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A Brief History of Piracy in Southeast Asia

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

In the early 5th century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian wrote of his voyage from Java to Ceylon that the ‘sea is infested with pirates, to meet whom is death.’ This was the first recorded reference to the region's piracy problem. However, it had been around for far longer.

Historically, South East Asia has the ideal geography for pirate success because:

  1. It’s important as a maritime trading route so there are always lots of potential targets around;

  2. It has narrow stretches of water that ships must travel through called chokepoints. These offer predictability to pirates on when targets will appear;

  3. It has more than 25,000 islands that pirates can use as hiding places;

  4. It has large areas of space outside of any kind of government control that help pirates avoid detection.

Throughout history, people from different areas of South East Asia engaged in piracy for different reasons. This post concerns the sea-raiders who operated in the pre-colonial era.

Pirates of the Malay Peninsula

For centuries, the Malay raiders used the small islands and rivers of the Peninsula as their bases. They hid behind the numerous headlands waiting for targets.

They sailed in light-weight prahus (or proas) that could easily be navigated in shallow water because the stern and bow were the same. When not making a living fishing, much like the European privateers and North African corsairs, they often raided with authority from their local ruler. Their usual victims were other sea-raiders and fishers from competing, nearby states.

The Europeans arrived in the 16th century: the Portuguese in 1512, then the Dutch in the 1590s. The Malay raiders’ prahus were not suitable for attacking the Europeans’ ships and so they left them largely alone.

In return, the Europeans did the same.

Then in the early 19th century, European colonial expansion saw the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles to claim Singapore for the British. For the Dutch, this was the beginning of a British strategy of colonial expansion that threatened their supremacy in the region.

For the Malay raiders, they now had access to British armaments in Singapore. With arms onboard, they grew increasingly aggressive: plundering the cargo of other prahus, especially junks making passage between Singapore and China. They took crews prisoner, and sold them as slaves to work in pepper plantations owned by Europeans. They would then sell their plunder in Singapore for low prices or exchange it for more arms.

In 1826, Malay raiders attacked their first European ship: the Dutch schooner Anna. By 1850, records showed between 30 to 40 European sailing ships had fallen victim to the Malay sea-raiders.

Orang Laut Pirate Communities

Prior to the 19th century, the Orang Laut people of the Riau-Lingga archipelago engaged in sponsored raids on behalf of local Malay sultans and the elite of Johor.

‘Orang Laut’ translates literally to ‘Sea People’. They lived (and still do today) permanently on their boats, without any fixed habitation onshore. The name suggests a level of unity among them but in fact, they consisted of numerous sub-groups. Different groups assisted different rulers at different times and some, not at all.

Power for Malay rulers hinged on controlling the maritime trade in the southern Malacca Strait. The Orang Laut provided the key. Their incredibly detailed knowledge of the waters, swamps, and shoals meant they were invaluable for patrolling the seas, ‘guiding’ ships into port, and helping keep allies in line. With the Orang Laut on their side, Malay rulers could expand their territorial holdings across the vast archipelagos of South East Asia. At the same time, the Orang Laut were known to raid ships for both personal profit and in service of their patrons.

The first designation of the Orang Laut as pirates came from early Chinese traders. A few centuries later in the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company began complaining about their depredations. By the early 18th century, the Orang Laut switched their allegiance away from Johor towards the increasingly powerful Minangkabau people migrating into the region.

The decline in their power began with the arrival of the Ilanun raiders from the Sulu Sea in 1787.

Pirates of China

Chinese sea-raiders operated out of the Canton district (modern day Guangzhou) since early times. In the 16th century, the Chinese Empire forbade private trade, seeking to monopolise all trade, especially with the Europeans, for themselves. Similar to the deys and pashas of North Africa, Chinese emperors considered the European colonial sea powers as tribute states. If they did not pay tribute, they could not trade.

This caused European colonisers to conduct their business with illegal Chinese private traders. Among these traders emerged a unique form of pirate: the ‘merchant-pirate’.

In 1566, Lin Daoqian was a pirate chief from Guangdong. His fleet attacked Fujian, killing thousands of people. The imperial governor Yu Dayou retaliated, forcing Lin and his pirates to flee to Taiwan, where they buried their treasure at Mount Dagu. A year later, Lin returned for his treasure and established himself as a trader in Cambodia, Siam (Thailand) and Annam (Vietnam). He still robbed ships when the opportunity arose. The Chinese Government never caught him and he died a rich man in Siam.

In 1574, Lin Feng was a pirate chief from Canton. After his fleet was defeated by the Chinese Imperial Coast Guard, he decided to set himself up as the king of the Philippine archipelago in Luzon. The Spanish and residents of Manila did not take kindly to this idea and pushed back strongly. But Lin Feng made a daring escape. After the Chinese Navy failed to apprehend him, the Chinese Emperor was so angry with the Spanish that he refused to allow them to trade in Amoy (modern day Xiamen).

The most famous and powerful merchant-pirate group was led by Zheng Zhilong. Born in Macao, Zheng worked under the Dutch in Taiwan before heading to Japan. There he met a powerful Chinese merchant called Yuan Siqi and endeared himself to him with his creative entrepreneurship.

In 1625 he took over Yuan’s commercial fleet, turning it into a pirate fleet that controlled maritime trade with Indians, Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch. In 1646, Zheng’s son took over the fleet and it became a pseudo-government, imposing taxes on coastal provinces and other traders. Young Zheng grew so wealthy he eventually moved to Taiwan and established his own kingdom.

“Japanese Pirates”

So-called ‘pirates’ from the various regional provinces and islands that now comprise Japan were active from the 4th through the 16th centuries on the coasts of Japan, China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula. By the end of their time, around one-third were of Chinese origin.

For several centuries, interactions between these ‘pirates’ and the people living in the settlements on the East Asian continent were sporadic and mostly peaceful (i.e. trade-based rather than pirate-style raiding). However, as the Chinese did not support private trading, they were considered pirates in China.

The Chinese also gave a pirate label to Japan-based groups called ‘kaizoku’ (sea brigands). In reality, the kaizoku were more akin to entrepreneurs than pirates. For several centuries, kaizoku established and maintained networks of maritime-based production, distribution and exchange between coastal communities and sold their services, sometimes involving the use of violence, to land-based rulers.

As in other parts of Southeast Asia, only by hiring accomplished region-based seafarers like kaizoku could a Japanese ruler expand his empire and accomplish his economic goals. While the Shogun often looked the other way to their exploits, those that were caught and China-born did not fare so well. For example, in 1405, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu deported twenty captured ‘pirates’ to China, where they were gruesomely boiled to death.

The dependence on their skills gave the kaizoku such power and influence some established themselves as ‘daimyo’ (Japanese feudal lord) of the sea and controlled entire islands in the archipelago.

The end of the kaizoku era began in the late 16th century, when the samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi began his push to unify Japan.

Iranun and Balangini Raiders of the Sulu Sultanate

The Iranun and Balangini sea-raiders emerged suddenly in 1768. They undertook a ferocious series of attacks against the shipyards, churches and landed estates of southern Luzon (the Philippines). Then they turned to specialising in long distance maritime raiding and slaving on a vast regional scale, earning them the moniker the ‘Vikings of Asia’.

Their emergence was a direct result of the Europeans’ insatiable desire for tea. The European demand for labour to work in the tea plantations in the mountains of China, and the exotic delicacies in the fisheries and forests of Asia created a burgeoning slave market.

To maintain supremacy against the Europeans’ incursions, the Sulu Sultanate were determined to control the new slave market. So the Sultan authorised the devoutly Muslim Iranun and Balangini sea-raiders to procure slaves from the unprotected coastal settlements of Southeast Asia and the sailing vessels that moved commodities between China and the West. The raiders also took jewels, gold, silver, dollars, rupees, ammunition, and anything of value.

The Iranun and Balangingi typically cruised in squadrons of about 40 joanga (ships) with 60 to 150 men onboard. However, the largest was the Illana Bay fleet of 100 joanga and 10-15,000 raiders. Captured men were stripped, tied up for weeks on end, badly fed, and deliberately caned on their limbs so they could not swim or run away.

However, female captives were highly valued. One woman was worth three men as objects of trade and exchange. Provided they did not resist, women were not cruelly treated. It was expressly forbidden to sexually abuse them.

The Sulu ships contained armaments of locally made and expertly cast cannons and swivel guns that used ballast and ironmongery imported from the United States and Bengal. The raiders were armed with shields, spears, two-handed swords, axes, musket and pistols and they dressed in bullet-proof, sleeveless padded jackets. The sight of their approach must have been terrifying for the helpless villagers.

The Iranun and Balangingi raiders were highly loyal to each other and strictly disciplined. Yet, just as among the pirates of the Caribbean, there were coerced men onboard who rowed, bailed, cleaned and repaired the ship.

For over a century, they earned a reputation as highly skilled sea-raiders and ship-builders; daring and fierce marauders who jeopardised the maritime trade routes of Southeast Asia.

Pirates of Viet Nam

For centuries, the Gulf of Tonkin was the Vietnamese equivalent of the American Wild West: lawless, unruly, and ungovernable. This made it perfect for pirates. From 1644-84, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, combined with plagues and famines in China, made the islands, lagoons and swamps of the Gulf of Tonkin a pirate haven.

The most legendary of generations of pirates was Yang “Righteous Yang” Yandi. Little is known of Yang’s origins. He and his brother, Yang San, began their outlaw years as small-time, petty, hit-and-run raiders of boats and villages on the Gulf. Gradually, their gang grew and Yang’s attacks became bolder: a raid in Tongxi included ships anchored in the harbour, shops and homes onshore, and the murder of several resisting merchants.

For years, Yang’s gang roamed the Hainan and Leizhou coasts pillaging ships, kidnapping men, women and children, and holding them for ransom. When they faced opposition and their numbers diminished, Yang and his men fled to other locales, regrouped and began raiding again. In 1666, Yang fled to Fujian and Taiwan, returning ten years later with a thousand men in 80 ships. He continued his raiding and ransoming until 1681, when Chinese forces attacked his base on Longmen Island. But they couldn’t capture him. He eventually died in 1688, murdered by one of his associates.

While on the surface it seems he was primarily motivated by money, Yang’s gang was known to deliberately engage with Qing Dynasty forces in an attempt to rebel against Chinese control in Vietnam.

Vietnamese villagers of the Gulf of Tonkin have handed down stories of Yang’s sense of righteousness and moral obligation for generations. No-one really knows how he became known as “Righteous Yang” but it seems like many legendary pirates across the world, a mythology quickly grew around him.

Zheng Yi Sao (Ching Shih)

By the early 19th century in China, there were many female pirate fleet captains. The most famous in the West today is Zheng Yi Sao AKA Mrs Ching AKA Ching Shih (which translates to ‘widow of Ching’).

Much of what is known of her comes from the memoirs of two of her European hostages: John Turner and Richard Glasspoole. Chinese maritime historians generally concur with the observations within them.

Little is known of Zheng Yi Sao’s early life. She almost certainly came from humble beginnings but while she is sometimes described as a prostitute, neither Turner nor Glasspoole’s memoirs supported this claim. Her life as a pirate began when she married Zheng Yi. By 1805, he commanded a Canton-based fleet of 500 to 700 junks. Two years later, Zheng Yi died in a typhoon and his wife took command of the fleet.

Zheng Yi Sao was an extraordinarily effective administrator, businesswoman, military strategist and pirate chief. At the height of her power, she commanded 70 – 80,000 men, women and children on more than 2,000 vessels. For three years, her control of the South China Sea meant that she alone could provide a vessel safe passage. For a fee of course.

Zheng Yi Sao kept strict discipline onboard. In the early years, she was also renowned for her sympathy towards peasants. According to her rules:

  • No pirate was allowed ashore without permission

  • Villagers were to be paid for provisions and stores taken from them

  • Any violence towards peasants carried the death penalty

  • Plundered goods must be registered before distribution, with the raiding ship receiving a fifth of its value and the rest of the proceeds going to a general fund

  • Abuse of women was strictly forbidden. However, women were taken as slaves and concubines and, if they were not ransomed, they were sold to the pirates as wives.

The Chinese Navy’s attempts to stop her proved futile. The demise of her pirate fleet only occurred because of dissent among her pirates, when Kwo Po Tai, a commander of one of her squadrons accepted a pardon. This influenced other pirates to move away from piracy.

It is thought Zheng Yi Sao turned her abilities to the smuggling trade and lived out her days on land in prosperity.

Papuan Piracy

The most notorious raiders of the eastern islands of Maluku and Papua were the residents of the Raja Ampat islands in West Papua.

By the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch had brutally built a monopoly over the spice trade of the Maluku (Spice) Islands on the islands of Banda and Ambon.

The Dutch plantations deprived local Muslim rulers of their primary source of trade income. Forced to accept Dutch ‘protection’, the Tidore Sultan was obliged to deliver payment in the form of money, slaves and spices. So they engaged Muslim raiders from the Raja Ampat islands to take these items – primarily slaves – from inland villages on islands around New Guinea.

These islands were often divided along religious lines. The Muslims stayed on the coast and the inlanders followed traditional pagan religious practices. So to protect themselves from raids, the coastal villagers entered into agreements with the raiders to help them rob their inland neighbours, who they often did not get along with anyway.

This situation continued for many years until a resistance figure emerged in the form of Prince Nuku of Tidore. In 1780, Prince Nuku managed to unite the people of many of the islands and lead a sea-based rebellion against the Dutch East India Company. He harnessed the skills of the accomplished Raja Ampat raiders in an effort to restore the Maluku Islands to its pre-colonial peace and prosperity.

He was aided in this effort by the arrival of the British. They sought to take advantage of weakened Dutch control caused by the French invasion of their homeland.

Prince Nuku managed to successfully hold off the Dutch from controlling the Tidore Sultanate until his death in 1805. Today he is a national hero in Indonesia.

European 'piracy' suppression

The Europeans trading in the area mostly kept themselves out of the locals’ raiding activities. This began to change in the late 18th century, when the powers of the North Atlantic Ocean (Europeans and Americans) began a push towards free international trade. This push created such fierce economic competition between them that the famous ‘East India’ mercantile companies were dissolved and replaced by European-style centralised colonial authority (pictured).

By the mid-19th century, only Siam (Thailand) remained independent of colonial rule. Spain lost the Philippines to the United States in 1902.

The local sea-raiders of the Malacca Strait were a persistent barrier to Dutch and British ambitions in the area. To control them, the Europeans began to apply their piracy laws to their activities, hunting them down, and ‘prosecuting’ them. This was, in short, extremely time-consuming, expensive and difficult.

British Governor Fullerton of Penang pointed this out in 1824:

‘to suppress piracy by application of force in the open sea against small boats who motions defy pursuit over flats and into creeks to which our cruisers cannot find access is quite impossible. Such can only be done by the exertion of our influence over the States amongst which we are placed, by inducing them to aid in the expulsion of these disturbers and destroyers of all trade…’

Stymying the ‘piracy’ suppression effort was the inability of the Dutch on Java and the British on the Malay Peninsula to work together to suppress the raiders of the Malacca Strait. Further afield in the east the numerous small chiefdoms or petty states remained beyond Dutch control until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Piracy in the 20th century

After independence, the traditional sea-raiding practices of the local residents of Southeast Asia never really went away. Well into the 20th and 21st centuries, piracy – and it was piracy now – re-emerged in the area.

Chinese Pirates of Bias Bay

In the late 1920s, Aleko Lilius was a Finnish-American freelance journalist stationed in Macao.

He decided to join a Chinese pirate gang to get the inside scoop on the pirates active on the southeast coast of China in the 1920s-30s. The image above is taken from his book, ‘I sailed with Chinese pirates’: is his personal account of his time with them. It has not aged well and is very much a product of its time. Today, Lilius’ prose reads as patronising and racist towards people running a highly organised, sophisticated, and on occasion violent, piracy operation.

By the 1930s, southeast China's long history of pirate activity incorporated the first decades of steam travel. A pirate gang hid their weapons on their person and bought tickets on carefully selected steamships. This allowed them to travel as passengers and situate themselves in first, second and third class. At the pre-determined time, they could then commander the entire ship at once. The well-dressed pirate leaders up in first class stormed the bridge and ordered the captain to steer towards Bias Bay, their home base. Meanwhile, the lower ranked pirates controlled the passengers.

At Bias Bay, the pirates efficiently offloaded the cargo and sent the ship on its way.

The British, situated in Hong Kong, considered stopping the pirates the responsibility of the Chinese Government. Both Governments largely ignored the pirates unless they caused a diplomatic incident by venturing into Hong Kong’s territorial waters. Eventually, the frustrated ship-owners employed more security onboard and made access to the bridge far more difficult. This tipped the risk/reward incentive for pirates in the ship-owners’ favour causing the pirates to move away from hijacking steamships.

Thai pirates of the 1970s

In 1975, the governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos collapsed. By 1989, around 2 million people from those countries had fled persecution to Thailand, often middle-class people with some wealth. To escape, they had two choices: trudge overland risking land mines and ambushes; or board leaky fishing boats and take to the South China Sea.

As the boats began to arrive in the Gulf of Thailand, professional Thai pirates in swift fishing boats armed with rifles robbed the refugees of all their worldly possessions. Even before the refugee crisis, they were known to prey on fishing trawlers, hijacking them, reselling catches or ransoming boats and crews.

Before long, ‘amateurs’ joined in: ordinary fishermen who happened upon gold and women for the taking.

Survivors reported repeated attacks by multiple vessels. Children were thrown overboard. On Koh Krah island, known to survivors as ‘Hell on Earth’, people were subjected to horrific rape, torture or murdered. Women and young girls were taken onboard fishing boats, repeatedly sexually assaulted, thrown into the sea, picked up by other fishers, then subjected to the same treatment all over again. Hundreds died this way.

It is now estimated around 250,000 boat people died trying to escape their homeland in the South China Sea.

Faced with an unprecedented refugee crisis, the Thai Government ranked controlling the pirates’ attacks as a low priority. Western aid agencies and the UN speculated the Thai Government saw the pirates’ actions as a deterrent against more refugees making the journey.

Under international pressure, the Thais began an anti-piracy program. The Royal Thai Navy began patrolling the Gulf of Thailand but it was in the words of one officer, ‘like having one policeman for the whole of New York City.’

The patrols did seem to deter the opportunistic fishermen but the professional pirates grew even more violent. They began slaughtering entire boatloads of people to eliminate witnesses. Only when the refugee boats finally stopped did the pirates fade away. Most were never prosecuted.

Australian comedian Anh Do often tells the story of his escape from Vietnam by boat and an attack by pirates. The pirates ripped the nappy off his six month old baby brother to find $140 of gold inside. Furious, the pirate dangled the baby over the side of the boat as Anh’s father begged for the baby’s life. Eventually, the pirate decided not to throw the baby overboard. Anh and his family made it to Australia.

The baby grew up to become the 2005 Young Australian of the Year.

Illegal fishing and Indonesian Pirates of the 1990s

The late 20th century saw the context for piracy change in Southeast Asia yet again.

The neighbouring states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had been independent from European control for decades and now had their own police forces and militaries. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had stabilised, stemming the flow of refugees. Japan had emerged as a major global economic force. China was also rising.

Yet, there were still pirates.

For the region’s fishers, there was no escaping the large-scale, industrialised and foreign fishing vessels that stripped the local seas of the fish they relied on to survive. By the early 1990s, addressing grievances about illegal fishing created a motivation among some locals to retaliate with piracy.

These fishers-turned-pirates usually targeted other locals and sought cash, valuables, cargo or the vessel itself. Before long, organised criminal gangs took over.

On 17 April 1998, a Singapore-owned tanker, Petro Ranger, was attacked by 12 Indonesian pirates. Under cover of darkness, the pirates climbed on board, took control of the vessel, and imprisoned the crew. While the crew were held prisoner, the pirates renamed the vessel Wilby, liaised with another vessel to overload the cargo, and escaped with the ship. They were only caught when a Chinese coastguard vessel stopped the Wilby for a routine document inspection.

In November 1998, pirates dressed in Chinese customs official uniforms boarded the Cheung Son off the coast of southern Taiwan. After being held hostage for 10 days, the pirates slaughtered all 23 of the Chinese crew and threw their bodies into the sea. They escaped with the ship.

Fortunately, these pirates did not get away with their crime. The Chinese had begun an investigation into the Cheung Son’s disappearance. They eventually found the pirates celebrating in a Karaoke bar in Shenzhen. Their investigations revealed not only a celebratory photograph of the pirates on the Cheung Son but the gang’s connection to other violent piracy incidents in the region. They were eventually prosecuted and executed by firing squad.

Southeast Asian Piracy and War on Terror

Almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the War on Terror, the security threat of the region’s pirates was conflated with terrorism.

But the only real terrorism-piracy nexus in Southeast Asia came from the semi-autonomous region of Aceh, in Indonesia. For the most part, little evidence emerged that the region’s pirates were connected to the rising terrorism threat of Jemaah Islamiyah.

Pirates merely sought personal profit and financial gain like they always had, while terrorists sought political upheaval.

The rising piracy incidents were of low priority to the Indonesian Government. It had no coastguard, few naval ships and security forces that were primarily land-based and inwardly focused.

So from 2004, emboldened by the War on Terror, US and Japanese navies began to patrol the region, protecting merchant vessels from pirates. Ship-owners also began to employ armed guards onboard to defend against pirates.

These measures probably deterred the opportunists. However, by far the biggest setback for the region’s pirates was the wide-scale destruction of fishing boats and people caused by the Indian Ocean Tsunami on 26 December 2004.

Today, piracy in Southeast Asia is at its lowest point in 27 years. Yet it remains a serious problem. It’s no longer so opportunistic but far more organised. Oil is now highly sought after: any vessel carrying crude oil to palm oil is a target. A lack of resources, intelligence, corruption, and petty regional squabbles between states hamper piracy suppression efforts.

It’s been 1,500 years of piracy in Southeast Asia. It’s not over yet.

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