistols in the saloon. Long after the tea trade was done and the ships were sailing on other services these arms-racks remained and were the secret joy of every apprentice told off to keep them clean. The early P. and O. steamers in Eastern waters were also fully armed and their crews were always ready to defend themselves.

Attack was then to be expected from outside, particularly when a sailing ship was becalmed or when a steamer was broken down or anchored waiting for water. Powerfully armed junks would bear down on her, opening fire with their guns at the first opportunity, but always striving to board and overcome the crew by weight of numbers in hand-to-hand fighting on deck. These junks might be the regularly commissioned mandarin junks, even those belonging to the various sections of the Chinese Navy itself, or they might be owned by the pirates who gave the mandarins a fair share of their loot and could rely on not being interfered with.

As a rule the junks were well armed and carried immense crews. Luckily these were usually exceedingly bad artillerists, and a cool European crew, even a small one, could generally prevent their coming alongside.

Whole fleets of piratical junks were to be expected, fleets which had long preyed on any native craft which came their way and which were tempted by the bigger loot offered by a European ship. Time and again naval operations had to be undertaken on a large scale, and pirate fleets and bases destroyed, but the relief never lasted for long.

The coming of steam made this form of piracy more and more difficult, although it still flourished against the native trading junks and caused appalling loss and misery to them. To hope for any success with a steamer — and the enormous loot in prospect made the risk worth while — the pirate had to change his methods and operate from within. That is the system in operation to-day and it is extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

When Western steamers appeared on the Chinese coasts and rivers they soon attracted all the business that was really worth while. The shipper with valuable cargo to be transported chose one of them in preference to a junk, not only for her speed, but also for her safety, and the steamers soon provided the principal passenger-carrying service in the Empire. Instead of attacking from outside, with a good chance of being beaten off by a determined crew, the pirates worked from inside.

A party of them, externally indistinguishable from the hundreds of coolie passengers, would board the ship and at a given signal rise, taking the handful of white officers by surprise, and capture the vessel, which they looted at their leisure. The various Western navies stationed gunboats and cruisers on the rivers and coasts from an early date, but the movements of these ships were carefully watched by the well-informed pirates and distances were so vast that it was not difficult for pirates to find an opportunity. Admittedly the greatest care had to be taken, for it was soon learned that the British officers who commanded the majority of the ships were armed with revolvers and did not hesitate to use them. As the situation became more serious and piracy of this sort more prevalent, armed guards of Sikh police were put on board. Certain sections of the ship, generally the upper deck, were reserved for European passengers, and any native trying to reach them was immediately suspect. To make communication more difficult, the native passenger spaces were divided into compartments by strong wire netting.

Carefully Laid Plans

In the old stern-wheel steamers the design of the ship made the pirates’ task easier. It was the rule for the white captain and chief engineer always to go down to the saloon to their meals at the same time, for mutual protection. To get as much air and comfort as possible during the hot weather these saloons were almost invariably built with a door at either end, and the white officers usually sat at either side so that each could cover one door with his revolver. On a particularly hot day the officers in the steamer Manning neglected this precaution, and as everything seemed to be quiet they both sat on the same side to get the full benefit of the breeze.

There were pirates on board who soon noticed that one doorway was uncovered. Both officers were shot from behind and the ship was quickly looted of everything of value. As a general rule the pirates do not take life wantonly nowadays, for they realize that with modern Government methods they cannot get the protection which they used to expect from the local mandarin. On the other hand, if there is the least sign of resistance they do not hesitate to shoot and invariably shoot to kill. They make their plans so carefully, and are so patient in their execution, that there is seldom any chance of effective resistance in any circumstances.

On the Chinese rivers, where most of the piracies take place, there are two recognized seasons. The first starts immediately before Christmas and lasts till the middle of February, covering the Chinese New Year, which is a season of general festivity and of an immense amount of travelling by the wealthier people. The second is in June and July, when the rivers are at their. height with the melted snow coming down from the mountains and the steamers busier than at any other time. That is the great gambling season and the thousands of Chinese professional gamblers find the river steamers their most profitable haunts.

The Tungchow was captured by pirates in 1935

TRADING ON THE CHINA SEAS, many vessels such as the Tungchow are attacked by pirates. The Tungchow was captured by pirates in 1935, as described in the chapter “Gunboat Patrols in China”. A vessel of 2,104 tons gross, she was built in 1914 at Hong Kong and belongs to the China Navigation Company, Ltd. She has a length of 280 feet, a beam of 40 ft. 1 in. and a depth of 17 ft. 9 in.

During the off season the majority of the pirates have been at home in their villages, tilling the ground or doing a little fishing. These villages are generally well known as pirates’ headquarters, but as they are in Chinese territory the foreign men-of-war can do little against them. The Chinese are, as a rule, indifferent or worse, although recently their Navy and flying men have made much better efforts in spite of every kind of discouragement.

Bias Bay, near Hong Kong, has been well known as a pirate centre for centuries. Another famous centre for river work is an island near Kumchuck, which covers the approaches to Canton and its immense river trade. There are thousands of pirates or semi-pirates there with their wives and families and there is little doubt that the local authorities tax the fruits of their industry, or the pirates would have been dispersed long ago. A near-by hill about 200 feet high forms an excellent signal station, and every interesting movement is reported to the island. Unfortunately the headquarters can be approached only through tortuous creeks, all of which have been made virtually impregnable against attack by water, although they are vulnerable from the air.

Provided with this excellent intelligence, the pirate makes his plans with minute detail. Everything is perfectly organized and every man has his own particular job. The ships’ officers are the business of two or three. Others have to deal with the armed guard, if one is carried. All of them take their tickets as ordinary passengers and mingle with the hundreds of other coolies on board, behaving just as they do, but always keeping in a position from which they can watch the leader give the prearranged signal. This will not be given until everything is perfectly set for the attack. Perhaps no opportunity will offer itself during a river trip lasting several days. That does not matter. The Chinaman is always patient, and the pirate band quietly disembarks at its destination to await the ship on her next passage.

When everything appears promising the signal is given, and in a moment the attack is made. Officers and passengers will be covered with revolvers. One pirate will be at the wheel and another on the starting platform of the engine. Certificates of competency granted by the British authorities at Hong Kong are the highest-prized possessions of these gentlemen. If any resistance is offered they will not hesitate to shoot; if not they will secure the officers and anybody who might be dangerous and take the ship to a quiet spot where they can loot her at their leisure.

Pirates' Headquarters

A careful look-out is kept for British or other gunboats, and a fully qualified Chinese wireless operator will be at the transmitter to send out messages that will allay suspicion and to keep watch for anything that will give warning of interference. When the ship has been looted she is usually left, her engines disabled so that she may not give the warning too soon. The pirates decamp with their loot and such hostages as it has appeared convenient to take. Rich Chinese passengers are the favourite hostages, but there have been many instances of the British officers being taken and undergoing terrible hardships before they were rescued or their ransom paid. In the same way as everything else in China, piracy is carried out by guilds and communities. Each district has its centre in a convenient headquarters. Some years ago the wreck of one of the most up-to-date Japanese turbine liners was most convenient and its occupants were not dislodged for a long time. As a rule each community works entirely on its own, and has no connexion with other pirates, but sometimes the job is so big that co-operation is necessary. When that does occur mutual suspicion is always liable to wreck the whole scheme.

Occasionally the pirates make a miscalculation, but as a rule their plans are perfect, and are carried into effect smoothly and most effectively. There was one instance on the West River before the war of 1914-18 when the pirates’ intelligence system failed so badly that they made their attack within a short distance of the shallow-draught gunboats Robin and Moorhen, which were lying at anchor and were not noticed in the darkness against the high bank of the river.

It was a day of the worst of luck for the pirates. They had in their band a young native of eighteen who, although brought up in a pirate community, had never been on a venture before. He shipped as a passenger in the same way as the rest, a revolver concealed in his clothing, but when the ship was boarded in the routine manner by a party of Chinese Customs House officers he lost his nerve and fired instead of waiting until the signal was given.

H.M.S. Robin surprised many pirates in Chinese waters

A SHALLOW-DRAUGHT RIVER GUNBOAT of 85 tons displacement, H.M.S. Robin surprised many pirates in Chinese waters. Built in 1897, the Robin was 100 feet long, with a beam of 20 feet and a depth of 1 ft. 9 in. She carried two 6-pounder guns. In 1934 a new gunboat of the same name was put into commission.

The leader made the best of a bad job and gave the signal for an immediate attack. The man who was stationed at the engine-room skylight fired and killed the chief engineer. The captain and pilot were shot on the bridge before they could draw their revolvers. The certificated man took charge of the wheel, and then, to the horror of the pirates, the Robin and the Moorhen suddenly burned their searchlights and picked them up in the beams. The gunboats had not sufficient steam to move, but they each lowered a boat, and with two picked marksmen, armed with rifles, in the bow, they pulled across to the pirated steamer.

The marksmen could soon pick off anybody who tried to jump overboard and make for the shore, so that the pirates made use of their usual dodge of throwing their revolvers overboard and mingling with the native passengers. The bluejackets boarded and drove all the Chinese into the holds, where one seaman stood on guard over each hatchway while the ship was searched. The leader was discovered in a cabin with half his jaw shot away. Thinking that his hours were numbered, the naval party sent him ashore to be dealt with by the native magistrates, only to discover when he was moved that he had two fully-loaded revolvers under his blood-soaked pillow. He made one last attempt to escape by jumping overboard with his hands bound behind him, but he was not strong enough to resist his rescuers, and within a few hours was brought to trial and sentenced to public decapitation.

The bluejackets on board the captured ship had the task of sorting out the pirates from the innocent passengers, a job which appeared hopeless, for there was nothing to distinguish them externally. The pirates had all jettisoned their weapons, and it was certain that none of the passengers would dare give the show away. Help came from the young pirate whose nervousness had ruined the whole affair. In his terror he volunteered to turn King’s Evidence.

He was taken into a boat stationed just outside the entry-port of the steamer, with a lantern held in front of his face so that the eyes of all the others should be dazzled, and as they were marched past him he had to give the signal. One finger held up meant an innocent passenger, two fingers a pirate. So the guilty parties were handed over to the authorities for trial, and the informer was carefully kept away from all other natives, taken down to Hong Kong in the gunboat and then sent to the extreme north of China. Although it is popularly believed that North and South China are entirely apart from each other he was murdered within six months.

In this particular instance there was another incident which shows the methods of the pirates, and explains the terror with which they are regarded by the ordinary inhabitants. When the men-of-wars’ men swept over the rail there was one Chinaman who made no effort to hide. With a revolver in either hand he jumped over the bows and attempted to swim ashore. Finding this impossible, he sold his life as dearly as he could. Treading water he fired steadily with his two revolvers until he was silenced by a rifle bullet. Some days afterwards his body was found some miles further downstream by a woman who lived in a sampan with her four children. She took the body to the local mandarin to claim the reward that had been offered by the authorities for the pirates dead or alive. That astute gentleman, however, delayed payment as long as he could. It did not take long for the pirates to hear of what she had done. They paid her a visit, burned her sampan and killed her and her four children. The mandarin pocketed the reward himself.


A LARGE CHINESE JUNK which was suspected of piracy, although no definite proof could be found. Nowadays such junks are used by pirates against ordinary native craft, but rarely in an attack on a steamer, although after the failure of the attack on the Tungchow (illustrated above) the pirates escaped in a junk.

In such circumstances it is not surprising that the native population will not render any help against the pirates, even when they are not actively allied to them. The dice are heavily loaded against the International Gunboat Patrol, and everybody who has to do with shipping in Chinese waters appreciates the risk under which it is carried on. With typical fatalism many Chinese business men who have to use the river steamers to any extent put aside a sum in gold every year, just as the ordinary man puts aside the premium on his insurance policy. Sometimes this money is left in charge of a bank, for use as a ransom when occasion should arise.

In 1914 the Hong Kong Government framed the Piracy Prevention Ordinance, by which all British vessels trading from the colony were to carry armed guards of Indian Sikhs; but even the most alert guard must have his moments of relaxation, and the pirates wait for these. In spite of that the system of guards is effective, and is generally carried out when possible.

Too much cannot possibly be said for the work done by gunboats on the rivers. Nearly all the maritime countries whose ships use the Chinese rivers and coasts maintain these gunboats, some more and some less, but there is a feeling that some Powers whose shipping enterprise has given them considerable trade in Chinese waters are inclined to leave the protection of their ships to the other Powers. Great Britain, Japan, the United States and China maintain the biggest fleets, although the efficiency of the Chinese varies greatly according to the area and the officers in charge of the ships.

The modern China gunboat, as she has come to be called, is a twin-screw vessel of great power but extraordinarily shallow draught, so that she may operate at all seasons. She needs her power and high speed to battle her way against the current when the snows are coming down from the mountains, and she needs her shallow draught to edge her way among the shoals and reefs when the Chinese rivers are low.

The shallow draught is obtained by building two deep tunnels into the hull and placing the screws in them. When the ship is going ahead the water fills these tunnels, and the upper parts of the propellers are working in solid water which is above the level of the river. By this means a gunboat of 650 tons, mounting two 6-in. guns and having 2,000 horse-power machinery for a speed of 18 knots, has her draught limited to 4 feet at the most. Those are the biggest gunboats on the river, the British Aphis type, but there are many other classes of different size and power (see the chapter “Gunboat Patrols in China”), each designed for the conditions of the waters in which they operate.

Night Attack

Although the gunboats, and the deeper-draught ships on the coast, cannot be everywhere at once and cannot hope to provide a complete guard, they do contrive to turn up at most inconvenient times for the pirates, for their high speed enables them to arrive soon after they receive the alarm. If the pirates’ first attack fails there is always a strong possibility that the Navy may intervene and save the ship and her passengers.

The British steamer Haiching, for instance, one of the best-known ships on the coast, was attacked in December 1929. She had an armed guard of well-disciplined Sikhs, wire grilles protected her bridge, engine-room and wireless office, and her passenger accommodation was subdivided by the same means. In spite of these precautions the pirates were able to make their attack, evading the wire grilles by crawling through a coal bunker, which shows how carefully they had studied the plans of the ship and also suggests that they had confederates among the crew. At half-past one in the morning the signal was given and the Sikhs off duty were shot out of hand while they were asleep.

The officers off watch rushed from their cabins to the bridge, but the third officer was killed before he could reach it and the chief was wounded. Had the pirates been able to keep their schedule to perfection there would have been no hope for the ship or for her people. As it was, the pirates were a few seconds late in the attack on the bridge, and when they did attack the captain and officers were able to defend it. The pirates attempted to burn them out by setting fire to the cabins under the bridge, but, maintaining a steady fire and helped by the Sikhs, the officers drove the pirates aft, where they fortified the poop and fought for about three hours.

FAVOURITE LAIR OF PIRATES, Bias Bay lies about 50 miles east of Hong Kong

FAVOURITE LAIR OF PIRATES, Bias Bay lies about 50 miles east of Hong Kong. The bay is the headquarters of a large pirate organization. The movements of merchant vessels and gunboats are reported by spies and captured ships are often brought to Bias Bay to be looted.

By that time the pirates realized that the attack had failed and, knowing that an S O S message had been sent out, they attempted to get away in the ship’s boats. Native passengers were seized and used as a screen for these operations, but the white officers contrived to prevent it, and the fight was still going on at past six in the morning when a British destroyer dashed up at full speed, finding the unfortunate Haiching blazing furiously. With her own facilities and those of the warship’s the fire was suppressed and about 350 Chinese passengers were disembarked. What would have happened to the ship, attacked by such an unusually desperate gang, had it not been for the coolness of Captain Farrow and his officers may well be imagined.

There have been many other instances of ships contriving to foil piratical attacks, or escaping after they have been captured, and among these the Sunning is conspicuous. She was a ship built in 1916, of 2,555 tons gross, owned by John Swire’s China Navigation Company, one of the biggest concerns on the China Coast. She was designed for cargo and passenger carrying on the coast, and was a popular and successful ship until she was destroyed in a typhoon in 1936.

Her success and regular plying on the coast had made her a particular mark for pirates, and in 1923, while bound from Hong Kong to Kongmoon, she was attacked by a gang of pirates who had shipped as passengers. Captain McKechnie and his chief officer were fired at without warning and seriously wounded. One of the Sikh guards was wounded and the other two were overpowered, whereupon the pirates took what loot they wanted and decamped.

In November 1926 she was bound from Amoy to Hong Kong, when another attack was made in precisely similar fashion. The band of pirates was strong and their organization was perfect. In an orderly manner they got into position and every officer of the ship suddenly found himself covered and disarmed. There was no possibility of resistance, and from the pirates’ point of view everything went off without a hitch. That must have made them rather over-confident, for they did not take the usual precautions, and while the passengers and cargo were being looted the officers, although watched, were able to communicate with one another. They determined to make an attempt to recapture their ship before she reached the stronghold of Bias Bay, for which she was headed.

A Desperate Fight

Their chance came in unexpected fashion. Six white men, including most of the officers, and a Russian lady passenger, were locked in the chief officer’s quarters for the night, and there they found two revolvers and a fair supply of ammunition which the pirates had overlooked. While the men were planning to use them events were happening on the bridge, where Captain Pringle and Chief Officer Tom Beatty were being forced to take the ship to Bias Bay. Chilang Point is the leading mark, and Mr. Beatty suddenly pointed into the darkness, “There’s Chilang Point”. The captain grasped the situation and handed his binoculars to one of the guards.

While the two pirates were searching the darkness Mr. Beatty possessed himself of the deep-sea lead, and with this formidable weapon killed the Chinamen. He and the captain immediately regained their revolvers and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Another pirate who came on to the bridge at that moment had to be shot, and the alarm was given. Time after time the Chinese attempted to rush the bridge, but they were repelled. Then they tried their usual tactics of setting light to the superstructure to smoke out the party on the bridge, who had by then been joined by those from the chief officer’s cabin.

The situation was critical. There were forty desperate pirates fighting for their lives and only a handful of Britons with limited ammunition. Fortunately, Captain Pringle contrived to get one anchor let go, which brought the ship’s head into the wind and swept the flames down on to the pirates, who were crowded into the afterpart of the ship.

The chief engineer, Mr. Cormack, had been wounded while the pirates were using him as a shield, but the rest were full of fight and the attackers decided that their only chance was to escape Two of the after boats were in their possession. These were lowered, and as many pirates as could do so made their escape in them. The flames attracted the attention of passing ships, who wirelessed for help, and also of H.M. sloop Bluebell. It was one of the finest fights in the history of the Merchant Service. Mr. Beatty was properly honoured, and the majority of the pirates were captured, to receive their deserts.

CAPTURED BY PIRATES IN 1926, the Sunning was saved at the last moment by the outstanding bravery of her officers

CAPTURED BY PIRATES IN 1926, the Sunning was saved at the last moment by the outstanding bravery of her officers, who recaptured the vessel and drove the pirates off. The Sunning, 2,555 tons gross, was built in 1916 at Hong Kong. She had a length of 310 ft. 4 in., a beam of 41 ft. 2 in. and a depth of 22 ft. 5 in. She was lost during a typhoon in 1936.

[From part 52 & part 53, published 2 & 9 February 1937]

You can read more on “China’s Mighty River”, “Gunboat Patrols in China” and “The Kung Wo” on this website.