How the region was once riddled with some of the most fearsome and bloodthirsty pirates on the planet…
In the summer of 1857, Eli Boggs sweated in the dock of a Hong Kong courthouse. The young American was charged with craven acts of piracy along the China coast and with being a cold-blooded murderer. If convicted of both crimes, the gallows surely awaited.
At his trial, Eli Boggs spoke for two hours, calmly and forcefully pleading that the charges against him were a conspiracy. It helped his defense that there had never been a less likely looking pirate. George Wingrove Cooke, a correspondent for The Times traveling in China that year, thought Boggs resembled the hero of a romance novel, “It was a face of feminine beauty. Large lustrous eyes; a mouth the smile of which might woo coy maidens; affluent black hair, not carelessly parted; hands so small and so delicately white that they would create a sensation in Belgravia.”
But Boggs’ youthful good looks belied a ruthless heart. He was known for running a protection racket that preyed on ships sailing to Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Merchants paid Boggs to protect their cargo or else risk, at best, losing their shipments. At his worst, Boggs was apparently not above the occasional kidnapping and had a reputation for dissecting his enemies and floating their bloody entrails back to shore as a warning to others.
Boggs also feasted on the clipper ships laden with opium and tea. Seizing cargoes, crews, and ships he cemented his status as the most feared pirate patrolling the coastline of Southern China in the mid-19th century. Piracy had long been a problem in the Pearl River Delta. It was and still is a region defined by commerce transported on water. Cargo and passengers, the wealth of nations, traveled its rivers and sea lanes. This plunder was ripe for the taking and the shoreline, pockmarked with bays and inlets, provided excellent shelter for piracy, contraband, and rebellion.
Beginning in the early 19th century, South China had suffered a series of economic and natural catastrophes. This result was a steady stream of desperate men (and not a few women) willing to take to the seas to survive by any means they could. In many cases, the line between pirate and rebel, trader and smuggler was a thin one indeed.
At his worst, Boggs was apparently not above the occasional kidnapping and had a reputation for dissecting his enemies and floating their bloody entrails back to shore as a warning to others.
The presence of foreign powers also undermined the authority of local officials. The ongoing trade in opium, which was not formally legalized until 1858, contributed to a thick atmosphere of lawlessness and disorder that was a prime breeding ground for all manner of violence and criminality. Pirates navigated the lines of extraterritoriality, which protected foreign ships and crews from Chinese officials, as cannily as they sailed the straits and reefs of the Delta.
In 1855, after years of lackluster efforts by Chinese, British, and Portuguese officials in South China to oust the pirates, the British Royal Navy launched a large-scale counter-piracy operation. One of their principal targets: Eli Boggs.
The Royal Navy sent steamers and brigs outfitted with advanced guns and carrying royal marines. From the Pearl River Delta to the lush estuaries of Zhejiang, British naval vessels chased down their quarry. At sea battles off the coasts of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang, they clashed with pirate junks and landed raiding parties to search coastal villages for signs of pirate activity.
Ultimately though it was not the British that brought Eli Boggs to justice, but a countryman and fellow scoundrel, William “Bully” Hays. Hays wasn’t a true pirate; he was a notorious American opium smuggler, human trafficker and slave trader. He was also a confidence man and swindler, a greasy fellow with pretensions to high society but who was infamous for skipping town leaving behind extravagant unpaid hotel and restaurant tabs. It was Hays looking to collect a 1,000 USD bounty that finally nabbed Eli Boggs and shipped him to Hong Kong.
In the end, Boggs’ looks and passionate speeches convinced the jurors to acquit him of the more serious charge of murder thus saving him from the gallows. It also helped that witnesses came forward to corroborate Boggs’ claims. Even in shackles, his reputation for ferocious revenge remained intact.
But there was no denying his many acts of piracy, and the judge sentenced Boggs to be sentenced to a penal colony. Ultimately, he managed to avoid even that. He was imprisoned in Hong Kong for three years awaiting his exile when Boggs was released on grounds of ill health. The elusive pirate then disappeared from history. There was no record of his arrival in a penal colony or his return to the United States. The dandified pirate king, in the end, made his final escape.
Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinoligist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio.