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Captured by Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

                        Turner of the Tay and his boat crew are taken by
                        Ladrone pirates, artist unknown, circa 1800
Artist unknown, circa 1807 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Coast of China and particularly, the entrances to this Port, have for a long time been infested by China Ladrones or Pirates, in very alarming and Considerable forces. Hitherto they have only succeeded in capturing China and Macao Merchant Vessels, and Small Boats; a Short time since the Boat of an English Ship, which had been on Shore at Macao for a Pilot, in returning onboard the Ship, in Macao Roads, was captured by one of these Pirates. The Officer and Crew, are now prisoners and will not be liberated without ransom.
So wrote Edward Carrington, the American Consul in Canton, China, to President James Madison on 19 April 1807. The officer of which he spoke was John Turner, Chief Mate of the Tay, a merchant ship, but the passage could easily be applied to Richard Glasspoole of the East India Company ship, Marquis of Ely. He began his service with the Company as a midshipman in 1804; four years later, he joined this vessel as her fourth mate. He would eventually command the EIC’s Buckinghamshire, a position he held from 1823 until his retirement in 1831. He went on to own a significant portion of land in Ormsby, England and became a magistrate at the end of 1840. But that occurred three decades after he became a pirate captive.

At the time, Glasspoole was twenty years old. He and six others were taken on 21 September 1809, and referred to his captors as “Ladrones,” whose hunting grounds were the Ladrones or Thieves Islands (Wanshan Archipelago). These pirates and their families lived on their vessels, rather than the land. His captors belonged to the Red Flag Fleet, part of Zheng Yi Sao’s pirate confederation. He never met her, but he would meet one of her captains during his captivity, which lasted for “eleven weeks and three days.” (Further, 39)

After his release on 8 December 1809, he wrote two accounts of his ordeal. The first was a narrative for the President of the East India Company’s factory in Canton, China. In it he explained how he and his men came to be captured.
At half-past 5 A.M. [on 18 September], the ebb-tide making, we left Macao with vegetables for the ship. One of the compradore’s men who spoke English went with us for the purpose of piloting the ship . . . . I had every reason to expect the ship in the roads, as she was preparing to get under weigh when we left her. But on our rounding Cabaretta Point, we saw her five or six miles to leeward under weigh, standing on the starboard tack. . . . A hard squall then coming on with a strong tide and heavy swell against us, we drifted fast to leeward, and the weather being hazy, we soon lost sight of the ship.1 (Glasspoole, 297-298)

Wednesday the 20th . . . [a]bout ten o’clock perceived two Chinese boats steering for us. [We] bore up and stood towards them and made signals to induce them to come within hail. On nearing them, they bore up and passed to leeward of the islands. The Chinese [man] we had in the boat advised me to follow them and he would take us to Macao by the leeward passage. I expressed my fears of being taken by the ladrones. Our ammunition being wet and the muskets rendered useless, we had nothing to defend ourselves with but cutlasses and [were] in too distressed a situation to make much resistance with them, having been constantly wet and [having] eat[en] nothing but a few green oranges for three days.

As our present situation was a hopeless one and the man assured me there was no fear of encountering any ladrones, I complied with his request. . . . We continued pulling and sailing all day. At six o’clock in the evening I discovered three large boats at anchor in a bay to leeward. On seeing us they weighed and made sail towards us. The Chinese [man] said they were ladrones and that if they captured us they would most certainly put us all to death! Finding they gained fast on us, [we] struck the masts and pulled head to wind for five or six hours. The tide turning against us, [we] anchored close under the land to avoid being seen. (Glasspoole, 299)
The next day, they continued on their way to Macao. After passing a fleet of “mandarin junks and salt boats,” a small vessel began following them.
She soon came alongside, when about twenty savage-looking villains, who were stowed at the bottom of the boat, leaped on board us. They were armed with a shortsword in each hand, one of which they laid on our necks and the other pointed to our breasts – keeping their eyes fixed on their officer, waiting his signal to cut or desist. Seeing we were incapable of making any resistance, he sheathed his sword and the others immediately followed his example. They then dragged us into their boat and carried us on board one of their junks with the most savage demonstrations of joy, and (as we supposed) to torture and put us to a cruel death. (Glasspoole, 300)
After searching their captives’ pockets, the pirates chained them to their guns. Their chief’s junk sent a boat to ferry Glasspoole, one of his crew, and the interpreter over to his ship to meet the pirate leader.

A Chinese junk depicted in Travels in China:
                      containing descriptions, observations, and
                      comparisons, made and collected in the course of a
                      short residence at the Imperial palace of
                      Yuen-Min-Yuen, and on a subsequent journey through
                      the country from Pekin to Canton, page 59 by John
                      Barrow, 1804 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese Junk, Travels in China by John Barrow, 1804
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

He was seated on deck in a large chair dressed in a purple silk with a black turban on. He appeared to be about thirty years of age, a stout commanding-looking man. He took me by the coat and drew me close to him, then questioned the interpreter very strictly, asking who we were and what was our business in that part of the country. I told him to say we were Englishmen in distress, having been four days at sea without provisions. This he would not credit, but said we were bad men and that he would put us all to death; and then ordered some men to put the interpreter to the torture until he confessed the truth. (Glasspoole, 301)
Among the pirates was a man who had once visited England and could speak the language. He confirmed to his leader that Glasspoole and his men were indeed Englishmen, then said “that we had plenty of money, adding that the buttons on my coat were gold.” (Glasspoole, 301) This meant his captives were worthy of ransoming, and he ordered his men to see them fed. “Several of them brought swords, and laid them on our necks, making signs that they would soon take us on shore, and cut us in pieces, which I am sorry to say was the fate of some hundreds during my captivity.” (Glasspoole, 301)

Glasspoole’s next duty was to write a letter to the captain of the Marquis of Ely and “tell him if he did not send a hundred thousand [Spanish] dollars for our ransom in ten days he would put us all to death. In vain did I assure him it was useless writing unless he would agree to take a much smaller sum, saying we were all poor men and the most we could possibly raise would not exceed two thousand [Spanish] dollars.” (Glasspoole, 301)

The letter he wrote took eight days to reach the Company, where it was preserved in their archives.

I am sorry to inform you that this morning myself with the cutter’s crew were made prisoners by a large ladrone boat mounting 20 guns they say if you will send 100,000 dollars ransom they will send us to Macao or they say they will behead us, be so good as to write me, and say what you can give, I think they will take much less; offer 20 or 30 thousand, send immediately an answer for God’s sake an answer by this boat that brings this what can be given, the man that brings us knows w[h]ere to find us, I will send you the head man’s answer, though if you send the dollars he will give us a chop to pass to Macao. I trust this will be legible we anxiously expect an answer.

R. Glasspoole, 4th Mate and 6 Men
Address to Captain Kay or any of the
Supercargoes at Macao to be deliv-
ered immediately.
Thursday, 21st September. (Glasspoole, 303, note)
On receiving this missive, the Select Committee of Supercargoes – comprised of the factory’s president and three senior men in charge of cargo – resolved that
[a]s the ladrones by the foregoing letter seem disposed to accept ransom for these unfortunate men, we hope it may be practicable ultimately to effect their release. The sum now demanded it is considered impossible to grant as so great an encouragement would render it impracticable for a boat to move in security, but it is supposed for 8 or 10,000 dollars the object may be effected. This sum (should it not on more mature deliberation be considered that the honorable company and owners would willingly discharge it) in such an occasion we feel little doubt may be raised among the factory and shipping and though on every account the payment of ransom is extremely objectionable, we see no other mode at present of extricating our countrymen from their distressing situation.

The letter from Mr. Glasspoole therefore will be forwarded to Captain Kay together with some others addressed to him informing him of our sentiments on the subject and if on consultation with Captain Austen no better means of obtaining the release of his officer and men occurs to them, recommended his writing to Mr. Glasspoole urging him to place confidence in every possible measure being adopted for his release, and not to exceed 5,000 dollars in his first offer of a ransom. It was thought better to leave the negotiation entirely to Captain Kay, as it would through him be effected with greater economy than by the interference of anyone in the factory. (Glasspoole, 303-304, note)
Captain Kay’s first counteroffer to the pirates was 4,000 dollars. When negotiations were completed, the cash portion of the ransom amount came to 4,220 Spanish dollars. The pirates also received “two bales of super-fine scarlet cloth, two chests of opium, two casks of gunpowder, and a telescope.” (Glasspoole, 318) The pirate chief was perturbed to discover that the telescope was not new, but rather than wait until a new one could be provided, he settled for an extra 100 dollars. In total, the ransom was the equivalent of 7,654 dollars.

Glasspoole’s report to officials at the Canton Factory also included observations about the pirates and what he witnessed.
After burning and destroying several villages up the rivers . . . on our return, the fleet, to the amount of five hundred sail, anchored, on the 1st of November, about ten or eleven miles from the Bogue; in the evening the vessels cleared for action, and I received an order from the chief to desire my men to make cartridges, and clean their muskets, ready to go on shore early in the morning, threatening to put us to a cruel death if we disobeyed his orders. I told the interpreter I should give my men no such orders . . . . Soon after the chief came on board himself and repeated the threat, saying he would never allow us to be ransomed if we refused to go. I still remained determined, and advised my men not to comply.2 (Further, 34)
The next morning, the pirates prepared to land around 2,000 men. Glasspoole was told to remain on the pirate ship, but “if I sent the men, and they succeeded in taking the place, he would take four thousand dollars for our ransom, and give them twenty dollars for every Chinamen’s head they cut off; the men cheerfully volunteered . . . .” (Further, 34-5)
The fort and Mandarins commenced a smart firing; in about five minutes the fort silenced, and the men retreated in great confusion: the Mandarin vessels still continued firing, having sunk something at the entrance of the harbour, to prevent the Landrone boats entering; at this they were much exasperated, and about two hundred of them landed, armed with two short swords, lashed under their left arm, running till they came abreast of the vessels, then leaped into the water, swam off, and boarded them, the Chinese leaping overboard, and endeavouring to reach the opposite shore; the Ladrones . . . cut most of them to pieces before they could reach it: after taking the junks, they attacked the town, which the inhabitants defended for about a quarter of an hour, when they retreated to an adjacent hill, from which the Ladrones soon drove them with great slaughter: the Ladrones . . . plundered the town . . . . In the evening the Ladrones landed a second time, drove the inhabitants out of the town, and reduced it to ashes: one of my men was unfortunately lost in this action. (Further, 35-36)
In another attack, the pirates captured a Mandarin ship of “twenty-two guns; seventy-four men were taken in her, who were immediately butchered in a most inhuman manner.” (Further, 37-38)

Once Glasspoole returned home to England, he elaborated on his observations. Of the pirate leader, he wrote
[t]he chief of the Ladrones, in his person, is a man of dignified person and matters, of sound discretion, temperate habits, and bold and successful in all his enterprizes; so that he has acquired an ascendancy over the minds of his followers, which insures to him the most unbounded confidence and obedience. (Further, 44)
Of the pirates and how they conducted their raids, he said, “In their attacks they are intrepid, and in their defence most desperate, yielding in the latter instance to no superiority of numbers; the laws of discipline and civil government are equally enforced on board his junk, and any transgressions from them immediately punished, which, as their vessels are filled with their families, men, women, and children, seems almost incredible.” (Further, 44-45)

The year after Glasspoole was released, Zheng Yi Sao retired and her pirate confederation was no more. The East India Company ceased to exist after 1874. But the piracy in the eastern seas continued to ebb and flow like the tides.

1. The compradore, a Portuguese term for "buyer," belonged to China's merchant class. His job was to provide assistance to foreign traders, and he managed Chinese workers who exchanged currencies, acted as interpreters, and conducted other facets of business within China. In this case, he served as the go-between for Glasspoole, the EIC, and the pirates.

2. Four small islands form a small strait that was known as Bogue or Hum-men or Bocca Tigris (Tiger's Mouth). Is is an access point to the Pearl River, which connects Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and Macau.

For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
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“The Arraignment, Tryal, and Condemnation of Captain Kidd,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 2: 143-208.

Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.
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Belgrave, Sir Charles. The Pirate Coast. Roy Publishers, 1966.
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Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life, 1978.
Bowen, H. V., John McAleer, and Robert J. Blyth. Monsoon Traders: The Maritime World of the East India Company. Scala, 2011.
Brewer, Benjamin Heymann. Every Kidd Has His Day: A Story of How Pirates Forced the English to Reevaluate Their Foreign Policy in the Indian Ocean (1690-1700). The Honors College, Wesleyan University, 2010. [thesis].
Bruijn, Jaap R. Commanders of Dutch East India Ships in the Eighteenth Century. Boydell, 2011.
Burgess, Douglas R., Jr. The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America. ForeEdge, 2014.
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Davidson, James D. G. Scots and the Sea. Mainstream, 2003.
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Fox, E. T. King of the Pirates: The Swashbuckling Life of Henry Every. History Press, 2008.
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Glasspoole, Richard. “‘Twenty Dollars for Every Head They Cut Off,’” Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon Press, 1996.
Govil, Aditi. “Mughal Perception of European Supremacy and Piracy,” International Journal of Business, Management & Social Sciences 2:1 (September 2012), 142-151.
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Harrison, Cy. “British Merchant frigate ‘Bawden’ (1686)," Three Decks – Warships in the Age of Sail.
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Hill, S. Charles. "Episodes of Piracy in the Eastern Seas, 1519 to 1851: XV. Three Accounts of the Fight Between the Dorrill and the Mocha, 1697," The Indian Antiquary XLIX (January 1920), 1-7.
Hill, S. Charles. "Episodes of Piracy in the Eastern Seas, 1519 to 1851: XX. The Story of the Cassandra, 1720-1723,"

History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea, from 1807 to 1810 translated by Charles Fried Neumann. Oriental Translation Fund, 1831.

Jameson, John Franklin. Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents. Macmillan, 1923.

Keay, John. The Honourable Company: a History of the English East India Company. HarperCollins, 1993.
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Lincoln, Margarette. British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730. Ashgate, 2014.
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Reddy, Srinivas. “Disrupting Mughal Imperialism: Piracy and Plunder,” Asian Review of World Histories 8:1 (February 2020), 128-142.
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Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.


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