By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The British nation in the 19th century was a big consumer of Chinese luxury products. However, as China was cautious about foreign trade. Also, as their Chinese trading partners were not especially interested in woolen textiles or other British wears, the British could not trade and generally had to pay for their teas and silks and spices. So, the East India Company had a solution: opium. But, how did this help the pirates of the China sea?
The Battle of Tonkin River
The early European travelers to Asian waters were unquestionably raiders in their own right. The English, as well as the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish, used their 16th century voyages of exploration more for smashing and grabbing than diplomacy.
However, attempting to clear the vicinity of European bases in Asia from pirates often required local partnerships. A famous example of anti-pirate collaboration is the Battle of Tonkin River, which lasted for three days. The British, allied with the Qing and the Tonkinese, took on a pirate, who had been raiding coastal European settlements as well as international shipping.
The spark for the conflagration was pirate Shap-ng-tsai, who commanded a fleet of 70 vessels.
Taking Down Shap-ng-tsai
Shap-ng-tsai had become such an imposing problem for the Chinese authorities that they offered him a post in the navy. Shap-ng-tsai declined this honor in order to keep on pirating until he ill-advisedly sank some British merchant ships. This made the British sufficiently upset to put together a coalition pirate hunting force of three warships and eight Chinese junks.
The British found their pirates in the Gulf of Tonkin in October of 1849. Although the pirates significantly outnumbered the squadron, they suffered heavy casualties, initially losing their flagship and 27 others. They retreated to shallower waters up the Tonkin River, chased by smaller boats once the heavier warships could not follow them.
Eventually, many of the pirates headed for the shore where they could fire upon the Sino-British forces. But there they were really routed by the Tonkinese militia.
The Fate of Shap-ng-tsai and Liu Laijiao
Having lost all but a handful of his ships and a small fraction of his men, Shap-ng-tsai fled further up the river, living to fight another day but knowing that his pirating career was over.
The British commander John Hay was promoted as a result of the smashing success of the expedition. Shap-ng-tsai, surprisingly, was also promoted. He accepted amnesty and rethought the previous offer to join the Chinese Navy by way of retiring from piracy.
Other pirate commanders were granted similar opportunities. Thus, ironically, 58 pirate ships were destroyed and 2,000 men died, but the pirates’ leaders came out of it just fine.
Interestingly, at least one of the pirate commanders who transitioned to military rank alongside Shap-ng-tsai was a woman named Liu Laijiao. Little is known about her beyond this fact, but it’s worth noting that women often served on China seas pirate ships, even if history forgets to record them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Britain faced a unique problem when it came to trading with China. It had lots that it wanted to buy and nothing that China wanted in return. The British thus, ended up paying, instead of trading, for the tea, spices and all the luxury goods.
To add to their woes, there wasn’t much silver coming from North America anymore because of colonial rebellions and pirate trepidations on shipping.
So, to get that spices, the British East India Company, in a pretty impressive display of mercantile corruption, developed a new triangle trade based, not on transporting human captives, but, on encouraging drug addiction.
Opium cultivated in India was smuggled and sold illegally in China. The silver paid for the drugs could then be used to fill East India ships with Chinese goods for home markets.
Thus, the British spent the 1830s and ’40s flooding Canton with cheap opium, something in the neighborhood of 1,400 tons annually. American merchants with Turkish opium also joined in this game, with the Anglophone drug dealers driving down each other’s prices.
Treaty of Nanjing
As opium drug addiction became a serious social ill, the Qing government appealed in vain to Britain to stop.
The merchants did not obey. So the Chinese began seizing their opium stockpiles in 1839 and imposing restrictions on traders who would not pledge to bring in no more. Tensions rose for months, with the British attempting to blockade their own ships to prevent them from participating in legal trade under Chinese-imposed conditions.
Ultimately, a shooting war broke out, with the British offensive beginning in earnest in 1840. The British Navy had heavier, more heavily armed warships and were able to force Qing to the unequal Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.
This opened more ports to trade, required reparative payments from the Qing, and formalized the colonization of Hong Kong.
British Opium Dealers
The loss of naval power and economic downturn that resulted from the Treaty of Nanjing made Chinese piracy a more appealing option than it had been for decades, and there was a sharp increase in the pirate population.
The rise of Shap-ng-tsai and other famous and powerful pirates, like his prodigy, Chui A-poo, happened in this environment. In other words, the extremely successful Sino-British partnership to curb the pirate escapades that were happening within less than 200 miles of Hong Kong was necessary, in the first place, because the British had started and won a war over their right to be opium dealers.
Common Questions about the Treaty of Nanjing and the Rise of Chinese Piracy
The Battle of Tonkin River was an attempt to clear the vicinity of European bases in Asia from pirates. The British allied with the Qing and the Tonkinese, to take on a pirate—Shap-ng-tsai—who had been raiding coastal European settlements as well as international shipping.
The opium was smuggled and sold illegally in China by Britain. The silver paid for the drugs could then be used to fill East India ships with Chinese goods for home markets.
The Treaty of Nanjing between Britain and China in 1842 opened more ports to trade, required reparative payments from the Qing, and formalized the colonization of Hong Kong.