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  • Elizabeth Alexander

Piracy, Southeast Asian Style

Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard; William Kidd; Calico Jack Rackham. Most of us in the West are familiar with the names of these real-life ‘pirates of the Caribbean’. Many of you may also be familiar with the exploits of Ching Shih, the female pirate leader who once terrorised shipping in the South China Seas. But how many are familiar with the marauding activities of ‘Bugis’ and ‘Lanoons’, or have heard about the piracy that was (indeed, still is) rife throughout Southeast Asia? In the 18th century, the time period in which Lies That Blind is set, pirates sailing the Malay Archipelago would attack Dutch and British ships and relieve them of their cargoes of silk, spices, and slaves, by using pistols and daggers.

Photo 26740 © Photoeuphoria |

While writing my historical novel, I became interested in why men across this region turned to piracy. Certainly, there are those in any culture who are drawn to easy pickings and a life of freedom and adventure, (assuming, of course, that you didn’t get caught and hanged). But as I began delving into the plight of Malay fishermen, also known as orang laut or people of the sea, it seemed that there was a social phenomenon at play, similar to the Enclosure Acts in England that began in the 16th century. Those Acts deprived smallholders and landless labourers the right to graze their sheep and cattle under the centuries-old common field system. People who had previously been free to catch rabbits and other game to feed their families became labelled as poachers and were jailed or executed as criminals. On the other side of the world something similar oppressed ordinary people, only much earlier. Fishermen, obliged to pay heavy duties on their catches and to give up ownership of their belongings at the whim of a chieftain or sultan, turned to piracy as a means of making a living.

The practice of piracy so infested the waters known as the Straits of Malacca that one sultan who ruled over the Kingdom of Queda—to which the island of Penang, the setting of my novel belonged—sent an army to Penang to clear it of the 3,000 or so people living there. These individuals were such a threat to ships that they were forcibly expelled. By the time the antagonist of my novel, Captain Francis Light, arrived there were barely more than fifty families living on Penang.

The fierceness of such desperate men cannot be overstated. As the author of the Hikayat Abdullah, published in 1849, wrote:

A voyage from Malacca to Singapore was looked upon almost as a journey to the grave…

But not all of those who raided ships and plundered coastline property in the region were born poor. The problem of piracy in the region was compounded by the fact that the Malay custom of sultans having several wives, and many more gundeks or concubines, meant that the royal courts were awash with anak raja or princes. With the sultan’s treasury unable (or unwilling) to support them, they became ‘sea-raiders’, benefiting from the protection of the court as long as they adhered to royal guidelines as to who could be attacked and where.

According to James Low writing in The British Settlement of Penang, first published in 1852: ‘…it only takes a couple of hours after a crime is committed to place the perpetrator beyond the fangs of the law… piracy being the perquisite of the younger and unprovided for branches of Malayan families of high rank.’

Indeed, the sultans and their chiefs were often complicit in encouraging systemic piracy. As the real-life character, Francis Light, points out in my novel (words taken directly from one of his letters to his East India Company paymasters in Calcutta): ‘The feudal government of the Malays encourages these pirates, since every chief is desirous of procuring these desperate fellows to bring him plunder and execute his revengeful purposes’.

However, the pall of piracy can also be laid at the door of the colonising forces in the region during the 17th and 18thcenturies. The Dutch, in particular, were notorious for enforcing their monopolies. Indonesian and Malay hatred of the Hollanders was so great that, even today, if you put the word belanda into Google Translate, it will come up as ‘Dutch’ or ‘the Netherlands’. Why is that an insult? Because belanda also refers to the long-nosed proboscis monkey found in the jungles of Borneo.

As a result of Dutch dominance in the region, otherwise law-abiding Bugis settlers based in Selangor lost their livelihoods as coastal traders. The only way they could the escape the onerous Dutch-imposed taxes and laws and survive was to turn to piracy. Engaged in that activity they found relatively easy and frequent pickings, since the Straits of Malacca was the fastest, most direct route for Dutch and English traders to sail between Macau and the eastern ports of India.

The disdain that the local inhabitants had for the European powers intent on colonising them went both ways. At least, that’s the sense I got from reading a letter that Francis Light wrote in January 1794 to the Governor-General in Bengal, just months before an armada of Malay pirates and mercenaries amassed to reclaim Penang on behalf of its legal owner, the Sultan of Queda:

(The Malays) may be divided into two orders, the one of husbandmen who are quiet and inoffensive, and easily ruled…The other order is employed in navigating prows (boats). They are, in general, almost without exception, a bad description of people, addicted to smoking opium, gaming and other vices; to rob and assassinate is only shameful when they fail of success. Ten or fifteen men will live in a small prow…For months they will skulk in bays and rivers, where there are no inhabitants, watching for unwary traders; they spend their whole time in sloth and indolence…and are only roused by the appearance of plunder which, when they have obtained it, they return home or to some other port to spend. Here they are obliged to part with a share of their plunder to some chief, under whose protection they squander the remainder, and again proceed in quest of new adv

But is this ‘turning a blind eye’ by Malay sultans and chiefs any different to the attitude Queen Elizabeth 1 took with Sir Francis Drake? After all, she not only encouraged this English ‘privateer’ to attack Spanish galleons but afforded him protection and status. The same was true for Sir Henry Morgan, variously referred to as an ‘adventurer’ or ‘buccaneer’. Look closely at his activities and you will find that he was just a royally rewarded bloodthirsty pirate.

It would appear that one ruler’s “privateer” is another’s throat-cutting cur. It all depended on who got to share in the spoils!

And for those of you interested in what has happened since the 18th century, this TIME magazine article tells us that with a third of global trade and a quarter of the world’s oil transiting through Southeast Asian waters, regional pirates continue to kill and plunder, only now with machetes and Kalashnikovs.

(An earlier version of this appeared on Helen Hollick's Of History and Kings blog here.)


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