Written By Dr. Wong professor of history from the Guangzhou University of Social Sciences, produced in 1996 translated into English 1999. His work primarily intended to be used as a source reference material and to form an argument relating Sea Dragons to the rise of modern eastern times.
The Age of The Sea Dragons lies deep in the memory of the Sinosphere and indeed the world for diverse reasons. Economically and socially the order insular middle kingdoms was broken down and replaced with modernity. For decades historians have argued from different sides on the relevance of Sea Dragon piracy in transforming coastal East Asia. Regardless Sea Dragon piracy opened a new dawn, traumatically through violence and disorder.
This piece The Age of the Sea Dragons is about defining just who and what consists of a Sea Dragon as the term has sometimes been used vary widely to identify any vaguely oriental outlaw with nautical actives. The origins of the Sea Dragons will be explored as well their culture and their way of life. Contrary to popular perception Sea Dragons were not a single nationality and quite often had origins from Austronesian peoples as much as they had Chinese, Korean or Japanese ancestry. Under particular scrutiny will be viewing the role of Sea Dragons not just as raiders but also of explorers and colonizers. Some of those termed Sea Dragons even engaged in what could be called interstate activity and were viewed by Europeans as state powers to be dealt with in the view of international relations as opposed to just being criminals.
The farthest overreaching consequence of Sea Dragons was the resulting acceleration of biological and technological diffusion. In the chaos that accompanied the rise of the Sea Dragons technologies religions and crops transmitted between the East and West and on a more equal playing field compared to turn of the 16th centuries, when Europeans had been approaching oriental hermit kingdoms. Sea Dragons too introduced new diseases and crops in the ensuing exploration of Oceania.
Defining Sea Dragons
Unfortunately as Sea Dragons have enjoyed a resurgence in the public eye their identity has become unclear and confused. With thousands of years of piracy on China's coast there has been a tendency to lump any individual in under the Sea Dragon term. Even in the scholastic community there has been confusion between Sea Dragons and the earlier Wokou that existed from the 14th to 16th centuries. Wokou bared many similarities to Sea Dragons, because Sea Dragons grew from the Wokou legacy which had declined by the mid-late 16th century. Wokou can best be defined as a reactions to the strict trade climate and the bureaucratic culture that denied opportunities to many enterprising people from all social classes. Wokou with the exception of routes in the Bohai sea kept to their home coast lines. The best such pirates could hope for would be to aggravate the coastal economy to the point where officials would bribe such pirates and grant their amnesty for retiring from banditry. However to many amnesty and money would not alone lead to an elevation of social status and could completely satisfy their reasons for resorting to piracy in the first place. This strategy particular of Ming placation was unique to the Middle Kingdom in contrast to Europeans who either sent pirates to attack other countries or stamp the business out all together. As the Ming Dynasty declined placating pirates became ineffective.
The Sea Dragons were born with a new thirst for coastal Chinese to settle overseas lands for the first time in China's history. Amazingly even though Chinese had traveled to the southern islands for at least three thousand years it was only in the 16th century that anyone from China set out to conquer them. The excessive Isolationism and bureaucracy of the Ming indeed deprived many Chinese of possible advancement of the growing global economy of the 16th century. An independent spirit developed, firmly apart from the central state that led to the explosion of piracy at the turn of the 17th century, Lim Hong himself- often called the first sea dragon is a reflection of his time. Tens of thousands of ambitious young men would set their chances to a life at sea, in far flung lands and vice. With this in mind a formal definition for Sea Dragons can be made.
- Pirates, bandits from the shores of the South China Sea between the 16th and 18th century that sailed from the Indian Ocean through the South Pacific and established settlements which created the foundation of the Pacific trade network.
Vessels and Battle Tactics
Compared to the great fleets which had taken to Asian in the golden age of the Sung Dynasty, or the mammoth treasure ships of Zheng He, Sea Dragon vessels would have looked tiny and insignificant by comparison. As if society had lurched backwards.
The truth cannot be denied, after authorities forsook ocean going voyages there was diminishing, but with purpose. With the absence of any central power on the high seas large ships became impractical except for long voyages which were rare before 1650. Sea Dragons relied on having many, small two, or three masted junks, and smaller barques. Fleets of dozens, and hundreds of smaller ships gave the Sea Dragons their reputation of deadly speed, cornering and wrecking their larger, supposedly better fortified enemies. Almost always crewed by squads between 25 and 100 pirate sailors the nimbleness of the vessels made rogues, outlaws and their pirate leaders free.
As the Sea Dragon age the design which had been produced earlier became more specified, designed particularly to meet certain objectives. All designs remained faster than their contemporaries whatever the task of the vessel. Europeans were frightened by the sleekness by their design calling them Bellied Corsairs. While no Asian pirate ever held his ship as sentimentally as a European successful Sea Dragons began to take pride in the practical effectiveness of their individual ships. In pirate ports, a wholly new occupation of carpenter came about to create the Sea Dragons ships worthy of their masters.
By early Chinese eyewitnesses Sea Dragons were described as water hordes clustering in thousands at a time, their speed and smaller size allowed for mass attacks on fleets and villages leaving victims entirely broken in their wake. Mass attacks depended on experience of pirate captains of the seasonal winds blowing to the south and east. Coordination was key, a system of flags, whistles and rockets directed messages oversea in all weather conditions. Flag ships would use rockets to signal advance or retreat by the design of the explosion in air, this was important for the vast space taken up by water hordes. Flags and whistles would be used to quickly exchange information between individual vessels.
Advanced trickery separated Sea Dragons from their predecessors. The tenure of Sioco and Torahong perfected the use of displays, and maneuvering to corner larger opponents at sea. In the case of European ships Sea Dragons would approach under false pretenses as emissaries or merchants. revealing themselves from a firing or ideally boarding distance. When such pretenses failed Sea Dragons would use currents to their advantage to ground enemies on shoals or draw them to rocky beaches. In comparison to the western pirates there are parcels with certain figures such as Edward Teach. Sea Dragons however were unique in the meticulous planning of ambushes, and the use of goods, and valuables. In the most effective attacks a single or two old junks would be used as bait before a small fleet would surround the enemy.
Victims would be sandwiched between junks quickly on both broad sides. Debris would be thrown at the front and the rear to impair escape. When boarding, retractable wooden bridges and European style grappling hooks would be used As mariners Sea Dragons often exceeded Europeans in close combat but varied in technological advancements. Revolvers and small guns were rarely used until the mid 17th century. Rarely did Sea Dragons take on a healthy vessel without superior numbers.
Sea Dragon tactics portray a legacy of smaller but seaworthy ships successfully overturning more powerful better equipped foes. Illusion, was more preferred by captains than brute force alone.
Beasts at sea- Life on the water
Men entered Sea Dragon life as many ways a man lives life. In the beginning volunteers came merchants and sailors put out of business by isolationist Ming policies. Large numbers came from poor residents of the coastal cities, the poor and the homeless. Later, fishermen and rice patty farmers would be forced to join in large numbers. Others as the age progressed would join through marriage.
Once on the water many would stay attached to the seas never staying on land for any period of time as many voyages were short but constant. At first service on ships was assumed to be for life, later many would legally leave upon a new conquest of a port or island. The most common cause of death was contagious disease, with maritime hazards and malnutrition coming in as close seconds,
As warriors on the sea, the leader was a warlord commanding obedience from fighting men on the basis of his strength and the distribution of spoils. Originally orders were given top down but common sailors usually had more liberty than they had enjoined on land. Overtime a semi democratic way of life began with sailors choosing commanders for their individual ships as fleets grew.
Spoils were split by a share decided by the fleet captain or in cases of states by the high king, this was the sharing of all goods- land, luxuries, women and gold itself. Though in cases of huge conquest sharing was allocated based on the count of enemy heads, inspired by the ancient Qin kingdom. Regardless of the allotment the reality that wealth was being shared directly to the vast majority of crew men created a meritocracy more uplifting than any other operation in East Asia at the time.
Rules did guide the conduct which later inspired public and business law, primarily they dealt with sharing of property and blood feuds between members. Sea Dragons use of jury trials- the concept of being tried by one's peers left, inspired both Europeans and Asians; an impact that echoed into legal systems around the world.
As rulers of small worlds- Life on the land
The prospect of becoming kings, and landowners to many people without opportunity remained the chief inspiration for enterprising pirates; the eventual lack of new lands to be acquired in the 18th century would lead to the Sea Dragons decline.
Limahong sailed for Luzon with the promise to his crew that they would receive grants of their own at the end of the campaign, a promise which was largely fulfilled. Following the example of Limahong Sea Dragons continued to this practice not dissimilar from the relationship between Japanese Shoguns and their loyal samurai. Those not granted land became the foundation of an urban merchant cast- while landless carried far more fortune than their contemporaries in mainland China.
Those who owned land in the early years had a land shortage, as the majority of pirates did not wish to return to the tenet farming that had left behind. There were a variety of ways to acquire labor.
- Native Islanders- Through the Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific native islanders had perfected terrace farming. Pirate conquerors took charge of these operations, though degree of control very widely. Some micromanaged to turn their plots into enterprises while others simply collected tribute. However native labor was often ineffective, the decentralized style of governance and constant Sea-Dragon infighting made avenues for islanders to manipulate the outsiders for their own interests. While being made into serfs islanders knowing their land would escape or burn their terrace if they felt mistreated. These problems led to Sea Dragons searching for other sources of labor. Their way of life was enriched by encoring new settlers from mainland China. Over time some Native Islanders reached positions of power based on their intrigue and merit. Torahong's mother was a native Luzon islander.
- Mainland Asian Peasantry- In the late Ming Dynasty the coastal Yangzee river valley was overcrowded after centuries of immigration from China's northern frontier. Many original Sea Dragons were peasants who had fallen on hard times. Early on tales of exploits spurred many would adventurers but not farmer-immigration abroad. After initial troubles with native people the new owners of Luzon sought to incite tenet farmers from the mainland. The first waves of settlers to Luzon were tradesmen that arrived to offer Limahong their services. Major emigration to Pirate governed colonies began in the wake of the Ming Collapse. Han and minority families fleeing conscription and warlord violence would draw up contracts with Sea Dragons exchanging free transport for an allotted time of indentured servitude, similar to the English settlement of the New World occurring at the same time. While marginalized at first in time many of the original indentured families became major entrepreneurs in their own right. The arrival of mainland peasants disrupted native Pacific ways of life throughout the South Pacific. The decedents of Han and Hmong settlers form a backbone for many modern populations throughout the Pacific rim. Others also ventured from Vietnam.
- Aboriginal Slaves- Native Islanders and mainland Asian based pioneers became harder for Sea Dragons to control. A third source of labor came from the native inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and Australia. After early discoveries of these remote peoples by Torahong's sailors regular parties came to kidnapped the most able-bodied men to either serve as cash crop laborers or castrated eunuchs.. While many of the first generation slaves died of disease, survivors often mixed with Austronesian peoples. While the status of slavery was very rare in mainland China new theories of legalistic thought influenced the official status of aboriginal populations. The largest effects of the early slavery of the Sea Dragons was the near depopulation of the Southern Lands.
The souring Ming economy of the 1570s inspired a large following for ambitious landless men. The rise of Limahong from orphan to pirate-emperor are reminiscent in the stories of his followers. The first Sea Dragon fleet grew in number at first by forcing captured peasants, fishermen into their ranks. Limahong made a point to distribute his plunder to his loyal followers.
Across the coast of South China those with nothing to lose began to join Limahong's fleet, gaining the attention of authorities. What was originally the concern of the Fujian and Guandong provinces became an Imperial concern. Imperial Regent Zhang Juzheng urged emissaries to bribe Limahong into retirement. Failing to subdue the Sea Dragons the offer actually spurred the first Sea Dragon to declare himself emperor, going to war on the entire Ming Dynasty- a certain death sentence. Primary sources make clear that Limahong's followers saw themselves not as purposed soldiers fighting as brothers for their rights. The pirates aspired to be higher than what they had been born to be- and to not just simply be rich but to live a bigger freer life than their upbringing. Limahong thought the Spanish Philippines to be a new world - a new start for his people. Limahong promised his men they would all be lords if they followed him to glory south.
Glory seeking brought the Dragons into conflict with Spain, the mightiest western power that stretched the globe. Outside those who lived in Portuguese Macau most of the sailors had never seen Europeans prior to the invasion. Limahong upon seeing Portuguese ships was unimpressed by their size seeing them as bulky and tedious. He was more impressed however by their capabilities as mariners to cross vast oceans. At the time, however, the Spanish were just consolidating rule and were unprepared for a full invasion - even that of renegades. Sailing to Luzon Island in 1574 the Spanish were busy inland pacifying the native Tondo cultures which had persisted for centuries. The fledgling town of Spanish Manila mostly defended by natives could not stand against the coordinated Dragon assault of naval bombardment and beach landings surrounding the area
Upon entering Manila Limahong was proclaimed as emperor of the Sea Dragon Empire by his Dragons in front of the towns people, proclaiming he had conquered the Spanish. Most of the Christians were executed with the exception of one who was reportedly useful. Squads were sent around the island and kept many local chieftains hostages to secure the obedience of the people. Lands and ships were distributed for all of his followers the preexisting Chinese population were used to govern the settlements who began to reconstruct the town with pagodas. In his reign Limahong his sailors to come to the seas for three quarters of the year, so they remained pirates. While shortlived, Limahong's time was a swashbuckling revolution.
Limahong was beset by many foes, the Spanish under the guise of missionaries colluded with Christian Japanese to wipe out the "Chinese Heathens". The hastily prepared expedition did not consider the fighting fortitude or the vessels of the Sea Dragons. After destroying the invading fleet Liamhong took advice from his friend Sioco and took many Japanese and European prisoners into his army, quite capable of harassing the Dragon Empire's neighbors Efforts were cut short by a Ming sponsored Assassination intended to dismantle the Pirate Kingdom without a costly expedition.