Known as the modern Pearl of the Orient (unseating Shanghai and Manila) and the City of Life, Hong Kong is a sterling example of 21st century Asia: highly urbanized, has a transportation system that rivals that of Tokyo, and is culturally and financially diverse, with a high quality of living for most citizens.
Beneath the glitz and glamour of modern Hong Kong is a history rich with colonial contact from the West via Britain, and a far more notorious reputation: piracy. Well before the British arrived and erroneously named Hong Kong (which, at the time, consisted of modern day Aberdeen) the “Fragrant Harbor”, the Spanish and Portuguese explorers considered it as the northern arm of a chain of islands they called Isla Ladrones: the Isle of Thieves.
Piracy in what-is-now Hong Kong started sometime in the 13th century as a response to the Ming Dynasty’s tyrannical control, with a golden age that spanned from the 18th century and well into the time of British colonial rule. By the time Her Majesty’s Royal Navy arrived, Hong Kong was home to various pirate kings who commanded thousands of war boats that terrorized the Fragrant Harbor and the surrounding coastline.
Today’s Hong Kong is known for its wonderful shopping, its bright city lights, and its unbridled luxury. But in the 19th century, Hong Kong was known for something far more notorious: the pirate capital of the South China Sea.
In 1371, the founding Ming Emperor declared a “sea ban” that prohibited private sea trade in an effort to solidify his fledgling dynasty’s power and centralize all overseas trade. This ban included the seizure of all private ships caught in the Empire’s waters as well as the forcible relocation of numerous communities in the coast. The ban was lifted for a time under Emperor Yongle, who had usurped the throne and funded the legendary admiral Zheng He’s seven voyages which allowed China to build a massive treasure fleet that the Emperor used to strong-arm neighbors into Chinese rule.
This respite, however, was short lived: Yongle’s successors burned Zheng He’s fleet and by 1394 had reinstated a modified version of the sea ban. In this iteration, the government forbade trade with foreigners outside of a designated port and schedule.
While the government thought that the ban would protect the people, it did the exact opposite. Piracy became a way for the impoverished fishermen, traders, and ship builders, who needed a source of income after their original trade was outlawed. To counter this rising threat to law and order, the Imperial government banned the building of multi-mast ships and by 1525, had seized and destroyed all private ocean vessels and imprisoned anyone involved with trading with foreigners.
As the Age of Sail in the West began to flourish and new trade routes were being plied by the Europeans, the Chinese Empire began to tighten its grip on its maritime territories. By 1661, the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty instituted a “Great Clearance”, a general evacuation of order of all coastal populations. The General Clearance was a tactic employed to defeat Koxinga, a Ming loyalist who had seized Taiwan from the Dutch and used it as a base of operations for his rebellion. All villagers up and down the southern coast of China, from Guangdong to Shangai, were forced 25 kilometers inland, their ships and homes turned to ash, and those caught leaving the realm put to death.
In just a couple of years, the Kangxi Emperor had, for all intents and purposes, outlawed the South Sea Trade in an effort to starve out Koxinga, a tactic that will work in the short term.
The Golden Age
After the defeat of Koxinga in 1684, and after the Qing Dynasty had ensured the safety of their southern coast, the South Sea trade resumed in 1727. With relative political stability in the realm, improvements in the quality of life of common villagers, and an explosion in the country’s population, more and more people started repopulating the southern coast, taking advantage of the booming trade industry there.
However, fearing foreign influence infiltrating China via the many ports popping up and down the coast, the Qing Emperor instituted a Canton System in 1757, a series of laws that restricted foreign trade to the single seaport of Guangzhou. However, only a handful of elites controlled the seaport, which meant that, once again, the coastal region was plunged to poverty, as all trade and industry started becoming focused in just a few hands. Inland, the people had two choices: struggle for survival as farmers or other menial jobs, or die. But in the coast, there was a third option: piracy.
While desperation and overpopulation was rife in the area, it wasn’t until a rebellion in neighboring Vietnam in 1778 ignited the Pirate life in the South Sea. The Tay Son Dynasty of Vietnam had just unseated the tyrannical Le dynasty. In an effort to vanquish all of their enemies, the Vietnamese rulers formed a pact with Chinese pirates, effectively gang-pressing into becoming privateers and, essentially, the rebellion’s navy. If there was ever one, major reason for the explosion of piracy in the South China Sea, it will be this defining moment.
Prior to the Tay Son rebellion, the Chinese pirates had been simple villagers who had turned to a life of crime in order to supplement their meager livelihood. But with the Vietnamese dynasty funding them, they turned professional: soon, the pirates had money to build large war fleets armed with the most technologically-advanced weapons of the time, and even a military-style management system that gave them the organization they need to turn from occasional nuisance to a full-blown national threat.
Over the next few decades, the Chinese pirates had been terrorizing the South China Sea and plundering any and all ships and ports they wanted. However, infighting between various factions precipitated an implosion of their whole way of life. To remedy this, seven pirate-kings came together in 1805 to form a loose confederacy, complete with a strict code of conduct and organizational bureaucracy.
The leader of this confederacy was the legendary Cheng I, who reorganized the confederation into 6 pirate fleets, with each fleet containing hundreds of warships and put in charge of specific territories.
Organized, well-armed, and now a veteran of multiple conflicts, the Pirates of the South China Sea became a force to be reckoned with. No longer were they simple fishermen with harpoons, the Qing Dynasty now faced a domestic enemy that consisted of thousands of ships, cannons, and battle-hardened warriors. These pirates not only threatened the Qing Dynasty, but the British and Portuguese colonials who threatened their way of life.
Over time, and only through a combined effort of Chinese and British navies, the pirate fleets began to shrink in size, eventually becoming outliers once again. But their legacy remains: even now there are statues of the great Cheng I in many towns in southern coast, a stark reminder of what happens when governments fail the people.