Tuesday, May 4, 2010

People: The Pirate Patriot Of Taiwan

War Junks in China's Anson's Bay by E. Duncan, 1834 (source)

We talked about Cheng Chih Lung, one of the founding fathers of the great Chinese pirate confederations, back in February. Cheng had the balls to meddle in Manchu politics and was summarily divested of his head for the trouble. His son, a young man who went by the lyrical names of Kuo Hsing Yeh or Koxinga, took up where Cheng left off.

Born in 1624 in Nagasaki, Japan, Koxinga was not immediately embraced by his freebooting father. His mother was Japanese and there is no real documentation of her status in relation to Cheng. She may have been one of his wives but it is more likely that she was a concubine or prostitute. Given the enmity between the Chinese and Japanese, Cheng appears to have been slow to warm to his offspring.

Once he did recognize Koxinga, however, the young man was instructed in every aspect of the family business. When his father was executed in 1646, Koxinga was ready to step up. Since the Manchu - on Cheng's unfortunate urging - had taken over Hsiamen and Fukien province, once the seat of Cheng's power, Koxinga pulled up stakes and moved his operation to Taiwan. Because of his obviously bitter hatred for the Manchu, Koxinga was followed not only by his pirates but by the remaining supporters of the now outlaw Ming Dynasty.

Koxinga went into full rebel mode, attacking and sinking (not just holding for ransom as was customary) Manchu junks, both merchant and navy. His pirates blockaded the Yangtse River at the Pacific Ocean, cutting off the Manchu seat of power, Nanking, from all trade by water.

In 1649 he began a campaign to retake his father's homeland, the island of Hsiamen (now Amboy Island) south of modern Hong Kong. He succeeded in 1650, and used the island as a base once again while maintaining his presence in Taiwan. He took back most of Fukien province, driving the Manchu out completely by 1651. The Manchu in Nanking threw up their hands and called their considerably less powerful navy off. For ten years Konxinga ruled the South China Sea as the head of the largest pirate confederation in China.

By 1659, Koxinga was following in his father's footsteps on more scores than just piracy. Approached by Ming rebels, he agreed to lend his support to their attempt to drive the Manchu out of Nanking and take back China. He sent his ships, laden with arms and Ming soldiers, up the Yangtse River. Word had been leaked to the Manchu Emperor, however. Koxinga's ships were trapped and destroyed with all aboard killed or scattered. The Ming rebellion was dead, and Koxinga's pirates had suffered heavy losses in ships, men and arms.

The Manchu, now on the offensive, took back Fukien province and breached Koxinga's island stronghold at Hsiamen. The pirate prince pulled out, and limped back to his base in Taiwan. Finding that the Dutch were making inroads into Taiwanese trade, Koxinga turned his back on the Manchu and began a campaign against the new European enemy.

He had a good deal of success, managing to keep the Dutch from colonization and keeping himself at the head of a powerful pirate operation. Though he never returned to China proper, his revamped fleet ranged from China to Japan making Koxinga and his pirates wealthy. He died of natural causes in 1683, a successful, respected sea raider.

To this day, Kuo Hsing Yeh, known as Koxinga, is considered a national hero in Taiwan. He is somewhat of a Robin Hood figure, and is remembered as both a defender of indigenous culture and a master of the sea.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting story... Koxinga was not only an Asian Robin Hood, he was really pretty sucessful overall... Or so it seems, Pirate Queen. Thanks for the post and take care of your bad back injury, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! He was quite successful. Moreso than his father I would say. Thank you too re: my injury. Back pain teaches patience. Or annoyance. I forget which right now.

Daggar said...

Good post. I need to read more about the naval traditions of southeast Asia.

On the subject of the pirates of southeast Asia, I'd like to hear your write up on Yi Sun-sin. He was a Korean hunter turned admiral of the late 1500s. From what I know of the man, he took a regional pirate-hunting force and turned it into one of the greatest naval forces in the world. His accomplishments fighting off the Japanese invasion of Korea put him on par with Horatio Nelson.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! Thank you, too. The whole history of piracy in Asian waters is pretty facinating and mirrors the current goings on in the same area.

Yi Sun-sin is actually in line for a post some time before July. The South Korean Government has a great website about him and he's touched on in a couple of my older books but any resources you might be able to point me toward would be much appreciated!

Daggar said...

I wish I knew more. My knowledge of the man is mostly limited to wikipedia entries.