National Geographic : 1946 Jun
Pirate-Fighters of the South China Sea By ROBERT CARDWELL With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ONE of the world's last strongholds of piracy is the coast of southern China, where in self-defense the owners of fishing and trading junks have assembled some of the strangest collections of weapons to be seen outside of a museum (pages 789-796). During the war many auxiliary-engined pirate junks acquired Japanese guns and armor, and the ancient practice of piracy boomed. The British have found it especially rife in the Hong Kong area and are making determined efforts to stamp it out with the aid of aircraft and fast patrol boats. With the Chinese Government developing a modern navy, the day of the pirate may be numbered along the whole coast. If so, it may mean the eventual passing of the pictur esque armed merchant or fishing junk carrying, for self-protection, anything that will shoot. To study and photograph these craft and their weird armament, I boarded many of them while living in China in the years just before the war, examining the weapons in de tail and questioning the crews. Pattern for Piracy, Chinese Style The pattern of piracy in these waters had been established for many years, and British owned ships were occasionally victims. If the quarry was strong, perhaps a good sized steamship, the freebooters used "fifth column" methods. After getting all necessary information, sometimes with the aid of a pre liminary reconnoitering trip on the vessel chosen as victim, the pirates eventually came aboard in odd numbers at various ports in the guise of peaceful unacquainted travelers. Revolvers and automatic pistols were smuggled aboard by devious and clever means. During the voyage, at a prearranged signal, they suddenly joined forces, rushed the bridge, wireless cabin, and engine room, and quickly gained command of the ship at pistol point. So sudden and unexpected was the attack that it was usually impossible for the foreign officers and Chinese crew to put up a stand. Nevertheless, this has happened on occasion, and the ensuing fights have sometimes proved as bitter and exciting as any sea struggle on the old Spanish Main. If the coup was successful, the ship was steered to one of the pirate bases, such as Bias Bay on the mainland of China, some 40 miles from the British colony of Hong Kong. Here her cargo was discharged into waiting junks and sampans, and after her well-to-do Chinese passengers had been taken off to be held for ransom, the ship with her crew was allowed to proceed. Modern Mausers and Antique Cannon Much more subject to pirate attacks than steamers were the hundreds, even thousands, of fishing and cargo-carrying junks. The curious combinations of ancient and modern weapons which many of these craft adopted might include efficient Mauser pistols, usually kept out of sight below, and a goodly showing of antique muzzle-loading cannon mounted on deck for all to see (pages 791 and 792). Even the most decrepit, down-and-out-look ing junk often carried several of these ancient muzzle-loading cannon of our great-grand father's day. Although some of the guns were of Chinese manufacture, many of them to judge by their markings-were survivals of the armaments of long bygone and now almost forgotten warships. Among them I have seen guns of British make marked with a crown and dated 1812, and another, of un doubted French origin, dated 1798. The wily and resourceful Chinese, however, had greatly improved on the unwieldy type of mounting used in the old days by placing their guns on pivoted wooden turntables clamped to the decks. The recoil was taken up by a strong steel helical spring. Since the turntable permitted these muzzle loading guns to be rotated inboard, their charg ing was done much more rapidly than if they had had to be run backward and forward, in and out of their ports, by means of the old block and tackle. Furthermore, in the old wooden warship days, the guns had to be slued into position by levering the heavy carriage around with crowbars until the gun bore on its target-an indeed laborious business. The simple turn table did away with all this. Load Might Include Bolts, Nuts, Nails Coarse native powder was used, and after the required quantity had been pushed down the barrel, a wad of any old newspaper at hand -Chinese, English, or American-followed it. To compress the powder and so secure its maximum force, the whole was then tamped down tight with a wooden rammer.