The English Captive

John Turner's capture

The English Captive

(top image: the capture of John Turner)

Rarely were foreigners abducted by Chinese pirates during the 19th century. European and American commercial vessels were usually well armed with modern weapons, while British, Portuguese, and occasional American gunships roamed the Pearl River region, presenting a fierce disincentive to anyone who dared to interfere with foreign trade. Still, on occasion foreign sailors fell into pirate clutches when opportunity presented itself.

Unfortunately for one John Turner, the stars lined up against him one fine day in December 1806. Turner was first mate of the Tay, a country ship—that is, a trading vessel which transported goods such as tea and opium between British India and China. Turner’s ship was bound for Kwangchow, by way of the tiny Portuguese colony of Macau at the western entrance to the Pearl River.

Bombay country ship
A Bombay country ship

After a night anchored several miles west of Macau, the captain assigned Turner to take the ship’s cutter—a single-masted sailboat—to the enclave for provisions and to hire a pilot to guide the Tay into the harbor. Turner set off at sunrise with six Indian and Malay crewmen with a pair of muskets for defense.

Halfway across, they were approached on two sides by Chinese junks. Too late, Turner sensed their ill intentions. Before he and his men could load their weapons, one junk fired at them while the other quickly closed in. Black-turbaned men leapt aboard with blades drawn, stabbing one crewman. A pirate raised a sword to strike Turner, who leapt overboard and attempted to swim away. He was dragged from the water and onto the larger bandit ship, along with his crew.

Stripped of everything including their coats, Turner warned his captors that his mothership boasted 150 fighting men and twenty cannons, when in fact its crew was a fraction of that, carrying two cannons with only eleven shells between them. One Chinese sailor understood enough English to convey the message. His bluff saved the Tay but not him and his companions.

Later that day Turner was delivered to the commander of the Red Flag Fleet. Though Turner didn’t name him, that man was the infamous Cheng Yat.

Turner spent the night in his shirtsleeves on the open deck, suffering through a freezing winter gale. The following day he made it known to the pirate leader that he refused to cooperate until they handed his coat back. Which they did, missing its brass buttons. Turner’s return to the Tay was not to be so easily arranged.

Communicating through one of Turner’s Malay shipmates, who spoke some Cantonese, Cheng Yat instructed him to write letters to the Tay’s captain and its company agent in Kwangchow, demanding 3000 Spanish silver dollars for their release. As Turner later reported, “These letters, I have every reason to believe, the fishermen to whom they were entrusted destroyed.”

Spanish dollar

Spanish (actually Mexican) silver dollar, the world’s fiat currency at that time

The pirates raised the ransom to ten thousand dollars. Again, Turner wrote as he was told, along with separate notes instructing the ship’s agent to pay ten dollars to whoever delivered the letters, which at least increased the chances of their being received. Though the words he’d been compelled to write, including the pirate leader’s threat to kill the hostages, diminished Turner’s confidence in his survival.

Some of these worries were put to rest a few days later, when an Armenian doctor was brought aboard to tend to several wounded men. The doctor had been captured some seventeen months earlier and was still alive. “He partly relieved me for the present of my apprehensions of being murdered.”

Nevertheless, Turner recalls: “For the first few days after being taken I was used kindly; but afterwards my treatment was very indifferent. Several times have I been struck and kicked by the lowest of the Ladrones[i], while useless expostulation was all I could oppose in my defence. Often was I threatened with cruel death, till at last their threats almost failed to intimidate me; though I was well aware that I had nothing to hope, either from the justice or mercy of those unprincipled robbers.”

[i](Europeans commonly referred to Chinese pirates as “Ladrones”, based on the Spanish word for “thieves”).

Instead of waiting for a reply to the ransom letter, the pirates set sail upriver and attacked two fortified towns. Turner was not witness to the battles, noting that the command ship stayed back from such fights.

The ransom went up again to an astounding 30,000 silver dollars, an enormous sum for that time. A full month later, on 11 January 1807, three pirate junks delivered astounding news from Macau: the ransom demand had been agreed to. Turner and his six crewmen were delivered to their original captor to prepare for the exchange.

That pirate, also not named by Turner, was the commander’s protege Cheung Po Tsai, who gleefully informed them that the English shipping company had declined to pay. However, a group of Chinese businessmen in Macau had agreed to raise the money, at the urging of the Governor-general of Kwangtung Province. As little sense as this made, Cheung Po Tsai took it seriously enough to dictate another letter.

Turner addressed it again to the English company representative, asking him to urge the Macau Mandarins to pay the ransom within three days in order to spare him from a gruesome death.

Turner had good reason to believe the gruesome death part. A day or so after sending the letter, two Chinese captives were nailed to the deck through their feet and viciously tortured before their “death by a thousand cuts”, a method of slow execution too barbaric to describe here.

Soon a letter miraculously arrived from the captain of the Tay, but it wasn’t the news the pirates or Turner hoped for. Captain Greig offered to pay no greater sum than five hundred dollars, and that any refusal would be met with maximum force.

Heated exchanges ensued. Turner again wrote to the agent in Kwangchow, pleading that any attack would result in tragedy, and imploring him to urge the Macau Mandarins to make good on their ransom offer. The Mandarins now offered 5000 dollars. The pirates adjusted their demand to 25,000. Negotiations were at a stalemate.

Turner meanwhile gained a new companion, an English-speaking Chinese man named Ah-Foo, who’d been abducted from a passenger boat. The two became friendly, propping up each other’s spirits. They also befriended the ship’s purser, himself originally a captive, who often invited them into his cabin. Together the three made a pact: whoever was first to be released would do all in his power to secure the others’ freedom.

Turner immediately sent a letter to the English agent, requesting two hundred dollars to pay off his friend Ah-Foo’s ransom. Just two weeks later the money arrived. Ah-Foo left with letters from Turner and assurances that he would live up to his vow.

Not long after, a packet arrived, addressed to John Turner. Inside he found fresh clothing and a letter from Ah-Foo, who assured him he was making every possible effort to secure his release. But before Turner had the chance to send an acknowledgement, the pirates set sail to a remote island, where they hauled the boats ashore for cleaning. Turner’s feet touched dry land for the first time in three months of captivity, though whatever joy he felt was tempered by witnessing another bloody execution on the beach.

From there they cruised across the delta to the smugglers’ haven of Tai O on Lantau Island, where the fleet split into smaller squadrons and embarked on a zigzagging journey around the region, raiding villages, hijacking cargo vessels, and tossing overboard anyone who refused conscription into the bandit fleet.

Then one day, Turner’s friend the ship’s purser informed him that Ah-Foo had secured his own release. The purser had also overheard talk that the pirates would accept three or four thousand dollars for Turner.

With both of his friends now free, Turner was left with no one to confide in, and no news as days and weeks dragged by. Then, on 22 April 1807, a familiar face appeared over the rail. Ah-Foo greeted his friend with a gift of hope. He had come directly from the Red Flag Fleet command junk, where he had induced commander Cheng Yat to lessen the ransom demand, though he deferred to Cheung Po Tsai to set the new amount. After lengthy discussions between Ah-Foo and the young pirate, the new amount was set at 2500 Spanish dollars. Ah-Foo promptly left for Macau.

At last, on May 9, a courier arrived with news from Ah-Foo: A British ship was positioned near Three Corner Island with the money on board. Cheung Po Tsai set sail with two escorts, but when they arrived within sight of the island, there was no sign of the foreign ship. Thinking it might be underway from Macau, they pointed their junks toward the Portuguese enclave, and nearly ran into a twenty-five-strong Chinese naval force. Though they escaped, the pirates were so furious at what they saw as a trap, they threatened to cut off the foreign captives’ heads.

Two weeks later, Turner received a letter from Captain Ross of the Honourable Company, as the British East India Company was known, setting out a new proposal for the exchange of money and men. One of Turner’s Indian shipmates was allowed to return to Ross with a detailed reply from the pirates.

Just past midnight on the appointed day, six pirate junks set out with Turner and his remaining crew, and by mid-morning came within sight of the Honourable Company cruisers, the Antelope and the Discovery. A pirate sampan set out and fired a single shot—the pre-arranged signal. Immediately, Captain Ross sent a fishing boat across to acknowledge the signal and inform the pirates that another boat would follow bearing the funds. As promised, a cutter left the Discovery’s side.

Out of nowhere, a lone, unfamiliar pirate junk swooped into the scene and bore down on the defenseless cutter with cannons blazing. The British boat came about and returned to the protective side of the Discovery. Meanwhile, Cheung Po Tsai’s pirates sent desperate signals to the usurper, which had the wisdom to retreat.

Suspicion loomed on both sides until the fisherman who had delivered the first message sailed across to the cutter and, after some discussion, escorted it across to the pirates. The money was taken aboard and, having been counted, Turner and his men were free to leave. A pirate sampan escorted the cutter most of the way back to ward off any further rogue attacks.

At 3:00 pm on 22 May 1807, after nearly six months in captivity, John Turner stepped aboard the Honourable Company cruiser Discovery, where he was congratulated on his happy deliverance.

Turner handover

Turner filed a detailed report of his experience, including observations about junk technology and weapons and pirate behaviors. This appeared in the Naval Chronicle published by the Royal Navy (“Under the Guidance of Several Literary and Professional Men” according to their masthead) in volume XX, July-December 1808.

Turner's narrativeIn 1814 a New York publisher produced an updated version under the compelling title, A Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Turner, First Officer of the Ship John Jay of Bombay, Among the Ladrones or Pirates on the Coast of China. It’s interesting to compare the two versions, one an official naval officer’s report, the other a commercial adventure story. To begin with, his ship is named differently. In one, it’s the Tay, in the other he is mate of the John Jay, though surely the latter was an error by the New York publisher, naming the ship after one of America’s founding fathers.

In the original account, Turner begins:

After a tedious passage through the Mindora sea, we arrived off St. John’s, on the south coast of China…

In the later book, by comparison:

After a pleasant passage of 35 days I arrived at Maccoa Roads…

In the book for public consumption, the “pleasant” passage makes for a more dramatic contrast to his horrific imprisonment by murderous brigands. Either way, the recollections of John Turner offer a valuable, indeed extremely rare, insight into the lives and business not only of the Chinese pirates, but of two of their most notorious leaders, Cheng Yat and Cheung Po Tsai.