Pirates, Merchants & Shipping on the North China Coast

Key information

10:30 am to 5:00 pm
Brunei Gallery
Brunei Gallery Exhibition Rooms
Event type

About this event

By the early 1900’s the South China Sea was well known and reported on for acts of piracy against merchant shipping in it’s busy waterways, this exhibition of material drawn from the archives of John Swires & Sons held at SOAS looks at the piracy of merchant shipping on the North China coast and that of the SS Nanchang II on March 29 th 1933. Prior to the Nanchang affair, piracy was hitherto unknown along the northern coast of China.

The event was widely reported on in the press of the time with accounts of how the British officers and 37 Chinese crewmen on board the Nanchang were caught off guard when two seemingly-innocent fishing junks suddenly swept alongside, disgorging a motley assortment of armed pirates, who swarmed on deck firing indiscriminately.

The pirates quickly looted the cabins of anything they could carry away and returned to their junks - taking with them the four remaining British officers (First Officer Clifford Johnson, Second Officer Bill Hargrave, Second Engineer Archie Blue, and Third Engineer Frank Pears). The attack lasted twenty minutes. Its after-effects were to last five long months and the Nanchang incident was to become the most celebrated piracy the China coast had ever known.

A diary account of their capture and period of imprisonment was kept by Clifford Johnson before their subsequent ransom and release after five months following the payment of a ransom, and the release of 26 Chinese prisoners, relatives of one of the bandits.

‘P.S. – If the bandits want to know what's in this letter, tell them it's about your relatives’.  Li Wen Chi [a bandit] stood by and asked what the letter said. I collapsed and lay with my head in my hands and said that my father had died of grief at my capture. They [the bandits] came round and sympathized. One brought me an extra ping [dough pancake], another the stub end of a cigarette. Blue and Hargreave wished that their fathers had died.’

For further details on collections held contact Archives & Special Collections staff on docenquiry@soas.ac.uk or Telephone: 020 7898 4180.