The Ultimate Travel Guide of "Eastern Pirateland" in the Early 19th Century

When we think of pirates, we picture a man with a hook and a parrot. Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Blackbeard and Long John Silver may come to mind. In this article, we will travel back to the "Eastern Pirateland" in the early 19th century South China Sea.

Major Differences between Chinese and Western Pirates

The word "pirate", of European origin, does not easily translate across cultures. Among many Chinese translations for "pirate", the most common term is ‘haidao’ (海盜) (meaning "sea bandit"). This Chinese term covers a wide range of lawless seaborne activities, whereas in the West, the activities of pirates are more defined. Imperial China recognised the concept of an "inner sea" and an "outer sea" divided by a fluid, ill-defined "sea-frontier". But a Chinese emperor had no concept of international waters and did not consider what the West called the "high seas" which was beyond China’s control. For China, the term "sea bandit" means all criminal acts at sea, no matter they were committed close to the shore line or in the outer sea.

For the West, piracy was an act committed on the high seas that affected the international maritime community. Crimes within the "inner-sea", i.e. the designated "territorial waters" in the West, were subject to the state that owned the waters. These crimes referred to specific acts of theft, murder, and smuggling.

HM Sloop 'Ariel' engaging a pirate Chinese junk, 19th century, HKMM2010.0192.0009


The South China Sea is a marginal sea south of China and is connected with several countries. Owing to the "Canton System" policy, it was the major international shipping lane and the second most used sea lane in the world.

Pacifying of South China Sea, 1810, HKMM2004.0102.0001

Meet the Legends

South China Sea was a heaven for pirates in the early 19th century. In this article, let us meet the legendary pirates of the Red Flag Fleet.

Leader of Red Flag Fleet: Zheng Yi