12 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The Cantonese Water World

By Karen Mercury

Before 1793, China had a relaxed, complacent attitude toward their mellow pirates, when an imperial junk could easily round them up or scare them off. The Emperor declared, "In Kwangtung there are no urgent affairs...the pirates have gradually withdrawn and not a trace of them remains." Such sanguinity of mood was abruptly changed with the organization of large fleets that overwhelmed the coasts for more than a decade and became the biggest maritime menace since the conquest of Taiwan and the suppression of Koxinga more than a decade earlier.

Kwangtung province was the hotbed of piracy, where 50,000 to 70,000 pirates took charge of fishing and coastal trade. They moved into interior waterways, extorting payments from towns, burning those who wouldn't pay. They nearly brought about the demise of all Kwantung trade by dissolving communication between Canton and Macao, causing runaway inflation, and bottoming out the foreign market. In a decade, the radical escalation of piracy from the Han River basin reaching into Vietnam had transformed from a trivial annoyance into an international peril.

Most pirates began as fishermen or sailors themselves, unmarried Cantonese-speaking "water people" who voluntarily adopted the vocation. The riparian geography and island chains made it easy for them to hide. There were few roads, so the denizens of the Cantonese water world could move with impunity in the complex network of creeks linking hamlets, villages, and towns. The pirate junks seemed as though floating on green waves through the watery rice plains, much to the terror of those farmers who viewed them.

A Western pirate in my 1827 novel Strangely Wonderful describes the scene thusly:
"Now, them ricemen, you've seen how they comport themselves. They's not exactly high flown themselves. Why, Wenkai's men mix their putrid gunpowder--much less sparky than ours, and given to failing to ignite--into their beverages! Makes 'em choke and turn red, and they think it looks bluff. We used to see the outcomes of their raids, aye. The 'Black Squadrons' would raid villages, Miss, not just other vessels, and take harmless old women with their feet wrapped so tight they had to be dragged, plundered their sorry old fishtanks and gardens. Can't tell you how many of them prisoners we set free when we'd gain a junk as a prize. No, Cap'n Balásházy's more like the kind pirates of the Île Sainte-Marie, back in the glory days. Not one on his crew as wants to leave."
The average prizes were the cargoes of the two-masted sea-going hai-ch'uan junks, transporting lumber, charcoal, cotton, silk, and barnyard animals. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the height of the "Straits' produce" monopoly--rattan, seaweed, and pepper, the pirates' bread and butter. Adding to the confusion were Portuguese missionaries, men actually mostly interested in trade, then British, Swedish, French, German, and American ships. Canton being the sole port through which European trade was allowed, a wild mishmash of vessels clogged the waterways, trading the grand prizes of salt, knives, cotton, cattle--such a torrent of items Western handbooks could only mention a few.

These ricemen operated undetected from the gun-slinging frontier headquarters of Chiang-p'ing, the Sino-Vietnamese equivalent of Jean Lafitte's Barataria, the markets overflowing with pirate produce. Aside from sailors and fishermen, Chiang-p'ing attracted scores of urban misfits and criminals who populated the gambling parlors, opium dens, and floating bordellos. They brandished simple weapons: knives, bamboo pikes, and cutting blades. It was easy to outfit an expedition when the employees were completely familiar with every sandbar, hidden rock, and tide. They struck with guerrilla swift blows, retreating before the shocked victims realized what was happening.

My cabin boy successfully strikes terror into the heroine's heart by proclaiming:
"Celestine mines?" Bellingham gaped. Half-standing, he waved a cautioning hand in the direction of the kitchen. "Miss, your brother can't go up there, not with these bilgey ricemen jaunting about the island! Why, they've got those swords what are sharpened on both sides, and even the lubberly junkmen give what they call ling chih. I didn't tell you this before so as not to scare you, that's 'death by a thousand cuts,' where they slice off one part of your body at a time, say a nose or a finger, and--"
By 1801, Tay-son sponsorship radically boosted piratical battle skills, and they learned how to wield weapons and make stands at sea. These pirates now had plans, joined forces, and sailed each spring from Kwangtung, returning each autumn to Vietnam, coordinating with shore bandits. Suddenly they were elevated from "scum of the sea" to "sailors in the King's navy, "receiving rank, honor, and recognition, many pirates holding titles such as "King of the Eastern Seas" or "King Who Pacifies the Waves." The desperadoes of Chiang-p'ing became the mariners of Tonkin, and they set to building "great war junks to transport Vietnamese war elephants to Canton."

The monumental pirate junks had masts more than 80 feet tall, and sides armored with layers of ox-hide to repel shot and spears, and nets to prevent boarders. Hearty vessels that mounted 30 cannon or more, these ironwood ships ran more than 150 feet in length and could carry up to 400 men. They seemed to Westerners to be "rudely constructed" and most comparable to American schooners or Portuguese brigs and snows, two-masted ships or less than 200 tons.

The captain and his often 6 wives (aggressive pirate women with unbound feet who sometimes held rank and commanded their own junks) occupied the poop, and the rest of the crew crammed into cargo holds under the main deck, odoriferous, dark, and stuffy "cabins" divided only by feeble screens. Once they targeted their victims, the pirates surprised with cutlasses slung over their shoulders and knives sheathed under their arms. If thwarted from directly boarding, they'd plunge into the water to attack from the sea. Resisters were rewarded most commonly by being stripped, hands tied behind their backs, hoisted above the deck, and beaten with twisted rattan rods.

Occasionally pirates would fire their guns when close to their prey, pitiful cannon that I described:
The junk had evidently remasted with the assistance of the friendly Frogs in the Île Sainte-Marie, but it was the usual yang-ch'uan ocean-going junk with guns that were mounted by a rope rove through a hole in the gunwale and made fast to the muzzle of the gun, stationery rigs with no train tackle to allow room for reloading. Since most could not be maneuvered at all, the Kwangtungmen were compelled to position their junks with the enemy in their sights. By the time Broadhecker had hove into view and let loose with his bow guns, mauling the junk square amidships, the best the junkmen could do was elevate their guns. These were guns of the roughly cast pai-tzu turtledove type, badly made and smelted from scrap iron, so disgracefully inaccurate the junk was only able to get off a volley of nails and iron pot fragments that roundly hit a mark--a gaggle of ducks in the center of the bay.
Their small arms included the Chinese blunderbuss. With a barrel seven feet long and weighing 12 pounds, it had to be steadied on someone's shoulder or mounted on a tripod. (Much less likely to burst than other period small arms, it was still used in China in 1945.) They also possessed a medley of old matchlocks and fowling pieces of which they knew little, sometimes capturing Westerners simply in order to learn their usage. The worst were the matchlocks, fired by holding a slow-burning cord over the hole, or the small caliber muskets ("wretched things") with touch holes large enough to admit a tenpenny nail. In the end, Chinese pirates relied mostly on hand-to-hand combat, hurling bamboo pikes like javelins, or fighting with shorter pikes and knives. Of gunpowder and shot they had plenty, carelessly strewn about deck in huge chests where they sat to smoke.