Hunting Chui-A-poo: The Royal Navy’s Suppression of Piracy in the South China Seas, 1849

Hunting Chui-A-poo: The Royal Navy’s Suppression of Piracy in the South China Seas, 1849


During the 1840s and 1850s, the recently acquired British colony of Hong Kong became a centre for piracy in the South China Seas. Here the Chinese pirates would off-load their booty to shopkeepers and other merchants who would then sell on the stolen goods to their eager European and Chinese customers. The pirates also targeted European and American seamen on shore leave in Hong Kong, encouraging them to desert their ships and join pirate vessels in return for the promise of riches.

The Prize of Opium
The most desirable prize for any Chinese pirate at the time was one of the numerous opium carrying ships that regularly sailed between India and China. If should such a ship was seized while carrying opium, the precious cargo could be sold for considerable profit. Conversely, if the vessel had already sold its opium chests it was likely to be carrying silver used to pay for the drug. Either way, it was usually a win-win situation for the pirates.

Things came to a head in 1847 when a fleet of Chinese pirate ships surprised a flotilla of opium receiving-ships anchored in Chimmo Bay, located between Amoy and Fuchow. In the ensuing struggle, many crewmen of the opium vessels were brutally murdered while their cargoes were promptly carried off. A short while later, the opium schooners Omega and Caroline were attacked at sea, their crews slaughtered and cargoes again stolen. In 1849, the Sylph, a particularly fast and heavily armed opium ship, was similarly attacked and mercilessly plundered.

It was not just European opium vessels that were targeted. In 1844, the pirates abducted the Chinese official who commanded the Bogue Forts, an action carried out in retaliation for his attempts to curb piracy in the region. He was held to ransom for the princely sum of $60,000. The Chinese pirates became so bold that they even attacked a British ship en route from India to Hong Kong carrying a pay-chest for British troops, making off with 12,000 rupees.

British Reluctance
In 1848, Sir George Bonham was appointed Governor of Hong Kong, and one of his first actions was to resolve the issue of piracy. The opium trade with China was big business, bringing much money to the coffers of the British treasury, and the lost profits were keenly felt back in London. Bonham also saw it as a way of thawing relations with the local Chinese authorities, who were still smarting from defat in the recent Opium War, and who were equally suffering at the hands of the pirates.

Combatting Chinese pirates would, of course, fall to the Royal Navy. However, use of British warships for this purpose would incur huge expenses that would have to be met by the taxpayer. As such, the deployment of the navy was initially resisted. Another problem was an Act of Parliament passed in 1825 that offered £20 in prize money for every pirate captured or killed during an act of piracy. However, since most Chinese junks were armed it was easy for the less scrupulous to argue the crew of the ship were engaged in pirate activity. As a result, it was known that many an innocent Chinese seafarer met a grizzly end.

Nevertheless, in late 1849 Captain John C. Dalrymple Hay of the Royal Navy received instructions to act against Chinese pirates known to be operating near Hong Kong. There were two large Chinese pirate fleets based near the British colony. One of these, led by Chui A-poo, operated out of Bias Bay, while the other, led by Shap Ng-tsai, based itself somewhere in the Gulf of Tongking. Hay intended to target both.

Captain John C. Dalrymple Hay

Battle of Tysami
On 28 September 1849, Hay, in command of HMS Columbine, a fast 18-gun brig, encountered 14 Chinese junks. In the distance, along the coast of Bias Bay, the village of Pinghoi could be seen ablaze, and when the nearest junk was interrogated its captain claimed to be a salt trader bound for Hong Kong. However, it was noted that the junk had 19 guns that had recently been cleared for action. It was obvious they were pirates and were responsible for the burning of Pinghoi.

Thus, just before midnight, the Columbine positioned itself between the two lines of junks that Chui A-poo’s fleet had formed. The Royal Navy vessel then opened broadsides on both lines, putting three of the junks out of action. According to Hay: ‘The junks refused to heave to, gongs and drums announced their determination to fight, stinkpots were triced up, ready to throw on board, so the Columbine poured three well-directed broadsides into their leader. This was quickly returned, and the breeze falling, the Columbine had again to betake herself to her sweeps.’

The wind now dropped, and the Columbine was unable to manoeuvre further. However, a few hours later the junks, assisted by some sweeps, were able to move off, leaving Hay behind by about a mile and a half by the time daylight broke. Fortunately for the British captain, the steamer Canton arrived and took the Columbine in tow, the two ships soon catching up with the junks. Hay once again opened fire, sinking another junk. The Chinese returned the fire, hitting the Canton in the engine room and forcing her to veer off for repairs. To make matters worse, Hay’s own ship ran aground, and so he frantically ordered a party of men to man the boats and chase after the junks.

As the boats caught up with one of the rear pirate vessels, the British seamen boarded the junk. However, one of the Chinese crew blew it up, killing himself and four of Hay’s men while wounding five more. Hay described the suicidal actions of the Chinese: ‘The pirate fought with desperation. At last [Lieutenant James] Bridges boarded, followed by the gallant [Midshipman] Charles Goddard. The pirates fled over the bows into boats, but one desperado, seizing a lighted joss-stick, ran below. Goddard divining his intention, rushed after him sword in hand, but before he could overtake him the rogue had fired the magazine, and the junk was blown up. Poor Goddard was thrown into the sea and picked up much scorched and he died the next day … The pirate being destroyed, Bridges returned.’

Nevertheless, by this time the Canton had managed to make temporary repairs and returned, pulling the Columbine off the reef. However, the remaining junks had by now reached the safety of Fanlokong Creek. Today, this minor naval action is known as the Battle of Tysami.

The Battle of Tysami

Battle of Tongking River
Hay refused to give up his pursuit of the pirates and, on 1 October, the gunboat Fury arrived to take the Columbine in tow into the creek. Once inside, 23 junks came into view and Hay at once engaged them. The Chinese stood little chance against the highly trained gunners of the Royal Navy, the latter proceeding to destroy Chui A-poo’s fleet with brutal efficiency. Within a mere 45 minutes, the Columbine sent all the junks to the bottom, as well as destroyed an arsenal ashore and set fire to several small dockyards. It is believed that 400 Chinese were killed in return for one British seaman wounded.

On the 8th, the Columbine sailed south-west in company with the Fury and Phlegethon. As Hay’s ships neared Hainan Island, they met with eight imperial war-junks under the command of an Admiral Wong. The Chinese naval commander informed Hay that he had encountered the pirate junks of Shap Ng-tsai but the ensuing action that had gone in the latter’s favour. Setting off after the pirates, Hay was able to capture one of the junks and took a crewmember prisoner. During the man’s interrogation, Hay learned that Shap Ng-tsai had anchored his fleet of 64 junks in the mouth of the Tongking River. Losing no time, the captain again set off in search of his prey.

Realising the British ships were approaching, the Chinese pirates opened fire at a range of 600 yards. Most of the shot went high, but a few found their mark on the Columbine and Fury. Nevertheless, the Columbine managed to bring itself alongside Shap Ng-tsai’s flagship and raked it with a devastating fire. The Fury and Phlegethon likewise opened fire with Congreve rockets, until after about 90 minutes into the action the Chinese flagship unexpectedly and suddenly blew up.

Again, Hay described the action: ‘They [the Chinese pirates] at once opened fire upon the Fury, about 10 a.m. This solved all doubt, if there were any. The Fury returned the fire. Thirty-two shot penetrated her, but only one man was wounded. Her excellent practice crippled one after another of the pirates. In forty-five minutes their fire was almost silenced. When quite so, the boats of two ships went in, and under cover of an occasional shell, completed their destruction.’

During the Battle of Tongking River, a total of 29 junks were sunk or burned, the remainder making a frantic bid to escape upriver. Hay pursued, destroying about 30 more over the next few days.

The Battle of Tongking River

A Costly Campaign
Hay’s actions went some way to suppress piracy in the region, and he subsequently wrote a short book on his adventures in 1889, aptly entitled The Suppression of Piracy in the China Sea 1849. The delighted Chinese viceroy at Canton, Hsu Kuang-chin, even made his gratitude for British efforts publicly known. Pirates such as Chui A-poo and Shap Ng-tsai were criminals who had proved a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities. Giving a death blow to the two largest pirate fleets did the viceroy a huge favour, while the British seamen could look forward to the considerable bounty that would be paid out by the British Government. The cost of putting an end to piracy off the Chinese coast cost Britain in excess of £149,000, with over £42,000 being paid out for the actions against Shap Ng-tsai alone.