Richard Glasspoole and the Pearl River Delta Pirates

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Piracy in the China seas during the Caribbean Golden Age and afterwards was mostly the undertaking of desperate individuals and small groups. And yet, rather than dissolve into amoeba-like chaos, the Chinese pirate groups, such as the Pearl River Delta pirates, were organized and administrated. At its height, this piracy involved in excess of 50,000 individuals and 1,200 sea vessels, a type known in English as junks.

An image of a battle with a sailing pirate ship.
Chinese ports were highly desirable trade destinations. (Image: Art disain/Shutterstock)

Highly Desirable Trade Destinations

The period of semi-permanent pirate decline in the Atlantic and Mediterranean was also roughly the period of an explosion of piracy in Asia, to such an extent that the West was forced to take serious notice.

During this time, Chinese ports were highly desirable trade destinations. While Chinese interaction with other nations was cautious and heavily regulated, merchants from all over the world went to great lengths for access.

Arabs, Persians and Indians from the near East, Siamese, Vietnamese and Filipinos closer to home, and, of course, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and other Europeans brawling among themselves as they sought out Chinese markets. So there was plenty of shipping around for enterprising pirates to consider plundering.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Pearl River Delta Pirates

From 1796 to 1810, the historian Dian Murray has charted an exponential expansion, and then even faster collapse of pirates along the Pearl River Delta in the South China Sea.

Rice and iron chiefly was forbidden between Vietnam and China. However, just as in the case of Caribbean pirates, protectionist trade policies tended to create incentives for smuggling, black markets, and pirates to supply their goods. Furthermore, the Tay Son uprising in Vietnam that began in 1772, encouraged Chinese pirates to act as privateers. When the rebels were finally defeated in 1802, the privateers, having no further protections, turned pirate.

The Pearl River Delta pirates were administrated, first by seven charismatic leaders, such as Cheng I, and then by his thoroughly remarkable piratical widow, Cheng I Sao, and her adopted steps son and partner, Chang Pao.

The Pirate System

Rather than individualized Jolly Rogers, they had squadrons organized by flag color, red for the mighty Cheng I Sao and black, yellow, blue, green and white as well.

Charles Ellms, author of the influential if rather lured book, The Pirates Own Book, described the pirate system under Cheng I Sao with incredulity. He wrote, “Instead of declining under the rule of a woman, the pirates became more enterprising than ever.”’

The Pearl River Delta pirates raided coastal villages for supplies, laborers, and women. They forced any ship in their region to pay for protection passports, essentially functioning as a large tax levying body, although not one with nation founding ambitions.

They were resisted by Cantonese and Portuguese anti-pirate forces, but ultimately infighting among the pirates became the more significant cause of their decline. They opted to seek amnesty and managed to negotiate for it successfully.

Richard Glasspoole

Much of what Anglophone pirate historians know about the culture of this remarkable, if short-lived pirate organization, comes from Richard Glasspoole, an East India company employee who was captured by the Red Flag Squadron, in 1809, right at the end of these Pirates era of dominance.

Describing his ordeal, Glasspoole recalled,

I was then taken before the chief. He was seated on deck, in a large chair, dressed in purple silk, with a black turban on. He appeared to be about 30 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.

Glasspoole’s Ransom

Ultimately, the chief was convinced to hold his guests for ransom. The gold buttons on Glasspoole’s were persuasive. The ransom was delayed by negotiations, however, and Glasspoole’s release was put off for 11 weeks and 3 days. Talks held up at the last minute because a telescope sent as partial payment was, according to the chief, clearly second hand, and he wanted a new one or its cash value.

But all ends happily at last. Glasspoole returned to his imperial employers, and the pirates sailed off.

An image of a pirate cutting a rope, with three people hanging on to it.
The Pearl River Delta pirates were terrible and bloodthirsty. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

His account of his experiences with them, A Brief History of My Captivity, was prepared for his employer, and has been repeatedly published since. In it curiously, he calls the pirates ladrones, the Portuguese word for thieves, underscoring the extent to which he sees the world through a lens that centralizes European colonial practice.

Bloodthirsty Pirates

Much of Glasspoole’s record is corroborated by a Chinese language source, Yuen Yung-Lun’s History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807 to 1810. It was imperfectly translated into English and published, bundled with Glasspoole’s account by Karl Friedrich Neumann in 1831.

This account, like Glasspoole’s, paints the pirates as terrible and bloodthirsty, but also almost admirably determined. It also necessarily knows more about their aftermath than Glasspoole did.

Exotic Tales of Piracy?

Yuen was a government employee who knew men who fought and died at the hands of the pirates and preserved their accounts. One such was from a man whose commander sacrificed himself against Cheng I Sao’s pirates;

Our army was pressed down by the overpowering force of the enemy. Our admiral said ‘Since I cannot conquer these wicked pirates, I will blow myself up’. In this manner, the admiral and many other officers met their death.

Glasspoole and Yuen, who felt the immediate effects of pirate violence, had obvious reasons to be concerned about the pirates’ treatment of prisoners and enemies and recorded their personal trauma for practical purposes.

For the British, though, these works were fairly quickly circulated, digested and repackaged as entertainment for a public hungry for exotic tales of the Orient and far away piracy.

Common Questions about Richard Glasspoole and the Pearl River Delta Pirates

Q: What encouraged the Chinese pirates to act as privateers?

The Tay Son uprising in Vietnam, that began in 1772, encouraged the Chinese pirates to act as privateers.

Q: Who did the Pearl River Delta pirates raid?

The Pearl River Delta pirates raided coastal villages for supplies, laborers, and women. They forced any ship in their region to pay for protection passports, essentially functioning as a large tax levying body, although not one with nation founding ambitions.

Q: Who was Richard Glasspoole?

Richard Glasspoole was an East India company employee, who was captured by the Red Flag Squadron in 1809.

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