Waves of Sovereignty – Pirates of the South China Sea

The Illustrated London News, Nov.3 1855

Pursuit of a Chinese pirate by the boats of H.M.S. “Racehorse,” in Pinghai Bay – The Illustrated London News, Nov.3 1855

Last week, 1840s editions of the Overland Friend of China, an English language Newspaper then operating out of Hong Kong, gave me a new perspective on the problem of piracy suppression in the China seas and the debates about sovereignty it threw up.  Based on my reading of colonial office and royal navy correspondence, I had come to the conclusion that foreign observers placed blame for the problem of piracy on failures of the Qing regime.  Letter after letter from the governor of Hong Kong and British Admirals chastised the Qing for apparently doing nothing to subdue the menace of piracy in their own territorial waters.  In fact, as the merchant friendly Friend of China made clear, a lot of the blame was placed on the nascent colonial government in Hong Kong itself.  The paper chastised the government for doing so little to suppress piracy and ridiculed the efforts it did make.  When the government commissioned gunboats for the colony but subsequently reduced their commission to one gun boat, when the paper felt that three were needed, an editorial lamented that

The whole affair is ridiculously characteristic of the government: and if ever the pen of a Cervantes writes the history of our Barataria, the government flotilla will not be the least amusing chapter” – Overland Friend of China, 23 June, 1846

Barataria was a fictional island awarded by a nobleman to Sancho Panza as a joke in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  As a metaphor for Hong Kong itself this gives the attack additional bite.  The paper does not even mention the Qing government in its discussion of the piracy problem.

In the eyes of foreign observers, piracy highlighted deficiency in the claims to sovereignty of both the Qing and Hong Kong governments.  Piracy increased in the 1840s precisely because there were now two government jurisdictions in the region.  Pirates wanted by the Qing fled to Hong Kong and vice versa.  The merchants’ attacks are notable for another reason however.  A long running complain of the Overland Friend of China was that, as a new colony, Hong Kong was made to pay the same tax rates as the established port of Singapore.  The paper criticised both the colony’s attempts to establish sovereignty and its means to pay for it.  The merchants of Shanghai would take a similar view when foreigners set up a tax collecting regime for the Qing, in the form of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, at Shanghai in 1854.  A central theme running through my thesis will be debates over different kinds of sovereignty: sovereignty over people, place and property.  What the merchants’ complaints suggest is that this focus could be supplemented by an examination of the debates about how sovereignty was, and ought to be, constructed in the first place.