top of page
  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 13 - Please Don't Pirate This Podcast (Pirate Week - Obviously)

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The pirate dynasty of Ching Shih, Cheng Yud and Chung Po - the Chinese pirates who commanded hundreds of ships and 20,000 swash buckling pirates

Chinese piracy was very, very different to European or Western piracy and buccaneering – it was on a far more industrial scale and the numbers of people and amount of money involved were astonishing. Before we get into the meat of today's story, here's a couple of examples.

Ching Chelung – Around the 1640s Born in the Portugese colony in Macao and christened as Nicholas Gaspard before eventually moving to Japan and working with a shipping merchant. When that merchant died he seized the company and used it to purchase a fleet of armed ships with which he terrorised the South China sea in alliance with other local pirates – eventually the Chinese emperor at the time had to bribe him with promises of being appointed the high admiral of the empire to calm him down and get him to put down his own pirate threat, largely by killing all the other pirates. To give you a sense of his power, he fell out with authorities in Canton at one point, who withheld part of his admirals pay packet in lieu of unpaid taxes. He sailed to Canton, marched into the centre of the city with 6,000 of his pirates, set up a tribunal and summoned the tax officers, had them hand over the cash, wrote them a receipt, marched back to the harbour, and sailed off without a shot being fired. In fact, this was probably the best way to gain status and nobility in China, because it continued for hundreds of years that a pirate would become incredibly rich and powerful, seize islands and towns, defeat the local militaries and then be bought out with promises of titles and a wink and nod agreement that they would still control local trade. There are dozens of cases where savvy Chinese governors have essentially gotten themselves a free navy by offering imperial admiralties and court positions to pirate chiefs.

But there's one pirate power couple who really stand out, and its them that I'm going to talk about today. Cheng Yud was born in 1765 in Guangdong in China and followed in the traditional family business of looting ships and killing sailors, as his family had done for generations before him. He was very good at this and quickly made himself a fortune and strong business connections in the area, especially in and around Vietnam, which was in a period of rebellion at the time. The rebels were frequently calling on the pirates to raid Vietnamese loyalist ships and villlages. In about 1798, on a raid, he captured a 15 year old boy called Chung Po, who he pressed into service both as a pirate, as his apprentice, and as his lover. But more on him later. But Cheng didn't just want a lover, he wanted a wife, and there was one woman who he just couldn't get enough of. She was called Ching Shih, and was the madam of a floating brothel in Guangzouh (Guang-cho). Again, her family had been pirates for generations and she was fully aware of the trade. But more than this, the walls of her brothel had ears and so she had access to the inner most circles of local government and business. It's not clear whether the match was love or purely business, but when they married she was guaranteed by contract a 50% share of Cheng's business. So there was definitely some savvy-ness there! They had two kids but also adopted Chung Po as their son and rightful heir to the business, and set about becoming ludicrously powerful. And when I mean powerful, I mean powerful. The family controlled the Ref Flag Fleet, which had 300 ships and somewhere between 20-40,000 sailors. That's roughly the size of the royal navy at the same time. They were the largest members of a large confederation of pirates in and around Macao and Canton, known as the six fleets – each of which had a colour – and consisted of 800 large and 1000 small ships with around 70,000 sailors. Which is just a ludicrous number. Cheng Yud died in Vietnam in November 1807 in circumstances which may or may not have involved an “accident” at the hands of Ching Shih. At any rate, she quickly moved to take full control of the family business. She also pretty quickly took her adopted son Ching Po on as her second in command and, er, lover. This poor kid had a very confused time in his teenage years and early 20s.

And Ching was a BRUTAL leader. She seized towns and cities along the Chinese coast around Canton and Macao, beheading the men – a favourite pasttime of hers – and selling the women and children into slavery or pressing them as pirates. She set up offices and administrations to extoll protection money around the coast, creating almost an underground shadow government. She attacked the Portugese, the British and the Quing government navy, defeating them all time and time again. She even managed to capture an entire Quing fleet that was sent to destroy her in 1808, forcing the Chinese navy to end up fighting from fishing boats. In fact, some Imperial commanders even sank their own ships to avoid having to go out and fight her. She was also pretty harsh on her own pirates. Now pirates are famous for their pirate codes, and hers went like this: 1) Disobeying orders would see you beheaded on the spot. 2) No one was to steal from the villagers that willingly supplied the pirates 3) All goods seized were publically inspected and accounted for. The seizer got 20% and the rest was placed into the company fund. 4) Any cash seized was to be spent on resupplying the ships and distributed equally between those who had been successful and those who hadn't. Withholding cash would be a whipping or beheading offence. Captive women were to be released – but in reality the pirates often ransomed or married the beautiful ones, who they were then expected to be faithful to. Ugly ladies were released. Anyone raping a female captive was beheaded, and if the sex was concensual but out of wedlock, the woman was drowned too. According to Richard Glasspoole, an East India Company officer she captured in 1809, deserting would get your ears chopped off, and various other offences would see you flogged or killed. He claimed the code led to a pirate force that was brave, loyal and absolutely refused to surrender.

Unfortunately for the pirates it couldn't last forever. In 1809 and 1810 the Portugese navy squadron based in Macao finally set out to end the pirate threat, in a series of battles known collectively as the Battle of the Tiger's mouth at the edge of the pearl river delta. The Portugese fleet was tiny – varying between three and six ships, but even their small ships were much more heavily armed and armoured than the pirate junks, and had much bigger, better and more accurate cannons which fired exploding balls over long range and would decimate any pirate ship with a single shot. In the third and final part of the battle in January 1810, Chung Po, commanding the pirate fleet on behalf of his wife, ordered all 300 pirate ships to attack just six portugese vessels. Unfortunately, the pirate ships all got in each others way and were so tightly packed it was like shooting fish in a barrel for the Portugese, who completely crushed the pirate fleet and blockaded it in. Two weeks later, the pirates surrendered to the Portuguese and agreed to accept an amnesty from the Chinese Government. A pretty generous amnesty at that – they were allowed to keep all their cash and booty, and Chung Po was offered a cushty navy job as a reward. The Chinese government allowed Ching Shih and Chung Po to anull their mother-son relationship and get married, just to tie up that weird little loose end, and Ching used her money to open up casinos, brothels and a salt trading business. In her later years, she was even dragged out of retirement to act as a Chinese government advisor in the first opium war against the British. She died peacefully at home, incredibly rich, in 1844 at the age of 69. Probably the richest and most powerful pirate to ever have lived.

Tom's notes: Francis Lolonais (Jean David Lau)

“The History of the Buccaneers of America” by Alexandre Exquemelin

· Very important document about piracy from the early years of Caribbean piracy

o Stereotypical pirates in popular culture (Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean) are based on piracy from the early modern period

§ European cultures were discovering and populating the New World

§ The Spanish Empire possessed the majority of Central American and the large Caribbean Islands (collectively known as the Spanish Main)

o Mostly written about Captain Henry Morgan

§ Welsh privateer and inspiration for the rum

§ Exquemelin actually worked for Morgan

· He was a Flemish or maybe Dutch pirate and barber-surgeon

§ Given a ‘letter of marque’ to attack Spanish ships

§ Later became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica

§ Morgan actually bought a libel suit against Exquemelin and won

§ Claiming the story was exaggerated

· First published in 1678

o Dutch, German, Spanish, English

o Much added each time!

o 1914 Translation from George Alfred Williams

§ Based on the original English translation

§ So possibly not the most accurate

History of the Buccaneers of America from 1816

· “Buccaneer”

o Original Spanish hunters in the area adopted a method of curing meat from the locals

o Cooked on a ‘barbecue’ and then cured into ‘boucan’ (both native names)

§ These Spaniard then became known as Buccaneers

· “Filibustier”

o Name for French Buccaneers

o French pronunciation of ‘freebooter’

§ Pirates names before ‘ buccaneer’

o Author denies it is simply the French word for ‘flyboat’ used to chase Spanish ships

· Lots of phrases have a maritime origin

o Enough room to swing a cat; British navy from around the same time

Francis Lolonais (Jean David Lau)

· French pirate

· Born 1630

· 3 Chapters devoted to his exploits

What follows is totally drawn from The Pirates of Panama

· Arrived in the Caribbean as a servant/slave

· Became a common mariner and was observed to be very brave

· Governor of Tortuga (Haiti) gave him a ship

o Basically gave him permission to harass Spanish ships at will

· He quickly became very notorious

o “ The Spaniards, in his time, would choose rather to die, or sink fighting, than surrender, knowing they should have no mercy at his hands”

He is almost killed early on in the account

· Exquemelin tells us that he then gets shipwrecked on the Mexican coast

o The Spaniards pursue his crew, kill most and Lolonais only escapes by pretending to be dead having covered himself in the blood of his crew members

o He visits the nearby town in disguise and hears that the Spaniards are celebrating his death

o He escapes the mainland and returns to Tortuga

§ “refuge of all sorts of wickedness”

Lolonois has to build himself back up again having lost everything

· Gets himself a small boat and 21 men

· Heads to Cuba

· Spotted by fishermen, the town he targeted alerts the Governor in Havannah and 10 guns and 90 men are sent to this town to ward off Lolonais without mercy

· Lolonais and his men sneak up on the boat in the early hours with the help of some local servants who showed them the way around the waters.

· They took the boat and beheaded all but one Spaniard one by one

o One man was sent to Havannah with a message that Lolonois will never give quarter to a Spaniard (origins of phrase; give no food or lodgings)

Lolonais now has a good ship but not much provisions or men

· He cruises the local ports looking for trouble

· Finally surprises a ship full of plate and other merchandise near Maracaibo (Venezuela)

· Returns to Tortuga wealthy and uses his new merchandise to equip a fleet with over 600 men in 8 boats to take Maracaibo

· Quite quickly they take 2 Spanish ships

o First

§ 120,000 weight of cocoa

§ 40,000 pieces of eight

§ 10,000 pieces of eight worth of jewels

§ 16 guns

o Second

§ 8 guns

§ Lots of muskets and gun powder

§ 12,000 pieces of eight

o Piece of eight; the Spanish Dollar, the first international standardised currency because of its uniformity and sheer volume

§ Spain discovered vast reserves of silver in Bolivia and Mexico

· Maracaibo sits between the Gulf of Venezuela and Lago de Maracaibo on a narrow piece of water with islands that make parts of the route from the Gulf to the lake very narrow

o Further into the lake lies the town of Gibraltar

· Lolonais’s men quickly take a fort on one of the islands at one of the narrowest part so the stretch of water

o Many Spaniards escaped the attack and when message reaches Maracaibo, everyone panics and retreats to Gibraltar

· Lolonais’s men find Maracaibo undefended

o They have a whale of a time with all the food they find

o They realise also that the inhabitants have escaped with their treasures so men are sent out into the woods to round up anyone they can find

§ They return with slaves, mules laden with valuables and 20,000 pieces of eight

§ The Spaniards are tortured on a rack and made to confess where they hid their riches

· Meanwhile in Gibraltar, the Govenor of Merida arrives with 400 well-armed men and arms an equal number of men from the town

o batteries are set up and barricades are erected that force the pirates into a woods or the town

· When Lolonais’s men attack, they fall into the trap and begin to be slaughtered

o Then Lolonais feints a retreat, the Spanish follow, the pirates re-organise and slaughter the Spaniards taking their town

o The town is looted

o Spoils split fairly between the pirates

· Lolonais now has no problem getting men for future voyages!

o Voyage to Nicaragua

o Bad weather makes the journey slow

o Stop off to find provisions and just destroy a native tribe and take their hogs, hens and millet

o Decide to just ransack that area of coastline

o Find a couple of Spanish storehouses and a small port with a ship

§ Take it all and torture the Spaniards to find out if there was anything hidden

o March over land to San Pedro

§ Defeat some Spaniards laying in ambush and torture them for information

§ Trying to find out a safe route through further ambushes

· Spaniards don’t tell him so he cuts out one of their hearts and gnaws on it in front of them

§ Survive more ambushes and then take a heavily fortified and well-prepared town

o The Spaniards agree to surrender if they are given 2 hours to get out with all their stuff.

§ Game of hide and seek

§ After 2 hours the pirates head after them

Aside regarding some of the native Americans

o In particular, a custom whereby new-borns are placed in a hole in the ground near a temple overnight naked. The child is left there until the tracks of a creature are seen in the mud. This creature then becomes the child’s protector for their life.

Eventually Lolonais’s winning streak comes to an end

· Stuck on a sandbank around Puerto Rico

· A few of the pirates head inland and get caught by some locals

· The locals kill 2 of them and eat them

· For 6 months, they broke apart their ship and rebuilt where it could be launched

· When it was built, half of the men headed off to find a bigger boat

· They arrive in Panama, have a few scuffles with some Spaniards and Indians where they come off worse

· Eventually, some Indians catch Lolonaise and some of his men and chopping him up and burn him

bottom of page