The British or European view of piracy in the China seas was a narrow one. Their experience of far Eastern piracy was limited to only a few recent centuries even though there was a robust long history of piracy in the China seas. Piracy picked up steam in the 10th century and developed at a truly large scale with the Wako—originally a Japan-based pirate group who raided from, perhaps, as early as the 13th to, as late as the 16th century.
Launching raids against the Korean and Chinese mainlands from the Sea of Japan, the Wako would venture past the coastlines and uphill rivers like the Yangtze. Additionally, they also sometimes acted as inland raiders at a scale that put the Atlantic-based Buccaneers to shame, killing and stealing both goods and people.
Like the Buccaneers, the Wako were ethnically and culturally diverse. They were never an ethnically unified group.
As time went on, they became less and less Japanese. Their members included Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Siamese and even Portuguese and Dutch crewmen, each with regionally specific skills and, in combination, a deadly and determined mix.
Early Wako pirate leaders were often landless samurai who turned to raid in Korea to mend their fortunes. Things worsened considerably after the Mongol raids.
Kublai Khan, the great Mongol warlord best known to English readers from the lovely, if opium-addled, poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had in fact made a serious, though ultimately failed, attempt at invading Japan in the 13th century.
While Japan repelled the invasions, the effort was costly. As the naval defences had taken a beating, there were multiple motivating factors encouraging people to increase the ranks of the Wako pirates on the coasts.
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The geography of limited trade routes and long coastlines was also an important factor in shaping the piracies of the Seto inland sea in the Japanese waterway.
A 1367 letter from Korea to the Shogun of Japan complained of coming and plundering. Tsushima, an island in the Korean Strait, was perfectly placed for launching attacks on both trade and Korea’s coastlines. Hence, it became a hotbed of pirate activity.
Despite determined attempts, the Korean government could not extract the pirates from Tsushima until 1443. They hit on the clever plan of making the dominant Sō clan legitimate traders, thus making it their interest to clamp down on competitors smuggling or raiding.
Regulating Sea Voyaging
Soon, a lot of geographical factors also came into play. The Malacca Strait, a narrow strip of water between Malaysia and Sumatra, was a crucial route for shipping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific and the ever desirable ports and goods of China.
Unfortunately, its narrowness made for an excellent spot for potential ambush or to run a protection business.
Moreover, both the Ming and Qing dynasties attempted to regulate all sea voyaging near their coastlines, putting extreme restrictions on foreign trade.
Later, Korea and Japan followed suit. This move provided a significant spur to piracy and the Wako’s reputation for being fierce predators grew.
Protectionist Trade Policies
Protectionist trade policies are one of several common nurseries for pirates. Where a legal market for desired goods is difficult or impossible, it’s human nature to set up illegal ones.
In disbanding much of their merchant fleets, the governments made it impossible for men bred to the sea to do their work legitimately.
When it came to the Wako pirates, they brought a certain efficiency to their work. As with Viking groups, the very same ships might opt to trade honestly or attack, smash and grab as the situation seemed to warrant.
The Dan people of Vietnam employed a similar flexibility, acting as fishers or filibusters in turn. And come to think of it, so did Dutch, Portuguese and English traders.
Sir Edward Michelborne
As was inevitable, sometimes the European and Asian sea rovers clashed. Sir Edward Michelborne, a Jacobean trader privateer, sailing against the wishes of the East India company, claimed,
The Japanese are not suffered to land in any part of India with weapons being accounted a people so desperate and daring that they are feared in all places where they come.
Wako and Michelborne
A group of Wako attacked and killed Michelborne’s navigator, the famed explorer John Davis. Michelborne’s crew managed, with difficulty, to fight off the pirates, capturing only one.
However, their short experience with him conveys why the Wako created such anxiety. They said,
He told us that the Wako meant to take our ship and to cut all our throats. He would say no more, but desired that he might be cut in pieces.
Michelborne’s crew attempted to turn the man over to the Japanese government. But as Michelborne put it, “He break the rope and fell into the sea. I cannot tell whether he swam to land or not.”
Pirates also brought wealth to particular local lords, even though they were a major headache for the imperial court. Predictably, powerful patrons and pirates often formed symbiotic relationships with each other. It was not until trade opened up, which brought its own problems, that Wako piracy really started to decrease.
As was expected, the relative quiet of the early 16th century did not last and piracy ascended again in the 17th century.
Common Questions about the Wako Pirates
The early Wako pirate leaders were often landless samurai who turned to raid in Korea to mend their fortunes.
The Malacca Strait, a narrow strip of water between Malaysia and Sumatra, was a crucial route for shipping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific and the ever desirable ports and goods of China.
Wako members included Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Siamese and even Portuguese and Dutch crewmen, each with regionally specific skills and in combination, a deadly and determined mix.