Hong Kong, the Island of Thieves, and the pirates who ruled the South China Sea

Hong Kong, the Island of Thieves, and the pirates who ruled the South China Sea

They might not be as well-known as Blackbeard or Long John Silver, but the pirates that roamed the waters around China were just as scary

A Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship was almost overrun by pirates last month. Luckily, the crew escaped unhurt and the pirates’ boat was destroyed. However, things were very different in the 19th century, when Hong Kong was a haven for pirates. It was even known as the Islands of Thieves. Here are five infamous pirates who have sailed around the South China Sea.

Ching I (1765–1807)

Ching I came from a long line of sea bandits, and he was a powerful Chinese pirate who ruled the South China Sea in the late 1700s. He united the neighbouring pirates and became the leader of the Red Flag pirate fleet. The fleet had between 50,000 and 70,000 pirates.

Cheng and his pirates were so strong that even the Chinese navy feared them. When Ching died in 1807, he left behind his wife Ching Shih – who later became the most successful pirate in history – and adopted son Cheung Po Tsai to take over the fleet.

Why International Talk Like A Pirate day matters to Hong Kong

Ching Shih (1775-1884)

Ching Shih, also known as Madame Ching, was a Chinese pirate. Her husband, Ching I, was the commander of the Red Flag fleet of pirate ships. When he died at the age of 42, Madame Ching became the leader of the fleet.

Her crew had very strict rules to abide by. For example, any pirate found giving their own orders or disobeying the orders of a superior was beheaded immediately. There were many failed attempts made by Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese, and the East India Trading Company, a big trading company, to destroy the Red Flag fleetm but Madame Ching thwarted them all.

She finally surrendered in 1810 at the age of 35. The Chinese government granted her an official pardon, and she lived the rest of her life as a free woman. Madame Chine, who commanded more than 1,800 pirate ships and 80,000 pirates at the height of her career, has been called the most successful pirate in history.

Cheung Po Tsai (1786–1822)

Cheung was kidnapped by Cheng I and Ching Shih when he was 15 and forced to work as a shipmate. The couple decided to adopt Cheung, and he helped oversee the family fleet with his mother when Cheng I died. By that time, the fleet of ships controlled most of the Guangdong coastline.

Despite being a fierce pirate commander, Cheung was known for giving food and money to the poor, and for building temples along Hong Kong’s coastline. Legend has it that he hid his loot in Cheung Po Tsai Cave in Cheung Chau – but no one has ever found it.

Cheung surrendered with his mother in 1810, and the government offered him a position in the Qing Imperial Navy. He spent the rest of his life helping the Qing government to fight piracy. Not very pirate-like of him!

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William Henry Hayes (1829–1877)

William Henry Hayes was a slave trader who was active in the South China Sea in the mid-19th century. He was given the nickname “Bully” because he was very rude to his crew.

Hayes was also an infamous con man, or trickster. He would promise to give other traders part-ownership of a ship in return for a lot of money. He would then sail off, and the trader would see neither the ship nor his money again. Hayes also had a reputation for disappearing without paying after getting his ship repaired and stocked.

Bully Hayes died at the age of 47. Most people believe he was murdered and his body thrown overboard, after he got into an argument with a sailor.

Pirates ahoy! Hong Kong Maritime Museum hosted an exhibition on the Pirates of the South China Sea

Eli Boggs (active during the 1850s)

Boggs was an American sailor-turned-pirate who controlled his fleet of war junks in Hong Kong waters. He was described as an unlikely pirate with “lily-white hands” and boyish looks.

But that didn’t stop him from being cruel; he was known for taking ships, and either murdering their crew or forcing them to jump overboard. He was found guilty of piracy and given a life sentence in a Hong Kong jail. However, he was released three years later after falling ill. Boggs disappeared after that, and was never seen again.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The pirates who ruled the South China Sea


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Tally Shaw


These pirates ruled the seas and the region is much clued up about them I guess. Nowadays it places like Somalia and other African regions that host scary pirates. Good stuff.

Tally Shaw


In the recent past, Somali pirates have made the headlines by capturing big ships and looting money and assets.
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