Anti-piracy operations in the Straits of Malacca,1835-1840

It has been calculated that, of all the acts of piracy commited on the world's oceans in the first eight months of 2003, up to one-quarter took place off the coasts of Indonesia. Piracy, however, is not a new phenomenon in south-east Asian waters. As early as the fourteenth century, a Chinese merchant, Wang Dayuan, gave an account of a pirates' lair at Dragon's Tooth Strait. No doubt it had existed much earlier than that. The longevity of sea raiding in the region can be ascribed, in part, to the fact that it was not perceived as a disreputable occupation. Indeed, Malay royalty in the early nineteenth century saw it as more honourable than honest trade. Munshi Abdullah, a friend of Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, tells us:

The Sultan [of Johore] complained several times that the allowance paid him by the British was insufficient. Raffles suggested that he start a trading agency house, but when the Sultan and the Temenggong heard Mr Raffles's words they laughed and said "It is not the custom of rulers to engage in trade for they would lose dignity before other rulers." When Mr Raffles heard this the look on his face changed and his brow was dark, though he was smiling as he replied "Your Highness, I am surprised to hear of such an extraordinary custom. Why should trading be so wicked that it brings disgrace when piracy brings no such disgrace?" The Sultan replied "Piracy is our birthright and so brings no disgrace." (1)

The British arrived in the Straits of Malacca in the late seventeenth century, when the East India Company (EIC) established a trading station at Bencoolen, on the southwest coast of Sumatra. They leased Penang Island, off the north-west coast of Malaya, in 1786 to establish another trading station. In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the new Governor of Bencoolen, arranged a treaty with the Sultan of Johore to acquire Singapore for the East India Company. Five years later, Malacca was added to Britain's territories in the Malay Peninsula. From 1826, Penang, Province Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore became a single administrative unit called the Straits Settlements. The rest of the peninsula was divided into native sultanates: on the west coast there were Kedah, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Selangor; at the extremity of the peninsula Johore; and northwards along the east coast Pahang, Trengganu, Kelantan and Patani.

The free trade policy operated by the British authorities at Singapore and other ports in the Straits Settlements attracted large numbers of native traders. These, in turn, attracted large numbers of pirates, for whom their vessels were easy prey in comparison with well-armed European merchant ships. So serious did the pirates' depredations become that, between 1820 and 1840, they constituted the major threat to Singapore's trade and even its existence.

In a report written in 1828, Mr Presgrave, the Registrar of Imports and Exports at Singapore, identified two discrete groups of pirates. First, there were:

The subjects of the Sultan of Johore who inhabit the islands [and who] are usually by the Malays termed Orang Rayat. .. They live in small and detached communities or settlements on the several islands . . . [and] are scarcely better than slaves, and at the same time than professional pirates .. They subsist for the most part on fish and sago, and when they are not on their piratical cruises, collect the produce of the rocks in the vicinity of their respective stations which finds a ready market in the neighbouring European settlements. This produce consists principally of Agar-agar, Trepang, a small quantity of tortoise shell and birds nests in very small quantities. The first article is the seaweed, which may be considered the staple commodity of the traffic of these savage islanders. It is in considerable demand among the Chinese . ..

In the months of February, March and April, the Rayats are usually engaged in collecting the Agar-agar, in May the rocks are clear of this article, in the month of June, by which time the South-east monsoon is steadily set in and the weather fine, they prepare to proceed on their piratical depredations. They do not all sail in a body, but only the praus of each detached settlement or tribe keep together. These separate fleets of boats are dispersed in different directions. They make annual visits up the Straits of Malacca and proceed as far to the north as Kedah, making free booty of all that falls in their way, both sides of the Straits being scoured by them either going or returning, and as necessity requires, or the hope of plunder invites, they take occasional shelter in the several bays and rivers on either shore. By the end of October, they are almost all returned to their settlements, where after having disposed of their plunder for the most part they pass listless lives till the weather again permits them to collect their marine productions, and the season recalls them on their predatory expeditions.

In this freebooting system, I am informed they are frequently (perhaps usually) supported by their own Chiefs, or other respectable Malays, who possessing a little money are more inclined to embark it in a piratical adventure than to hazard it in the more tedious and uncertain profits of commerce. (2)

After detailing the links between the native rulers and the Orang Rayat, Presgrave described the other group of pirates:

Besides the Orang Rayats of Johore the Ilanun people infest these seas with their piratical visits. These people come from the Sulu Seas, their principal country is Mindanao, and the adjacent islands [of the southern Philippines]. In making their visits to these parts which take place annually for piratical purposes they are guided by the monsoon. In sailing from their own seas, they first touch at Tempasuk, they next proceed to Karimata, where they disperse themselves in various directions, some scour the straits and coasts of Bangka and parts thereto adjacent, some the East Coast of the Peninsula, as far north as Siam. Others proceed up the Straits of Malacca and penetrate northward of Kedah. Those destined for the Straits usually touch at Rettih on the Sumatran shore where a colony of these people settled about fifteen years ago .. . They are more feared at sea by the native trader than the Orang Rayat, which is owing to their praus being of a large class and better manned than those of the latter... (3)

The ships, or proas, of the Orang-Rayat were usually 40 - 50 feet long, with a 15 foot beam. Their decks were made of split nibong wood. The smaller craft put up thick plank bulwarks in combat, while the larger ones had bamboo ledges hanging over their gunwales, with a projecting breastwork of plaited rattan about three feet high. The crew might consist of 20-30 men, augmented with captured slaves to pull the oars. While the small craft had nine oars a side, the larger ones were double-banked, with an upper tier of oarsmen seated on the bulwark projection, hidden behind the rattan breastwork.

The armament of the Rayat proas included a stockade near the bow, with iron or brass 4¬
pounders, and another stockade aft, generally with two swivel guns. They also might have four or five brass swivels on each side. The Rayats carried large bamboo shields, and were armed with spears, krisses, and such muskets and other firearms as they could get. (4)

Ilanun proas were much larger than those of the Orang Rayat, some of them being more than ninety feet in length, with a wide beam. They were furnished with a double tier of oars, the largest carrying 100 rowers, who (as in the larger Rayat proas) sat cross-legged about a foot from the water line, on strong galleries built outside the wales. These rowers were slaves, who were not expected to fight unless the ship was hard pressed.

The captain of each Ilanun proa occupied a cabin aft. A larger cabin took up three-fifths of the vessel's length and two-thirds of her beam. The sides might be of bamboo or palm leaf, but in the bow the cabin was solidly built out to the whole beam with baulks of timber sufficiently strong to withstand a 6-pound shot. Here, through a narrow embrasure protruded the muzzle of a long gun, usually of brass, which might be anything from a 6- to a 24¬pounder, with another in the stern. Numerous swivels of varying calibre were mounted on solid uprights along the sides and upper works.

In the main cabin lived the women, children and such prisoners as were not required at the oars. Above the cabin was a wooden platform occupied by the warriors, who might number anything from 30-100. Here they would stand when going into action, ready to board the vessel they were attacking. On such occasions they would array themselves in scarlet and coats of mail, with feathered head-dresses, and, rather than use firearms, were accustomed to rely upon their own traditional weapons - the spear, kris and twohanded sword, or kampilan.

The Ilanuns were accustomed to cruise in squadrons of thirty or forty proas, although at times a fleet might number 200 vessels of different sizes. One chief, a man of high rank, would command the whole fleet. Each of the boats would have her own captain, and many of the warriors under him would be his relatives. Most of these warriors were freemen, but their numbers might be made up by slaves, who, with certain reservations, had the right to plunder. Prisoners, guns, money and the finest cloths and silks were divided amongst the chiefs and freemen, and, when they were satisfied, the slaves might take what was left. (5)

During the 1820s and 1830s nearly every issue of the Singapore newspapers contained reports of pirate attacks. The situation became so bad that, in April 1835, a public meeting at Singapore resolved on a petition to the King-in-Council, enclosing information on the threat to native trade. A memorial was also sent to the Governor-General-in-Council, urging action on the grounds that continued depredations would Very shortly altogether drive the Native Trade of the Settlement into other channels where more efficient protection is afforded. (6)

These papers were considered by the Supreme Government in Calcutta, along with a petition from the Bengal Chamber of Commerce about the 'alarming increase of Piracy in the vicinity of the Settlement of Singapore.' The Calcutta authorities suggested that the Commander-in-Chief East Indies, Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Bladen Capell, should place one of his smallest vessels in the Straits for the protection of trade. In fact, he had already sent the sloop Rose, Commander Barrow, and now declared he hoped always to have a vessel in that region. In November, he himself reached the Straits in the heavy frigate Winchester to find that 'several daring acts of piracy' had been committed near Penang and 'upwards of fifty persons, on several occasions . . . carried off, in the space of three or four days, besides property taken at different places in Province Wellesley, where the pirates had landed.' (7)

He thereupon sent out the boats of the Winchester and two proas were taken, one with twelve and the other with five men.

In late February 1836, Commander Barrow, of the Rose, fell in with two pirate squadrons, apparently off the Dindings, one squadron getting away, 'the second .. . I took by surprise, which caused them to fight. They commenced, and kept up splendidly for one hour and a half,' sounding gongs to deaden the cries of their wounded. At nightfall, they made for a river, 'where the ship could not get near, and it would have been little less than murder to have sent the boats up.' (8)

Some weeks later, on 22 March, the sloop HMS Wolf , Captain Edward Stanley, reached Singapore. On the same day, she and the EIC schooner Zephyr, Captain Samuel Congalton, gave chase to three large pirate proas that had attacked a Chinese junk off Point Romania. Although the marauders escaped on this occasion, on the 24th the boats of the Wolf and Zephyr fell in with a fleet of thirteen large pirate proas. A brisk exchange of musketry ensued between the boats' crews and the pirates, who were subsequently reinforced by five more proas which emerged from the mouth of a river near Point Romania. Eventually, the ammunition in the boats was exhausted, whereupon the pirates made their escape, having suffered substantial losses. Since there was no wind, the Wolf and Zephyr had been unable to keep up with their boats, and were too far away to pursue the hostile proas. (9)

In May, the frigate HMS Andromache arrived in the Straits and her commanding officer, Captain Henry Ducie Chads, began the vigorous operations for the suppression of piracy that characterized his tour of duty there. At Penang, however, there was a disappointment. The Andromache met the Wolf leaving for Madras with a number of captured pirates, who had been caught murdering some Cochin-Chinese they had plundered. (10 )The sloop's departure impeded Chads' plans, for the Government steamer, which was to have carried a detachment of Madras sepoys to augment Chads' marines, would not be ready for some months. And an armed steamer which the Penang Government intended to purchase from the Canton firm of Jardine Matheson was 'totally useless, having lost her funnel overboard, and being unable to replace it, no sepoys can be employed.' (11) Chads determined, nevertheless, to visit all the pirate haunts between Penang and Singapore with the boats of the Andromache, and to take the frigate close inshore for their support.

After a fruitless search of the Dindings, Chads visited the Aroa Islands, where the sloop HMS Harrier had earlier had a brush with pirates. The Andromache arrived disguised as a slovenly native trading vessel, her boats, under Lieutenant Reed, being dispatched to a point on the south side where the pirates usually watered and refitted. Reed found that three proas had just been launched and were standing towards his boat, with their crews singing and gongs beating. They were hailed by the Andromache's Malay interpreter, who warned them that the boat belonged to the Royal Navy; but the pirate vessels continued to advance, their chiefs cheering them on. They were clearly about to board, so Reed opened fire. The proas were taken, the surviving members of their crews jumping overboard and, refusing all quarter and even using their weapons in the water, were killed, except for a few who swam back to the island. The following day a party of seamen and marines landed, burnt the huts and proas and took some prisoners.

The action at the Aroa Islands was undoubtedly a bloody one, the death toll among the pirates being calculated by one of the Andromache's officers as 113. (12)

The boats of the Andromache searched Pulau Pisang on 10 June, and the frigate reached Singapore on the 12th. Fearing lest secret intelligence of his proposed movements might be sent to the pirates by their friends at Singapore, Chads did not enter the harbour and communicated with the acting Governor of the Straits Settlements, Mr Bonham, through a disguised messenger. On the following day the frigate's boats, together with two EIC gunboats, fell in with some proas off Point Romania and a running fight ensued, the proas having opened fire. Two of the proas were abandoned, three captured and burnt after their occupants had escaped into the jungle, and about one-third of the total of 130 pirates killed, while there were no losses on the part of the Andromache. A few Cochin-Chinese captives, whom the marauders were about to sell in Pahang, were released and other evidence of piracy discovered.(13)

In late June, Chads sailed south to the Riau-Lingga Islands with the Andromache, three EIC gunboats and fifty Madras sepoys. The frigate had on board two of the freed Cochin-Chinese, who were to point out where their junk had been taken by the marauders. The first objective, as Chads reported to the Admiral, was the island of Galang:

It having been ascertained beyond all doubt from various depositions and from the sworn information of persons now on board this ship that Galang was a principal resort of pirates, and that there were no Inhabitants there, but those connected with them, and . . . that an English Brig had been carried there a short time since. It was resolved by Mr Bonham ... and myself, that.. . this place, with every boat found there should be utterly destroyed. (14)

The Andromache's boats being fired on by the pirates, three villages on the island were burnt, together with 14 large proas, 30 or 40 smaller ones, and many fast rowing boats. The missing Cochin-Chinese junk was found, but the English brig had been burnt, after her cargo had been landed. Some of the proas were recognised by the officer commanding the gunboats and his men as those that had engaged the Wolf's boats off Point Romania in March. That the inhabitants of Galang lived entirely by piracy was evident from the fact that although the destroyed villages were large enough to house several thousand people, there was not the slightest trace on the island of any cultivation or industry. (15)

Information having been received that some pirate proas had lately touched at Burn, south of the Karimuns, on 31 July the Andromache's boats searched Pulau Kukub, Pulau Pisang and Pulau Bengkalis. On 1 August, Lieutenant Reed engaged and destroyed six proas he had found, after they had identified themselves as pirates by their beating of gongs. Unfortunately, the senior midshipman, Mr Dundas, ignored an order not to board and one of the pirates blew himself up with his boat, killing two of the boarding party and wounding fifteen. (16)

None of the pirates whom Chads had encountered in the course of his operations were Ilanuns from the southern Philippines, with their much larger and dreaded vessels. Within two years, however, these 'Brobdignags' as a British officer dubbed them, received their severest lesson yet. As early as 1826 an article in the Singapore Chronicle had recommended the employment of armed steam vessels against the pirates, for although they were visible from afar because of their smoke, they could not be immobilised by lack of wind, as the Wolf and Zephyr were at Romania Point in March 1836. But while the C-in-C East Indies in 1830, Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Owen, admitted that the 'only impediments' to the 'extended use' of steam vessels were 'those arising from the inconvenience and expense of supplying them with Fuel and the perpetual derangements of their Machinery, these .. . form a serious objection and I fear they cannot be adopted to the extent required.' (17) By 1835, however, Owen's successor, Sir Thomas Bladen Capell, had come to the conclusion that:

the employment of His Majesty's ships of war alone can never be made effectively available for eradicating the peculiar and fugitive sort of boat piracy now under consideration, and that a force and a system of quite a different description is indispensably requisite, and I believe alone capable of accomplishing that object, I mean the employment of armed steam vessels, and a sufficient number of well manned row boats fitted expressly for this service. . (18)

As a result of this shift in naval opinion, in 1837 the EIC paddle steamer Diana, Captain Samuel Congalton, arrived at Singapore. The Diana, the first steam vessel constructed in India, was of 160 tons displacement and 40 horsepower, with a maximum speed of five knots an hour. Her crew consisted of the captain, two European officers and thirty Malay seamen.

The Diana proved her worth on 18 May 1838, when the Wolf, then lying in Trengganu roadstead, sighted, soon after 8 am, six Ilanun proas standing in towards a large Chinese junk. From the masthead of the sloop, the proas were seen to open a hot fire from their guns, to which the junk made a vigorous reply. The Wolf immediately got under way; but she had to work to windward and her own armed boats were absent, having been dispatched on the preceding day to the Redang Islands in search of some Ilanuns who had lately killed and wounded a number of natives from Trengganu. About midday, however, the Diana was seen to northward and Captain Stanley promptly sent off his gig and jolly-boat, with two officers and a party of seamen and marines, and orders for Captain Congalton to proceed to the assistance of the junk.

It was not until 4 pm that the Diana, accompanied by the party from the Wolf, came up with the pirates, who, seeing the smoke from her funnels, concluded that she was a sailing ship on fire and would be an easy prey. So they left the junk and bore down on the steamer, firing on her as she drew near. To their horror, the Diana came up close against the wind, and, stopping her paddles as she came opposite each proa, poured in a fire that brought down large numbers of the pirates on their decks. Even so, the largest proa kept up a fierce resistance until 6.30 pm, when she was boarded in a sinking state.

The other five boats, favoured with a breeze, hoisted their sails and edged away to the southward, with the Diana in pursuit. As she was closing upon them darkness descended and enabled them to make their escape; but from the shattered and disabled condition to which the steamer's fire had reduced these vessels it seemed likely that the pirates would be forced to abandon them, for scarcely any of them could muster more than two or three oars a side, and they seemed to be bailing blood rather than water.

Of about 360 pirates on the six proas, 90 were killed, 150 wounded and 30 taken prisoner. These last acknowledged that they had taken, during the three months of their cruise, three Malay boats laden with rice, and also one Chinese, a Thai and three or four Malay captives, who had been found on board the captured proa. (19)

By 1840, the operations of the Royal and East India Company navies had significantly alleviated, but not completely eliminated, the problem of piracy in the Straits of Malacca. Ironically, one of the main factors which led to the final elimination of the problem was the inception of the gutta-percha industry. This new source of income, which the Sultan of Johore controlled, was so lucrative that it finally convinced that potentate to turn from being a sponsor to a scourge of piracy.


1. M.H. Murfett, J.N. Miksic, B.P. Farrell and CM. Shun, Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore From First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (Singapore, 1999), p. 50.

2. N. Tarling, Piracy and Politics in the Malay World (Liechtenstein, 1978), pp. 39-40.

3. ibid., p. 41.

4. For details of Rayat proas and their armament, see C.B. Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Kuala Lumpur, 1965), pp. 278-9; and Murfett et al, Between Two Oceans, p. 50.

5. For details of Ilanun proas, weaponry and organisation, see O. Rutter, The Pirate Wind: Tales of the Sea-Robbers of Malaya (Oxford, 1986), pp. 32-5.

6. Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p. 70.

7. ibid., p. 74.

8. ibid., p. 74.

9. Buckley, History of Old Times in Singapore, pp. 277-8; and Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p.74.

10. Cochin-Chinese: Vietnamese. A number of their topes, or junks, came to Singapore each year with cargoes averaging about 1,000 dollars in value.

11. Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p. 81.

12. For the clash at the Aroa Islands, see ibid., p. 82.

13 Ibid., p. 83.

14. ibid., p. 84.

15. For the destruction of the pirate base at Galang, see Buckley, History of Old Times in Singapore, pp. 279-80; and Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p. 84.

16. Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p. 87.

17. ibid., p. 52.

18. ibid., p. 71.

19. For the action of 18 May, see Buckley, History of Old Times in Singapore, p. 281; Rutter, The Pirate Wind, pp. 38-9; and Tarling, Piracy and Politics, p. 150.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 117, June 2004

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