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Chapter 11 — A LULL IN WORK
2. Piracy

For thirteen years — from 1894 to 1907 — I had led a life replete with incidents; but now there came a lull, and for the next three years my diaries are nearly empty — I merely did my Coast Inspector's duties. That lull was very healthy from the standpoint of my early married life — there was time to settle down. It was caused, of course, by my failure at the Admiralty; I was in the hollow of a wave of happenings and wondered if I would ever reach the crest again. That lull, too, is useful in the writing of this book, for I can now afford for a time to discard chronology and to tell of some things in general — some of those with which I came in contact.

I came a generation late for piracy in its old-time ways, when a sailing ship becalmed was in grave danger of assault by tens of pirate junks — the round shot in those days just flicked along the surface of the water in gentle-looking bounds; when a fleet of pirate junks would fortify its harbour, and the men between excursions would grow cabbages, make love and play with their babies. The Canton Hoppo had a special set of gunboats — foreign-officered — to try to stop their depredations; they carried a magistrate to avoid delay in executions, and because decapitation would mean a mess on the deck, the cleanliness of which was sacrosanct, they used another method. Round the neck of each prisoner — there might be twenty of them — a running noose of small chain was fitted, and the end shackled to the anchor cable ranged along the deck. Then, when all was ready, the anchor was let go; and it should be realized that there was a hawse-pipe. Of course it made a mess, but that was forward where it did not matter. Old Stewart had been one of those pirate catchers, and later was my Captain in a Customs cruiser, and it was he — the very kindliest of men — who told me of those times.

The old opportunities have gone, but not the pirates. There is inherence of the thing in certain places; it is in their blood; they have been pirates for centuries; they are impelled to the habit if they get a chance. I knew many of these pirate villages in my smuggler-catching days — round about Mirs Bay and Bias Bay, especially, in the latter, Fan-lo-kong. It looked no different from any other fishing village, yet it was well known what the men were and always had been; and that they could muster a band of several hundred armed with Winchester repeaters to convoy smuggled opium; there were yarns of a secret lair (1) on some outlying island where they stored their loot and kept their prisoners for ransom. And in the Canton Delta, between Canton and the West River, it is not too much to say that the majority of the creek-side population were pirates or participants or acquiescents in the calling; and presumably they are so now.
1 — Such a lair has recently been found.

A modern venture in the trade is for a party to take passage in a foreign steamer, at Singapore perhaps. Among the hundreds boarding and the mass of baggage there will be little difficulty in smuggling in their Mauser pistols. Then somewhere near the China coast they rise and seize the ship, doing such killing as the job necessitates. A mate, as an alternative to being shot, navigates the vessel to the pirates' rendezvous, where junks await them to transport the loot.

A venture like that must take a bit of organizing; there must be secrecy and discipline and the attack must be well planned.

Then there is the co-ordination between the band and the party at the base, arranged by cypher telegrams from Singapore, perhaps to that fishing village Fan-lo-kong.

One might think that precautions would be taken to prevent these piratical attacks on steamers; but it is not so easy. A grill, with a double door and a sentry on it, confining the Chinese to the forepart of the ship ? It would be very useful for the purpose, but its constant efficient maintenance offers great difficulties.

A band of pirates, who had successfully attacked a British steamer in this way, was later captured, and I happened to be on the jetty of Kowloon city when the wretched prisoners were landed from a gunboat on their way to have their heads cut off. I stood and watched. The pirate chief — a man of special notoriety — trussed up for the execution and with a fan-shaped board on which his crime was written stuck down between his collar and his nape, was in the chair in which he would be later carried. He looked up at me and jabbered in his language, and what he said was translated, and amounted to something of this sort: ` I know your foreign faith. One dies but comes to life again. Perhaps ! But anyhow you foreign devils have not scored. I have one life; well, you get it now, but I 've had six of yours, so it's I who win.'

I had never seen an execution. A saying I had heard about experiencing certain nasty things came to my mind, ` Once, a philosopher; twice, a beast.' So I followed the procession to the execution ground. I have already mentioned that curious phenomenon, the stretching of duration in some states of nervous tension, when sight registers a slow-motion picture.

So I saw the sword pass very slowly through the pirates' necks; the bodies slowly topple over and the heads find their places behind between the thighs. There was a morbid reaction from that gruesome sight. For months the slim neck of a girl would make me think of executions; and, if only for that reason, I never saw another of them.

I am not so sure that piracy is altogether bad for China.

The culture of that country has discarded the cruder virtues of physical endurance and fortitude and daring; and the only place where these are preserved is among these pirates and the brigands of the North. Of course, there is no comparison, but it was piracy of sorts in the days of Queen Elizabeth that helped to make the British people what they are.

The Customs cruisers were not allowed to seek for pirates unless specially instructed. We could deal with them if we caught them in the act, but the one and only case of that was a ridiculous fiasco, and it happened to that former pirate-catcher Stewart. Rounding a headland he came on two junks fighting — a pirate and a trader — and like an old war-horse he once more smelt the battle. He went to general quarters, fired those modern guns of his — four-inch quick-firers and three- pounder Hotchkiss guns — and called away the boats to board.

Because he had no magistrate he put the prisoners in irons, and towed their junk all the long way to Canton city — a hundred miles or more — and when he got there the discovery was made that it was the victim he had captured — he had let the pirate go.

Once, night-cruising in a pinnace, I saw three junks engaged in a little battle, their smooth-bore guns flashing and hanging in the darkness. It was difficult to know what should be done. There were those round shots lobbing from that triangular affair; but eventually I boarded. All three were peaceful traders and each had thought the other two were pirates.

The only real chance I had at pirates came many years later when I was Coast Inspector at Shanghai. It failed. Yet I was pleased with the attempt; it was such an evolution — in the naval sense. At ten o'clock one night the cable company telephoned that Saddles Island lighthouse had been attacked by pirates. The news had come to Gutzlaff — the cable station — by boat; and the keepers had appealed for help. I thought a bit, then rang up the Harbour Master and asked him to engage for immediate use a mail tender and to have a launch awaiting me. I drove the four miles into town and boarded a Chinese cruiser anchored in the river. The Captain was on shore, but I told the First Lieutenant I wanted fifty men armed for a landing party and two Maxim guns to be ready in an hour's time. I had no authority for that sort of thing, but that did not matter; and at eleven the party started down the river.

At Woosung we wakened the captain of a war junk — one of those archaic, high-sterned, brilliantly-painted and flag- bedizened craft — whose nominal duty was pirate-hunting. We told him to come with us. He came reluctantly — it looked too much like the real thing. We wanted him for his authority, such as it was.

It was a seventy miles' journey to the Saddles, and on the way the Lieutenant and I made the war-junk captain talk. He had been in them all his life and had risen from the ranks. How many pirates had he caught? None; not only so, he had never seen one — and did not want to. He did his duty; he took his periodic cruise among the islands and showed the flag; and he drew his pay, and doubtless the pirates supplemented it.

It was a pleasant life; he did not wish it marred. And in all this there was no dereliction of his duty; he was supposed — on paper — to hunt for pirates, but he was not expected to.

I am sorry, but this story ends quite lamely. By the time we arrived at Saddles, the pirates had left some hours before.

They had not touched our station; they had held the village up to ransom — a few hundred dollars — and carried off some girls. It was hard luck that an expedition so promptly undertaken should not have scored success.

At Canton I was officially consulted about the pirate question in the delta. The trouble was that any suspect was immediately claimed by the nearest village as being a peaceful member of it, and the local head-men and even officials of a higher grade would endorse the statement. The minor officials on the water side were in the pay of pirates. I reported that without the provision of identity cards to all the population in the delta, I saw no means of any service stopping piracy; and this was but another way of saying that nothing could be done with the general administration as it was.

At a later date a curious opportunity about piracy was thrust at me. The rebellion had occurred, the Manchu dynasty had gone, Yuan Shih-kai was President of the so-called republic, when I visited Peking. Then was put to me a proposition. It was put by persons of position and responsibility and may have emanated from the President himself. The idea was that I should form a foreign-officered fleet of gunboats to suppress piracy and prevent the smuggling of arms. I should be trusted, free and untrammelled as no foreigner had ever been before. No more was put to me than that; no details; no reference to the difficulties involved.

I took a day or two to think things over. To the adventurer- administrator could a better chance be offered? It was most attractive on the surface. Of course, the real object was not pirate-catching, but the suppression of illicit trade in arms as a measure of precaution against a counter revolution. If Yuan — the one strong man — could keep his grip and consolidate himself, the commander of a force that had been a factor in his power would have a very good position. But, as the question simmered in my mind, there rose a strong warning not to touch it. That fleet would be disliked. The provincial authorities — whether loyal to Yuan or not — would not cooperate; I should be left to function only on the sea and so be ineffective. And besides I had already heard whispers from my naval friends in Yuan's entourage of a flirting with Imperial ambitions — a fatal thing that almost certainly must bring disaster. So I declined on the grounds of that provincial difficulty.