Category Archives: piracy

African & Japanese Mercenaries in Asia, 2

The following is part 2 of a condensed version (with footnotes omitted) of “African and Japanese Mercenaries in Southern China and Southeast Asia, c. 1550-1650” by Richard Bradshaw, in Kokujin Kenkyu 76 (April 2007), published by the Japan Black Studies Association.

Many Spaniards and Portuguese in Asia came to regard the Japanese – particularly members of the samurai class – as a “warlike race” from which soldiers could be recruited for new conquests. Spain’s occupation of Portugal and the uniting of the two kingdoms in 1582 “unleashed the imperialist and messianic imagination of the king’s subjects, among them some of the Portuguese clergy.” In 1584 a Portuguese Jesuit in Macao assured King Philip II of Spain that the Japanese were a warlike race and thus that only three thousand Japanese Christian soldiers would be enough to conquer. In 1586 officials in Manila signed a petition encouraging the invasion of China and suggested that 6,000 Japanese and an equal number of Filipinos should be recruited to join the invasion force. The proposed “Spanish” force of 12,000 soldiers would have included many black slaves and freemen as well since they often fought for the Spanish. By the time the petition reached Madrid in January 1588, however, Spain’s attention and resources were focused on sending the Great Armada against England and so the plan to conquer China with Japanese, Filipino and African mercenaries did not receive support.

Manila’s need for military and other labor led to a rapid increase in the numbers of Japanese and African resident in Manila. During the sixteenth century, Spaniards in Manila imported large numbers of African slaves from Arab and Chinese traders. “The country is flooded with black slaves,” one observer noted at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1603, three hundred Japanese, fifteen hundred Tagalogs, and an unknown number of African slaves or freemen joined Manila’s Spaniards in attacking Chinese residents of the city. There were massacres of Chinese in Manila by Spaniards and their Asian and African soldiers in 1639, and 1662 as well. By this time many of the Africans in Manila had become freemen. In 1638 “the number of free blacks serving in Manila as soldiers, laborers and sailors was estimated at around five hundred.” “The diversity of the peoples who are seen in Manila and its environs,” reported a friar in 1662, “is the greatest in the world, for these include men from all kingdoms and nations – Spain, France, England, Italy, Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Muscovy; people from all the Indies, both east and west; and Turks, Greeks, Persians, Tatars, Chinese, Japanese, Africans and other Asians.”


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Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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Alexander Selkirk’s Rescue, 1709

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1058-1081:

Selkirk had been stranded on Juan Fernández Island for four years and four months, indeed ever since William Dampier’s ill-fated privateering mission had passed through these parts in the latter part of 1704. Selkirk, a Scotsman, had been the mate aboard Dampier’s consort, the Cinque Ports, whose captain and officers had lost faith in their commodore’s leadership and sailed off on their own. Unfortunately, the Cinque Ports’ hull was already infested by shipworm, so much so that when the galley stopped at Juan Fernández for water and fresh provisions, young Selkirk decided to stay—to take his chances on the island rather than try to cross the Pacific in a deteriorating vessel. According to the extended account he gave Rogers, Selkirk spent the better part of a year in deep despair, scanning the horizon for friendly vessels that never appeared. Slowly he adapted to his solitary world. The island was home to hundreds of goats, descendents of those left behind when the Spanish abandoned a half-hearted colonization attempt. He eventually learned to chase them down and catch them with his bare hands. He built two huts with goatskin walls and grass roofs, one serving as a kitchen, the other as his living quarters, where he read the Bible, sang psalms, and fought off the armies of rats that came to nibble his toes as he slept. He defeated the rodents by feeding and befriending many of the island’s feral cats, which lay about his hut by the hundreds. As insurance against starvation in case of accident or illness, Selkirk had managed to domesticate a number of goats, which he raised by hand and, on occasion, would dance with in his lonely hut. When his clothes wore out, he stitched together new goatskin ones, using a knife and an old nail, and grew calluses on his feet as a substitute for shoes. He was rarely sick and ate a healthful diet of turnips, goats, crayfish, and wild cabbage. He’d barely evaded a Spanish landing party by hiding at the top of a tree, against which some of his pursuers pissed, unaware of his presence.

Although Selkirk greeted Rogers’s men with enthusiasm, he was reluctant to join them after learning that his old commodore, William Dampier, was serving with them. Cooke wrote that Selkirk distrusted Dampier so much that he “would rather have chosen to remain in his solitude than come away with [Dampier] ’till informed that he did not command” the expedition. Dr. Dover and his landing party were only able to rescue the castaway by promising they would return him to the island were he not satisfied with the situation. Selkirk, in turn, helped them catch crayfish, piling them into the ship’s boat before they rowed him out to the Duke. On seeing Selkirk for the first time, Rogers said he looked wilder than the original owners of his goatskin coverings. “At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak by halves,” Rogers wrote in his journal. “We offer’d him a Dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals.” Selkirk was remarkably healthy and alert at first, but Rogers noted that “this man, when he came to our ordinary method of diet and life, though he was sober enough, lost much of his strength and agility.”

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European Peace Dividends, 1713

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1212-1228:

WITH THE END of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, tens of thousands of sailors suddenly found themselves out of a job. The Royal Navy, bankrupted by the twelve-year-long world war, rapidly demobilized, mothballing ships and dumping nearly three-quarters of its manpower, over 36,000 men, in the first twenty-four months following the signing of the Peace of Utrecht. Privateering commissions ceased to have any value, their owners compelled to tie their warships up and turn the crews out onto the wharves of England and the Americas. With thousands of sailors begging for work in every port, merchant captains slashed wages by 50 percent; those lucky enough to find work had to survive on twenty-two to twenty-eight shillings (£1.1 to £1.4) a month.

Peace did not bring safety to those English sailors who found work in the West Indies. Spanish coast guard vessels, the guardas costas, continued to seize English vessels passing to and from Jamaica, declaring them smugglers if so much as a single Spanish coin were found aboard. They always found the “illicit” coins because they were the de facto currency of all of England’s Caribbean colonies. Thirty-eight Jamaican vessels were so seized in the first two years of peace, costing the vessel owners nearly £76,000. When the crews resisted, the guardas costas often killed a few in retribution; the rest spent months or years in Cuban prisons. “The seas,” the governor of Jamaica would later recall, had become “more dangerous than in time of war.”

As the months passed, the streets, taverns and boarding houses of Port Royal grew crowded with angry, destitute mariners. Merchants, stung by their losses, sent out fewer vessels, further reducing the number of jobs for sailors. Those sailors who had been captured—some more than once—were physically abused by the Spanish and financially pinched by their employers, who reduced their losses by not paying them for the time they were serving in prison. “Resentment and the want of employ,” one resident later recalled, “were certainly the motives to a course of life which I am of [the] opinion that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful mean have supported themselves.”

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European Naval Tactics, 1702

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 739-785:

In the spring of 1702, England went to war, siding with the Dutch, Austrians, and Prussians against France and Spain. By doing so, they were setting the stage for the greatest outbreak of piracy the Atlantic would ever know….

In the early years of the conflict, the English and French navies clashed in two massive fleet engagements. These battles involved only the Royal Navy’s largest vessels, the ships of the line: enormous, lumbering, wooden fortresses bristling with three stories of heavy cannon. These ships, the first-, second-, and third-rates, were too slow and cumbersome to use in more subtle operations such as convoying merchantmen, attacking enemy shipping, or patrolling the unmarked reefs and shoals of the Caribbean. They were built for one purpose: to join a line of battle in a massive set-piece engagement….

Each of the navy’s seven first-rate ships had a crew of 800 men, who were crammed into a 200-foot-long hull with a hundred heavy cannon, and months of supplies and food stores, including live cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and poultry…. [Each] massive ship maneuvered into the line of battle, two hundred yards ahead of one ship, two hundred yards behind another. The enemy ships lined up in similar fashion and, after hours or even days of maneuvers, the two lines passed each other, discharging broadsides. The ships would sometimes pass within a few feet, blasting thirty-two-pound cannonballs into each other’s hulls. These balls punched straight through people, eviscerating or decapitating, and spraying the cramped gun decks with body parts and wooden splinters. Cannon trained on exposed decks were generally loaded with grapeshot or with a pair of cannonballs chained together, either of which could reduce a crowd of men into a splay of mangled flesh. From the rigging, sharpshooters picked off enemy officers or, if the ships came together, dropped primitive grenades on their opponent’s deck. Above and below, every surface was soon covered with blood and body parts, which oozed out of the scuppers and drains when the ship heeled in the wind. “I fancied myself in the infernal regions,” a veteran of such a battle recalled, “where every man appeared a devil.”

These early engagements took the lives of thousands of men but they were hardly conclusive. Seven English and four French ships of the line fought a six-day battle off Colombia in August 1702, for example, with neither side losing a single ship. Two years later, fifty-three English and Dutch ships of the line squared off with some fifty French vessels off Málaga, Spain, in the largest naval engagement of the war; the daylong bout of fleet-scale carnage ending in a draw.

By happenstance, the Royal Navy wiped out its French and Spanish rivals early in the war. In October 1702, an English battle fleet trapped twelve French ships of the line and most of the Spanish navy in a fjordlike inlet on Spain’s northern coast, destroying or capturing all of them. Five years later, an Anglo-Dutch force captured the French port of Toulon and so many men-of-war that the French were unable to engage in further fleet actions. Thereafter on many English ships of the line, crewmen had substantially reduced odds of dying in battle, though disease, accident, and abuse still carried off nearly half the men who enlisted.

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Venice’s Victory at Gallipoli, 1416

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4426-4457:

On June 1, 1416, the Venetians engaged an Ottoman fleet at sea for the first time. The captain-general, Pietro Loredan, had been sent to the Ottoman port at Gallipoli to discuss a recent raid on Negroponte. What happened next he related in a letter to the doge and the Signoria.

It was dawn. As he approached the harbor, a signal to parley was misinterpreted as a hostile attack. The lead ships were met with a hail of arrows. In a short time, the encounter had turned into a full-scale battle.

As captain, I vigorously engaged the first galley, mounting a furious attack. It put up a very stout defense, as it was well manned by brave Turks who fought like dragons. But thanks to God, I overcame it and cut many of the Turks to pieces. It was a tough and fierce fight, because the other galleys closed on my port bow and they fired many arrows at me. I certainly felt them. I was struck on the left cheek below my eye by one, which pierced my cheek and nose. Another hit my left hand and passed clean through it … but by fierce combat, I forced these other galleys to withdraw, took the first galley, and raised my flag on her. Then, turning swiftly about, … I rammed a galliot with the spur [of my galley], cut down many Turks, defeated her, put some of my men aboard, and hoisted my flag.

The Turks put up incredibly fierce resistance because all their [ships] were well manned by the flower of Turkish sailors. But by the grace of God and the intervention of Saint Mark, we put the whole fleet to flight. A great number of men jumped into the sea. The battle lasted from morning to the second hour. We took six of their galleys with all their crews, and nine galleots. All the Turks on board were put to the sword, amongst them their commander … all his nephews and many other important captains.… After the battle we sailed past Gallipoli and showered those on land with arrows and other missiles, taunting them to come out and fight … but none had the courage. Seeing this, … I drew a mile off Gallipoli so that our wounded could get medical attention and refresh themselves.

The aftermath was similarly brutal. Retiring fifty miles down the coast to Tenedos, Loredan proceeded to put to death all the other nationals aboard the Ottoman ships as an exemplary warning. “Among the captives,” Loredan wrote, “was Giorgio Callergis, a rebel against the Signoria, and badly wounded. I had the honor to hack him to pieces on my own poop deck. This punishment will be a warning to other bad Christians not to dare to take service with the infidel.” Many others were impaled. “It was a horrible sight,” wrote the Byzantine historian Ducas, “All along the shore, like bunches of grapes, sinister stakes from which hung corpses.” Those who had been compelled to the ships were freed.

In this first hostile engagement, Loredan had almost completely destroyed the Ottoman fleet—and the means quickly to re-create it. The Venetians understood exactly where the source of Ottoman naval power lay. Many of the nominal Turks in their fleet were Christian corsairs, sailors, and pilots—maritime experts without whom the sultan’s embryonic navy was unable to function. The Republic’s policy was to remain unbending in this respect: Snuff out the supply of skilled manpower and the Ottomans’ naval capability would wither. It was for this reason that they butchered the sailors so mercilessly. “We can now say that the Turk’s power in this part of the sea has been destroyed for a very long time,” wrote Loredan. No substantial Ottoman fleet would put to sea again for fifty years.

The accidental battle of Gallipoli bred a certain overconfidence in Venetian sea power. For decades after, galley commanders reckoned that “four or five of their galleys are needed to match one of ours.” Touchy about their Christian credentials, they also used the victory to point out to the potentates of southern Europe their reputation as “the only pillar and the hope for Christians against the Infidels.”

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Venice’s Imperial Stato da Mar

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1815-1866:

By the treaty of October 1204, the Partition of the Lands of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Venice became overnight the inheritor of a maritime empire. At a stroke, the city was changed from a merchant state into a colonial power, whose writ would run from the top of the Adriatic to the Black Sea, across the Aegean and the seas of Crete. In the process its self-descriptions would ascend from the Commune, the shared creation of its domestic lagoon, to the Signoria, the Serenissima, the Dominante—“the Dominant One”—a sovereign state whose power would be felt, in its own proud formulation, “wherever water runs.”

On paper, the Venetians were granted all of western Greece, Corfu, and the Ionian islands, a scattering of bases and islands in the Aegean Sea, critical control of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, and, most precious of all, three-eighths of Constantinople, including its docks and arsenal, the cornerstone of their mercantile wealth. The Venetians had come to the negotiating table with an unrivaled knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean. They had been trading in the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years, and they knew exactly what they wanted. While the feudal lords of France and Italy went to construct petty fiefdoms on the poor soil of continental Greece, the Venetians demanded ports, trading stations, and naval bases with strategic control of seaways. None of these were more than a few miles from the sea. Wealth lay not in exploiting an impoverished Greek peasantry, but in the control of sea-lanes along which the merchandise of the East could be channeled into the warehouses of the Grand Canal. Venice came in time to call its overseas empire the Stato da Mar, the “Territory of the Sea.” With two exceptions, it never comprised the occupation of substantial blocks of land—the population of Venice was far too small for that—rather it was a loose network of ports and bases, similar in structure to the way stations of the British Empire. Venice created its own Gibraltars, Maltas, and Adens, and like the British Empire it depended on sea power to hold these possessions together.

This empire was almost an accidental construct. It contained no program for exporting the values of the Republic to benighted peoples; it had little interest in the lives of these unwilling subjects; it certainly did not want them to have the rights of citizens. It was the creation of a city of merchants and its rationale was exclusively commercial. The other beneficiaries of the partition of 1204 concocted scattered kingdoms with outlandish feudal titles—the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Kingdom of Salonika, the Despotate of Epirus, the Megaskyrate of Athens and Thebes, the Triarchy of Euboea, the Principality of Achaea, the Marquisates of Boudonitza and Salonae—the list was endless. The Venetians styled themselves quite differently. They were proud lords of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Empire of Romania. It was a merchant’s precise formulation, coming in total to three-eighths, like a quantity of merchandise weighed in a balance. The Venetians, shrewdly practical and unromantic, thought in fractions: They divided their city into sixths, the capital costs of their ships into twenty-fourths, and their trading ventures into thirds. The places where the flag of Saint Mark was raised and his lion carved on harbor walls and castle gates existed, in the repeated phrase, “for the honor and profit of Venice.” The emphasis was always on the profit.

The Stato da Mar allowed the Venetians to ensure the security of their merchant convoys, and it protected them from the whims of foreign potentates and the jealousy of maritime rivals. Crucially, the treaty afforded full control of trade within the center of the eastern Mediterranean. At a stroke it locked their competitors, the Genoese and the Pisans, out of a whole commercial zone.

Theoretically Byzantium had now been neatly divided into discrete blocks of ownership, but much of this existed only on paper, like the crude maps of Africa carved up by medieval popes. In practice the divisions were far messier. The implosion of the Greek empire shattered the world of the eastern Mediterranean into glittering fragments. It left a power vacuum, the consequences of which no one could foresee—the irony of the Fourth Crusade was that it would advance the spread of Islam, which it had set out to repel. The immediate aftermath was less an orderly distribution than a land grab.

The eastern Mediterranean became a magnet for adventurers and mercenaries, pirates and soldiers of fortune from Burgundy, Lombardy, and the Catalan ports. It was a last Christian frontier for the young and the bold. Tiny principalities sprang up on the islands and plains of Greece, each one guarded by its desolate castle, engaging in miniature wars with its neighbors, feuding and killing. The history of the Latin kingdoms of Greece is a tale of confused bloodshed and medieval war. Few of them lasted long. Dynasties conquered, ruled, and vanished again within a couple of generations, like light rain into the dry Greek earth. They were dogged by continuous, if uncoordinated, Byzantine resistance.

Venice knew better than most that Greece was no El Dorado. True gold was coined in the spice markets of Alexandria, Beirut, Acre, and Constantinople. They impassively watched the feudal knights and mercenary bands hack and hatchet each other and pursued a careful policy of consolidation. They hardly bothered with many of their terrestrial acquisitions. They never claimed western Greece, with the exception of its ports, and unaccountably failed to garrison Gallipoli, the key to the Dardanelles, at all. Adrianople was assigned elsewhere for lack of Venetian interest.

The Venetians’ eyes remained fixed on the sea but they had to fight for their inheritance, continuously dogged by Genoese adventurers and feudal lordlings. This would involve them in half a century of colonial war. Venice was granted the strategic island of Corfu, a crucial link in the chain of islands at the mouth of the Adriatic, but they had to oust a Genoese pirate to secure it and then lost it again five years later. In 1205, they bought Crete from the Crusader lord Boniface of Montferrat for five thousand gold ducats, then spent four years expelling another Genoese privateer, Henry the Fisherman, from the island. They took two strategic ports on the southwest tip of the Peloponnese, Modon and Coron, from pirates, and established a foothold on the long barrier island of Euboea, which the Venetians called Negroponte (the Black Bridge), on the east coast of Greece. And in between they occupied or sublet a string of islands around the south coast of the Peloponnese and across the wide Aegean. It was out of this scattering of ports, forts, and islands that they created their colonial system. Venice, following the Byzantines, referred to this whole geographic area as Romania—the “Kingdom of the Romans,” the word the Byzantines used for it—and divided it up into zones: Lower Romania, which constituted the Peloponnese, Crete, the Aegean islands, and Negroponte; and Upper Romania, the lands and seas beyond, up the Dardanelles to Constantinople itself. Farther still lay the Black Sea, a new zone of potential exploitation.

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