Sea Bandits of the Canton Delta, 1780-1839

Antony, Robert J.
December 2005
International Journal of Maritime History;Dec2005, Vol. 17 Issue 2, p1
Academic Journal
Between 1780 and 1839, there was an upsurge in piracy all along the South China coast By the start of the nineteenth century, small gangs had coalesced into several large pirate leagues. In Guangdong province there was a loose confederation of six major fleets, with as many as 70,000 active pirates. Pirates attacked trading and fishing vessels and coastal villages not only in the more remote areas but also in China's commercial and political centres, such as the Canton delta, which is the focus of this article. At the height of their power between 1807 and 1810, the largest fleet was commanded by a female pirate named Zheng Yi Sao and her paramour, Zhang Bao. Although the pirate confederation collapsed in 1810, petty, small-scale piracy continued to be a problem in the delta for the next several decades prior to the Opium War. In this article I examine the organizational attributes of large-scale piracy as well as of the smaller gangs; the social composition of pirate gangs; and their criminal activities - robbery, kidnap and extortion - during this period. At the height of their power the huge pirate confederation gained a firm hold over maritime society through the systematic use of terror, bribery and extortion. I further argue that the pirates provided direct and indirect employment to tens of thousands of mostly poor coastal residents and that they stimulated the local economies in areas that were normally outside regular trading networks. My goal has been to re-examine Chinese piracy "from the bottom up." As I conclude, "[o]nly by going beyond the Confucian-dominated stereotypes to examine the poor, marginalized and criminalized segments of society can we better understand the social history of late imperial China."


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