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Shap ’ng Tsai, Xú Yàbǎo, and the Royal Navy

By Cindy Vallar
British Opium Ships.
                Source: Wikipedia
Although Arab traders first brought opium to China in A.D. 400, more than a millennium passed before the Portuguese introduced the Chinese to smoking it – a corrupting  and uncouth practice according to the Chinese. To protect his people and the economy, Emperor Yongzheng issued an imperial edict forbidding the importation of opium in 1729. At the time about 200 chests arrived in the country each year. This law failed to stop the imports, and in 1799 Emperor Jiaqing banned the drug entirely. Merchants who dealt in opium trafficking were deemed smugglers. One of the biggest offenders of the edicts were the British. The East India Company (EIC) wished to trade with China because silk, tea, and porcelain were greatly sought after in European shops. The Qing government, however, restricted foreign trade, opening only one port – Guangzhou (Canton) – to outsiders; since the British had few exports of interest to the Chinese, the EIC had to pay cash for luxuries such as tea, silk, and porcelain. During a fifty-year period, the EIC paid £27,000,000 for imports, but only exported £9,000,000 worth of goods. To compensate for this imbalance, EIC ship masters smuggled in opium, to which corrupt Chinese officials turned blind eyes while merchants illicitly sold the drug in exchange for silver. By 1838 nearly 40,000 chests were imported annually. Drug addiction became a severe problem not just among the masses, but also within the imperial army and among the higher classes of society.

In 1838 Emperor Daoguang appointed Lin Zexu to eradicate opium trafficking. In a letter to Queen Victoria, Lin wrote:
. . . there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of heaven . . . His Majesty the Emperor . . . has especially sent me, his commissioner . . . to investigate and settle this matter. . . . Since [the smoking of opium] is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries . . . The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? He who takes the life of even one person still has to atone for it with his own life . . . Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid [of] a harmful thing on behalf of mankind. . . . The barbarian merchants of your country, if they wish to do business for a prolonged period, are required to obey our statutes respectfully and to cut off permanently the source of opium. (Halsall)
Emperor DaoguangCommissioner Lin Zexu Source: Wikipedia
Emperor Daoguang and Lin Zexu     (Source: Wikipedia)

But Britain’s focus was on its own nationalistic agenda, and ship masters ignored the edicts. Relations between the two nations degenerated until war erupted. Chinese junks proved no match against British steam warships. The war decimated the Chinese imperial navy; more than 20,000 Chinese died in the conflict compared to the sixty-nine men Britain lost. In 1842 the First Opium War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which forced the Chinese to open five ports to foreign trade, as well as pay compensation for lost earnings from the opium trade and the cost of the war, and turn over Hong Kong to the British. As a result of this humiliating defeat, a depressed economy, and government corruption, piracy swelled in Asian waters.

Destroying Chinese War Junks by E Duncan (1843)
Destroying the Chinese War Junks by E. Duncan, 1843     (Source: Wikipedia)

The most powerful of these pirates was Shap ’ng Tsai, who prowled the coastal waters of Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. His main base of operation was at Tien-pai, 175 miles west of Hong Kong. He seized junks, raided and burned villages, stole goods, killed or ransomed men, sold children into slavery, and either sold the women or forced them to become prostitutes. When he captured naval junks, those aboard met a brutal end.
[F]ive war junks . . . were chased by six pirate boats, which boarded them, put their crews to death, and carried the commanders . . . on shore, where a fire was kindled, and the unfortunate officers were burnt alive. (Scott, 6-7)
              Apoo (Source: Wikipedia)Nor were foreigners safe. Shap ’ng Tsai’s lieutenant, Xú Yàbǎo (also known as Chui Apoo), murdered two British officers who insulted him. One wounded pirate, who was captured, informed the Royal Navy that he worked in a dockyard owned by Xú Yàbǎo whom he said “was the head man of the pirates . . . that Hong-maou-kop was his country; his younger brother is named Chee-sam, and is also a pirate chief; they both belonged to Shap-ng-tsai’s fleet, and were implicated in the murders of Da Costa and Dwyer.” (Scott, 93-94)

Shap ’ng Tsai was tall and dark, with huge eyes, a high nose, and a sharp chin. His face was pockmarked, and he was reported to be between thirty and forty years of age. His real name was Chin Chay-mee, and he was thought to belong to a triad. His pirate name, which in Cantonese means Fifteenth Son, may have derived from slang associated with the triad. Whatever his connection to the secret society, Shap ’ng Tsai was well informed. His network of spies supplied information about the goings-on in the treaty ports. His lieutenants frequented Hong Kong, where local chandlers provided them with arms, ammunition, and information while fencing their plunder. These vendors were perfectly situated to know which ships carried high-priced cargo or tax payments and where the Royal Navy gunboats could be found.

By the end of the 1840s, the pirate leader’s fleet numbered more than seventy vessels, and some of his men were Europeans. According to an account in The China Mail dated October 1849, “[h]is band has mustered in such force on the coast of Hainan and in the Gulf of Tonquin, as to set the authorities at defiance; and recently at Tien-pahk, an important salt mart, after capturing upwards of forty junks, the pirate chief entered the town in great state, and took possession of it, levying tribute from the inhabitants, and raising the amount of black mail assessed from the salt-junks from 30 to 120 dollars.” (Scott, 9-10)

 In spite of pleas for protection from EIC ships and those of other western nations, the Royal Navy had orders not to “interfere with (alleged) Pirates unless an instance of piracy was seen by them” because the Qing government did not want their assistance. If their own mandarins had trouble “distinguishing the correctness of accusation as to people being pirates from complaints brought forward owing to private animosities”, how could a foreigner make such an assessment? (Miller, 129-30) This attitude and the British refusal to hunt the pirates changed once they dared to attack British and American ships.

Initial forays to find the pirates resulted in mixed results. While on patrol, the Royal Navy sighted a line of junks and pursued them. Some pirates jumped overboard, others fled in sampans, while the navy fired shots that wounded many of them. One of the largest pirate vessels sought the shelter of the coast. Believing Shap ’ng Tsai was on board, Commander John Charles Dalrymple Hay of HM Sloop Columbine opened fire. The junk maneuvered into a position that allowed her to fire all her port and starboard guns at the same time. A naval officer later wrote “[the pirate ship’s defense] was very good and conducted with much ability. We continued to pour on shot and shell with the bow guns in the hopes of bringing her mast down, but without effect. She sailed well, and was enabled to continue sweeping, giving us an alternate broadside, but fortunately only damaging our sails.” (Miller, 135)

After the junk sailed away, the Columbine followed her into a shallow inlet. Unable to proceed, Hay ordered two boats into the water. They found the anchored junk in a creek. The pirates attacked, wounding several seamen, but the rest of the British returned fire with their twelve-pounder and muskets for thirty minutes.
Mr. Goddard, a midshipman, in command of the pinnace, had by this time, in the most gallant manner, boarded the pirate over her bows, followed by his boat’s crew. On seeing one, who appeared to be an officer of the junk, going down the fore-hatch, he followed with a marine, when, melancholy to relate, the vessel blew up, the magazine having been fired; her own crew, supposed to number over 90, with the whole of the boarders, being blown into the air together. One marine was killed, Mr. Goddard severely wounded and burnt, as well as the greater part of the boats’ crews; two seamen being missing on the muster being called. Mr. Bridges having boarded immediately after Mr. Goddard, saved himself and one seaman of the “Columbine” by jumping overboard at the moment of the explosion, pulling the man along with him. The wounded men were immediately picked up by the boats, and taken on board the “Columbine,” – the junk being totally destroyed, with all her crew but one, now a prisoner on board the brig. (Scott, 56-7)
When the British boarded the junk, they found her deck littered with dead and wounded men. With only sixty men still fit for duty, Hay broke off the attack.

In September 1849, Hay set sail with a force that included several steam vessels – the Peninsula & Oriental Company’s Canton, HM Sloop Fury, the EIC’s Phlegethon – and boats from HMS Hastings. At Bias Bay the Royal Navy “destroyed twenty-three piratical junks averaging five hundred tons mounting from 12 to 18 guns, three new ones on the stocks and two small dockyards with a considerable supply of naval stores.” (Fox, 107-8) Only one British seaman was slightly wounded in the attack that began at ten in the morning and ended around sunset. Four hundred pirates were killed, while another 1,400 fled, including a wounded Xú Yàbǎo.

The navy captured more than 100 junks, many of which the pirates had been holding for ransom. Claiming these as rightful prizes, Hay sold the junks back to their owners or to the highest bidders. One man who purchased a number of the prizes actually worked for Shap ’ng Tsai. The pirate leader then sold these junks back to their original owners at an inflated price to recoup the ransom money he had lost when the British intervened. The owners saw little difference between the British and the pirates.

Hay continued searching for Shap ’ng Tsai and eventually enlisted the assistance of local officials in his attempt to suppress piracy. While the British wanted to destroy the marauders so trade might flourish, the Chinese sought to increase the monies gleaned from taxing imports. Eradicating the pirates would allow both objectives to be met. General Wang, a mandarin, headed the Chinese squadron of eight naval junks that sailed with Hay.

 Chinese War
                  Junks (Source: Nautical Illustrations-Dover)
Chinese War Junks     (Source: Nautical Illustrations, Dover)

They tracked Shap ’ng Tsai to a new lair north of Haiphong on the Hong He (Red River) Delta on 18 October 1849. The pirate chief had sixty-four armed junks at his disposal:

Number of Vessels Number of Guns Number of Men
42 or more 120
16 30 75
42 16 40
5 6 30

In all, he commanded 1,250 guns, varying in size from 6-pounders to 32-pounders, and 3,150 men. To block their escape, Hay positioned part of his force to obstruct the mouth of the river before ordering Commanders James Williams of the Fury and G. T. Niblett of the Phlegethon to approach the pirates, who never expected the British to venture into Vietnamese waters. The warships fired upon the junks, which couldn’t swing around to bring their guns to bear on the British because of the swift river current, and chased after those who escaped. Dr. Edward Cree, a naval surgeon, wrote:
The firing of shot, shell and grape was too hot for the rascals and all the junks were in a blaze, and as many of the pirates as were able were swarming over the sides and swimming to the shore. Twenty-seven junks with a number of small vessels were destroyed. It is supposed that 400 of the pirates perished and the rest, upwards of 1,000 escaped to the shore. (Bowen, 170)

Our old General, Wang, showed some pluck in jumping overboard from one of the boats and swimming to a junk and capturing three of the pirates himself. They were so frightened at seeing one of their mandarins that they made no resistance.  (Bowen, 171)
One pirate junk, believed to be Shap ’ng Tsai’s flagship, flew his flag – “a ‘splendid’ scarlet flag with gold edging.” (Miller, 146) Hoisted atop the highest mast was another flag, a black triangle that symbolized the triad. This junk had forty-two guns mounted in two tiers along her sides and in three tiers around her stern. During the battle, she exploded, destroying not only this vessel, but also those on either side of her. One account said:
On the smoke clearing away, scarcely a vestige of his proud flagship could be seen above water, excepting his flag and a part of his poop railing from which for some time, the flag, until consumed by fire, continued to fly. (Miller, 147)
Xú Yàbǎo suffered a severe wound in his back, but both he and Shap ’ng Tsai escaped. Not all the fleeing pirates – around 140 in total – were as lucky. Local villagers, who had repeatedly suffered from the pirates’ attacks, swiftly executed the marauders. According to Cree, “The Cochins were chasing the poor wretches in their Sampans and spearing them in the water.” (Cordingly, 113)

Three days of fighting and hunting escapees, the Royal Navy suffered only one fatality while killing about 1,800 pirates and capturing or sinking nearly sixty vessels, with a total of “about one thousand guns and with crews of three thousand men.” (Fox, 108-9) “[T]heir stronghold is in ashes, and the east coast squadron, which is supposed to have been forming for the last six or eight months, is completely annihilated.” (Scott, 79)

Although Shap ’ng Tsai had refused an earlier offer of a pardon from the Qing government, this time he accepted the renewed offer. Not only was he forgiven for all acts of piracy, he also became an officer in the imperial navy. His duties included hunting pirates and smugglers. Xú Yàbǎo continued his piratical attacks until a few of his own men betrayed him to the British, who had offered a reward of £103 for his capture. Tried and sentenced to transport, he hanged himself in his Hong Kong prison cell in March 1851.

Following the defeat of Shap ’ng Tsai and Xú Yàbǎo, the British established the China Station at Hong Kong. The presence of the Royal Navy and their steam warships ensured the pirates never again posed a serious threat to commerce, although they were never completely eradicated from the South China Sea.

The cooperation between the British and Chinese in eliminating piracy was one of the rare alliances between these two nations. War was again declared in 1856, and this time China was pitted against Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. After annihilating the imperial army, a combined force of 18,000 British and French soldiers entered Beijing on 6 October 1860. The emperor fled, Lord Elgin burned the Summer Palace, and the Chinese were humiliated. The “unequal treaty” they were forced to sign established a pattern that became a hallmark of Anglo-Chinese relations into the twentieth century.

A special thank you to Weina Dai Randel, author of the forthcoming The Moon in the Palace, a historical novel about the seventh-century Empress Wu, for assisting me with the Chinese spellings of names and places in this article.

For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
Antony, Robert J. “Piracy on the South China Coast through Modern Times,” Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies edited by Bruce A. Elleman, Andrew Forbes, and David Rosenberg. Naval War College, January 2010, 35-50.
Antony, Robert J. Pirates in the Age of Sail. W. W. Norton, 2007.

Blue, A. D. Piracy on the China Coast. Unknown, 1965, 69-85.
Bowen, H. V., John McAleer, and Robert J. Blyth. Monsoon Traders: The Maritime World of the East India Company. Scala, 2011.

Clowes, William Laird. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present, v. 6. AMS Press, 1966.
Cordingly, David, and John Falconer. Pirates Fact & Fiction. Cross River Press, 1992.

Expedition Against the Chinese Pirates,” The Dublin University Magazine XXXV:CCVIII (April 1850), 521-530.

Fox, Grace Estelle Fox. British Admirals and Chinese Pirates, 1832-1869. Hyperion, 1973.

Gibson, Anne. “The Opium Wars: When Britain Made War on China” at BBC History, 3 December 2012.
Gosse, Philip. The History of Piracy. Rio Grande Press, 1995.
Grainger, John D. Dictionary of British Naval Battles. Boydell, 2012.

Halsall, Paul. “Chinese Cultural Studies: Lin Zixu Lin Tse-Hs Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria,” at Chinese Culture, Brooklyn College.
H.M.S. Columbine and the Pirates,” 19th Century Extracts from Various Newspapers . . . at Late 18th, 19th and Early 20th Century Naval and Naval Social History Index, 1850.
The History Today Podcast Interview with Julia Lovell, author of The Opium War. 6 June 2012.

Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History. Osprey, 2008.
Konstam, Angus. Pirates: Predators of the Seas. Skyhorse, 2007.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Lyons Press, 2010.

Marchant, Leslie. “The Wars on the Poppies,” History Today 52:5 (2002)
Miller, Harry. Pirates of the Far East. Robert Hale & Company, 1970.
Miron, Jeffrey A., and Chris Feige. The Opium Wars, Opium Legalization, and Opium Consumption in China. National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2005.

Opium Throughout History at PBS’ Frontline.

Scott, Beresford. An Account of the Destruction of the Fleets of the Celebrated Pirate Chieftains Chui-apoo and Shap-ng-tsai . . . . Savill and Edwards, 1851.
Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.

Tiedemann, R. G. “Opium Wars (1839-1842),” China Now (1989) at Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding.
Travers, Tim. Pirates: A History. History Press, 2009.

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