The Namoa Pirates

Kowloon Namoa Pirate Behading_tuhmHaving grown up in Hong Kong, thinking about colonialism and imperialism quickly gives me a headache. At the root of this is an unbridgeable sense of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand these two forces created an amazing city which I love as my home, and on the other I know that using force against others for your own gain is morally reprehensible.

Certain British historians have tried in the past to get around this by claiming that the British Empire was less brutish and more beneficial than other contemporary empires, but this seems to be skirting the issues to reduce collective guilt.

With this personal context in mind, I am immediately interested in any historical images of Hong Kong, especially older ones which might offer insight into what life was like under imperial rule. And so it was that the following image really caught my eye:

Kowloon Namoa Pirate Behading
Image via Historical Times, under Public Domain

Viewing only the top half of the image it seems like some kindly old gentlemen on a rural day out, posing for a photo. Look then at the bottom half and witness beheaded humans lying in the dirt. Should we feel for the “pirates” who have been executed? Did they deserve their fate through wrong deeds, or did they simply upset the wrong imperialists? What are passers-by thinking: are they relieved that justice has been dealt, abhorred by the brutishness of these gwai lo (foreign devils), or fatalistically indifferent?

Of course, we will never really know the answers to these questions, but they are worth discussing all the same. I duly filed the image away for later use, shared it on Twitter and moved on. Much to my surprise, a couple of teachers (@vanweringh and @PaulGrace9) who are now in my PLN saw the image and started sharing and researching  ideas on it.

Reading these articles is revealing. It seems like the pirates were genuinely dastardly, but they make up only 6 of the 15 beheadings. Also of interest is that some of the beheadings were carried out by a 15-year old boy. How times have changed.

Our collaboration finished up with suggestions to use HistoryPin and the image below to further explore this area. As was mentioned in our discussions, the topics of piracy and imperialism are so interesting to study as they are still relevant today.


7 thoughts on “The Namoa Pirates”

  1. The pirates were not executed by British authorities.

    This was done by the Imperial Chinese.

    The pirates were executed in two batches 11th April 1891 (this photo) and 17th May 1891.

    They had murdered two Europeans and a Malay Chinese whilst committing the act of piracy on the ‘Namoa’ traveling between HK and Swatow on 10th december 1890.

    Amongst those they robbed were dozens of Chinese returning to China after many years working like dogs in California. These poor souls lost all they had grafted and sacrificed so much for.

    Pirates are pretty low – live by the sword………

    1. Thanks for stopping by and adding more information. I agree with your final 2 points. It is especially moving to think of the migrant workers losing everything so close to home. As far as I am concerned, Disney have a lot to answer for in terms of making pirates seem so harmless…

  2. You haven’t acknowledged that your main point is utterly wrong though.

    Your article implies that you believe British colonialism to have been brutal and murderous…….but chose the wrong photo to make the point.

    As I said – the Namoa pirates were executed by Imperial Chinese authorities.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. My aim was not to imply that British colonialism in Hong Kong was brutal and murderous, it was simply to raise questions surrounding the picture. I am not enough of an authority to make any claims one way or another, I just wanted people to think about it. The questions, if followed through by students, would hopefully lead to the conclusions you point out above: namely, that this was not a case of barbarism on the part of the British.

      However, subjugating a people and their land involves at the very least the threat of violence, otherwise it would fail to be effective: after all, who would give up their land voluntarily, without some kind of gain? From this point of view, the British were morally wrong, as they took land from others using force (or the threat thereof). Should they have been brutish and murderous, it would have simply made a immoral actions worse.

  3. For an elaborate appraisal of the S.S.Namoa Hijack case see my “Maritime Piracy through a Barbarian Lesn: Punishment and Representation (the S.S. Namoa Hijack Case, [1890-91]”, in John Kleinen and Manon Osseweijer (eds.), Pirates, Ports and Coasts in Asia, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Singapore: ISEAS, 2010. Matter of some Internet research……

    1. John, thanks for stopping by and commented. This does sound like an interesting read. I have added this to my LibraryThing reading list, and will try and pick up a copy somewhere down the line.

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