Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Chinese female pirate who commanded 80,000 outlaws

A painting of the city of Canton c. 1800, where Ching Shih lived before she became a pirate.

From Atlas Obscura by Ching Shih

Ching Shih, who lived and pillaged during the Qing Dynasty, has been called the most successful pirate in history.

AT THE DAWN OF THE 19th century, a former prostitute from a floating brothel in the city of Canton was wed to Cheng I, a fearsome pirate who operated in the South China Sea in the Qing dynasty. 

Though the name under which we now know her, Ching Shih, simply means “Cheng’s widow,” the legacy she left behind far exceeded that of her husband’s.
Following his death, she succeeded him and commanded over 1,800 pirate ships, and an estimated 80,000 men.
In comparison, the famed Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 pirates within the same century.
As a result, Ching Shih is known as one of the most successful pirates in known history.

Her husband, Cheng I, was the formidable commander of the Red Flag Fleet of pirate ships.
He had managed to unite many rival Chinese pirate organizations.
He married a 26-year-old Ching Shih in 1801, “who participated fully in her husband’s piracy,” writes Dian H. Murray in Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810.

A photograph of junks in Canton c. 1880.
It is estimated that Ching Shih commanded around 1,800 of these pirate ships at the peak of her power.

The story goes that Cheng sought his bride out due to her reputation as a shrewd businesswoman: Ching Shih apparently used the secrets she learned as a prostitute to wield power over her wealthy and politically connected clients.
There are no primary Chinese sources to support this tale, but Ching Shih’s financial savvy certainly became undeniable over the course of her career in piracy.

It is rumored that Ching Shih demanded equal control of the pirate fleet as a condition of her marriage to Cheng I in 1801. 
“Where business acumen starts to display itself is in the way she became the overall head of the entire confederation,” says Murray.
Female pirate leaders were a rare phenomenon, and Murray is only aware of one other woman commander, a Mrs. Hon-cho-lo, who was active in Hong Kong in the first half of the 20th century.

Six years into their marriage, Cheng I died at the age of 42. Not much is known about how he passed away.
Some accounts indicate that he was killed at sea by a tsunami, while others insinuate that he was murdered in Vietnam.
Regardless of the circumstances, his death left Ching Shih in a precarious position.
A sketch from the 1800s depicts Ching Shih (right) in battle. (Photo: Unknown/Public Domain)

Her husband’s adoptive son and heir, Cheung Po Tsai, was originally the one to inherit control of the Red Flag Fleet.
Cheung Po Tsai, however, was more than just Ching Shih’s stepson–the young fisherman had also been her husband’s lover.
Though a sexual relationship between an adoptive son and his father may seem unusual, the adoption itself was not entirely out of place.

“Unlike in the West, ‘adult’ adoption was often practiced in China in order to establish a kinship basis for further interaction, particularly of a business or discipleship sort,” says Murray. 
“Cheng I adopting an adolescent fisherman’s son was not too out of the ordinary.”’

Within weeks of Cheng I’s death, Ching Shih had taken Cheung Po as her lover as well, eventually solidifying the relationship through marriage.
Soon, she managed to maneuver herself back into power, and obtained leadership of the Red Flag Fleet.

As a woman in command of a huge pirate fleet, Ching Shih had her work cut out for her.
“Pirate vessels often had a few women on board, but it is not clear to what extent they were or were not practicing pirates,” says Murray. Unlike in the West, in South China there was no stigma attached to women being on board a ship, or being bad luck for the ship.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone, much less a pirate’s widow, to control so many outlaws.

An East India Company employee named Richard Glasspoole was captured by Ching Shih’s pirates in September 1809, and held until December of that year.
In his account of the ordeal, he estimated that there were 80,000 pirates under Ching Shih’s command, and some 1,000 large junks and 800 smaller junks and rowboats.

Cheung Po Tsai Cave, named for Ching Shih’s adopted son and lover, and the rumored location where he stashed his loot.

Ching Shih unified her enormous fleet of pirates using a code of laws.
The code was strict, and stated that any pirate giving his own orders or disobeying those of a superior was to be beheaded on the spot.
The code was particularly unusual in its laws regarding female captives. If a pirate raped a female captive, he would be put to death.
If the sex between the two was consensual, both would be put to death.

There are further accounts of Ching Shih’s code that state that if a pirate took a captive as his wife, he was required to be faithful to her (although others say that captains would have multiple wives). “Whatever they thought about her, it does seem clear that the pirates respected and obeyed her authority,” says Murray.

The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule went undefeated, despite attempts by Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese navy, and the East India Company to vanquish it.
After three years of notoriety on the high seas, Ching Shih finally retired in 1810 by accepting an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government.

“What precipitated the surrender seems to have been an internecine conflict between the Black and Red Fleets and their leaders, which first led to the surrender of the Black Flag Fleet and then ultimately, to the Red Flag fleet,” says Murray. 
“I imagine that given mounting pressure from the outside for their suppression and internal loss of cohesion, that she realized the time had come to give up.”

Ching Shih died in 1844, at the ripe old age of 69.
The legacy she left behind from the time of her rule has penetrated popular culture.
She even inspired a character in the The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: the powerful Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords.
While nothing is known about the years she spent following her retirement, one can only hope she spent her last days in peace and anonymity, away from the harrowing life on the seas where she made her name.
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Monday, October 25, 2021

Ships waiting to unload

NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S.
Geological Survey
Recent satellite imagery showing 87 ships still waiting to unload off California coast. 
From NASA by Adam Voiland

Booming demand for consumer and goods, labor shortages, bad weather, and an array of COVID-related supply chain snarls are contributing to backlogs of cargo ships at ports around the world.

Among those seaports are the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach in Southern California, the two busiest container ports in the United States.
On October 10, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this natural-color image of dozens of cargo ships waiting offshore for their turn to unload goods.
On the same day, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired similar imagery.

A record number of ships sit idle as they wait to enter the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach amid major disruptions to the global supply chain.
Captured by a Planet SkySat on October 19, 2021.
There are now 72 container ships at anchor waiting to unload at the port of LA-Long Beach.
Carriers are cancelling upcoming sailings to allow the backlog to clear.
Of course, that just means goods will pile up on loading docks at origin.
Bullwhip effect in full effect. 

According to data released by the Marine Exchange of Southern California, there were 87 container ships in the vicinity of the two ports on that day.
Twenty-seven ships were in berths and 60 were waiting (either anchored or floating in drift zones) offshore.
The number of ships waiting was down from a record-high of 73 on September 19, 2021.
The two ports have had unusually large numbers of waiting ships since June 2020.
Before then, cargo ships rarely waited to unload.

Ship backlogs at ports are not limited to Los Angeles.
Elsewhere in the United States, ports in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and Texas have faced similar challenges, according to news reports.
Meanwhile, China’s Yantian port in Shenzhen has more than 67 container ships waiting, partly because tropical cyclone Kompasu caused the port to temporarily close.
Ports in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai all had 10 or more container ships waiting in mid-October, according to Bloomberg.

NASA-funded researchers have used satellites and other tools to track different ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed aspects of human activity and its impact on the environment.
Researchers have tracked indicators ranging from air pollution and night time light activity and shipping.
In particular, the Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been using artificial intelligence technology and high-resolution satellite imagery to track shipping activity at major U.S. ports.

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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Diver discovers 900-year-old sword dating to the Crusades

Diver Discovers 900-Year-Old Sword Off Israeli Coast
A four-foot-long sword dating back to the Third Crusade was found on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.
From NYTimes By Eduardo Medina

Diver Discovers 900-Year-Old Sword Dating to the Crusades

The sword, recovered off the coast of Israel, most likely belonged to a knight who fell into the sea or lost the weapon in battle, experts said. 

It was amazing, amazing to see a beautiful sword like this.
That means that behind all the conglomerate shells and the stones that we have under the — we have under the — underneath, there is a real good preservation sword made of iron, most of it made of iron, except probably the handle, which usually were made of wood or any other material.
We also assuming that this Crusader knight was belong to the community of knights that were sitting on the citadel of Atlit, because it’s not so far from there.
And we assuming right now, because it’s the beginning of the research, we have to clean it, we have to do a X-ray before that, and then we will get some more information about the sword.

A four-foot-long sword dating back to the Third Crusade was found on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.CreditCredit...Shlomi Katzin

Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.

On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword.

Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.

It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Image of the week : ice mesmerizing in Russia

Nothern part of Severny Island, Russia
Sentinel-2 satellite image acquired in August 2020 
Localization with the GeoGarage platform (NGA nautical raster chart)

Friday, October 22, 2021

Ancient with a dash of modern: we joined the Royal Navy to find there's little new in naval navigation

From The Register by Gareth Corfield
Following the Fleet Navigating Officers' course
The art of not driving your warship into the coast or the seabed is a curious blend of the ancient and the very modern, as The Regdiscovered while observing the Royal Navy's Fleet Navigating Officers' (FNO) course.
Safe navigation at sea is vital for all mariners and the Admiralty manual of navigation captures centuries of @RoyalNavy experience in this field.
Held aboard HMS Severn, "sea week" of the FNO course involves taking students fresh from classroom training and putting them on the bridge of a real live ship – and then watching them navigate through progressively harder real-life challenges.

"It's about finding where the students' capacity limit is," FNO instructor Lieutenant Commander Mark Raeburn told The Register.
Safety comes first: the Navy isn't interested in having navigators who can't keep up with the pressures and volume of information during pilotage close to shore – or near enemy minefields.

So the student navigator hopes, anyway.

RN Navigation Training Unit

Driving (all of the officers we spoke to aboard Severn referred to it as driving and not sailing or steaming) a warship, as we reported during the course itself, is a highly skilled art that depends on precisely planning what you want the ship to do – and then having a clear enough mind to modify that plan on the fly depending on what the outside world is doing.

HMS Severn's pelorus, mounted centrally on the bridge

Second Officer Will Salloway, 26, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary* student on the FNO course, told The Register: "There's a lot of planning to do in a short timeframe.
That can be quite tough, coming out with a safe plan which has everything you need in it while being able to manage the pressures… you spend three hours on bridge managing the runs, on top of that and planning you've gotta eat and sleep."

"It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

Bobbin' on the oggin'

The essence of the FNO course is safely taking the ship to and from an anchorage, or navigating through tricky inshore waters, while maintaining appropriate safety margins.
For a surface ship this means staying away from a not-quite-imaginary line of critical importance: the Limiting Danger Line, or LDL.
The LDL is a depth that must never be passed in case the ship runs aground.
It's calculated by adding the ship's keel depth plus the squat for her planned speed** plus a margin on top, and then drawing "do not cross" lines on the chart.

Each FNO student plans and carries out six live navigation runs in control of the Severn: three "development" passages with FNO instructors coaching them throughout and giving them feedback, and three exam runs where assessors specially embarked for the course quietly watch the students going through their paces and decide if they pass or fail.
The ship herself travelled along Britain's south coast, dipped in and out of Plymouth and then dropped south to the Channel Islands' large tides and tidal stream variations before returning to her home base at Portsmouth.

The view down HMS Severn's pelorus-mounted gyrocompass

The course concentrates on navigating a ship without GPS.
Taking away the external you-are-here service leaves the navigator aboard Severn with three manually sighted gyro-compasses*** and the heart of naval navigation, the Warship Electronic Chart Display and Information System (WECDIS, pronounced by all as "weck-diss").

Naval pilotage means planning a precise track from a position out at sea to an anchorage – or from an anchorage back out to sea, following a marked channel or passing through an area with a strong tidal stream and lots of other maritime traffic.
The navigator then keeps the ship to within yards of her planned track and turning points along the track.
On top of that, the navigator also plans wheel-over points; the spot where the wheel must be turned to a set angle so the ship precisely meets the next planned leg.
In this regard, naval pilotage planning is an exacting science.

Tidal stream predictions off St Peter Port, Guernsey

Contact with the real world's weather and tides introduces an element of "fun" as one instructor whimsically observed.

For the student navigator, fixing your position means putting two of your fellow students on the external gyro-compasses to call out bearings, a third on the surface radar and a fourth on the WECDIS console, mounted in Severn behind the central gyro-compass on the ship's pelorus.
That team then works the maths and the technology together, all in perfect harmony with the navigator's prepared passage plan.

HMS Severn's bridge radar plot.
One of the FNO students keeps an eye on nearby ships and the coast, seen as the big yellow line

Taking bearings off shore landmarks or nautical navigation marks (lighthouses and prominent buildings by day, flashing lights by night) with a gyro-compass hasn't changed much since compasses were introduced to seafaring: you look down the compass towards the mark, read off the bearing and record it.
Severn's concession to modernity is that her gyro-compasses have a modest internal telescope and illumination for night readings.

A navigation buoy marking the channel into Plymouth harbour

Yet in modern naval navigation, that ancient art of eyeballing the bearings is married to a modern computer system that constantly integrates and updates bearings to produce a live plot of where the ship ought to be.

A WECDIS screen aboard HMS Severn.

It's a curious blend of an old art with up-to-date technology that complements both: for eyes used to instantly seeing the answers to life, the universe and everything presented on a computer, the digital displays telling the bridge crew where the ship is located are curiously reassuring.
Reading bearings to navigation marks would be equally familiar to sailors from the mid-19th century.

During the course safety comes first: the captain and instructors can see a GPS-enabled WECDIS display showing precisely where the ship is, and can intervene if something unsafe is about to happen.

We've got windows – glass ones, not the operating system

Although the FNO course is usually loaded with eight students, during the week that El Reg joined the Severn we had just four: two from the surface fleet; one from submarines; and one from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
Severn's captain, Commander Philip Harper, mused that each student's professional naval experience brought something different to their navigational technique.

For example, submarine navigation normally takes place underwater, so submariner students on the FNO course tend to start off by gazing at the screens on the bridge instead of looking outside.

Portland speed/distance/time analogue calculator, used on the FNO course

Lieutenant Jack Crallan, a 32-year-old submariner who was a physics teacher before joining the Navy, agreed: "Biggest difference for me is being able to see things! I'm usually looking at my notebook and listening to the numbers and not looking out of the window.
But on a submarine the only information you have is bearings."

Although the process of pilotage (navigation close to shore) is inherently mathematical, the FNO students insisted you didn't need to be a numerical genius to keep the ship safe ("I got a U in A-level maths," joked one).

Royal Fleet Auxiliary navigator's notebook and quick-reference table

Lieutenant Matt Cavill, 29, who has a degree in molecular cell biology, said of the above quick-reference tables: "When someone works out a distance off track or a distance to run, that's all done off a single bearing in their notebook most likely.
When someone works out a time to regain, or a distance to regain, then they are using mental maths but it's fairly basic – some people can do speed/distance/time [on the fly], it comes relatively easily to me.
I do have a note of easy numbers, though!"

Fellow student Lt Crallan added: "There are a lot of maths tricks as well.
We tend to do something of 12 or 15 or 30 very easily; that's the sine rule.
You can do trigonometry in your head if you pick the right numbers."

Staying in clear water

On the FNO course it's not enough to leave the maths to WECDIS.
From watching the navigation runs, it was clear that whoever was navigating was expected to use the electronic plot to help them form their own mental picture of where the ship was at any given moment, not as a crutch for leaning on.

To the non-nautical observer, RN pilotage is a bewildering verbal stream of bearings, marks, yards, chains, timings, and jargon.
The WECDIS operator is constantly updating bearings on his console behind the navigator, who occasionally darts from the pelorus to a bridge window or shouts "heads" so everyone in front of him ducks while he's taking a sighting.
Outside the bridge his fellow students use loudspeakers to call bearings in – whether once, on request when two landmarks pass in transit (in line with each other) or (most often) in a regular stream.

HMS Severn's captain, Cdr Philip Harper, observes a nearby ship.
Note the "cone of shame" over the ship's master GPS-enabled WECDIS plot so the student navigator (standing behind Cdr Harper) can't cheat

Beside the navigator, in a large and comfortable chair, sits the captain – or his right-hand man, the ship's executive officer, with whom he alternates during FNO runs and debriefs.
The navigator's job is to keep the captain updated on what he's doing; RN captains are often not qualified navigators themselves.

Salloway explained: "If you're the nav of a ship, that's what it's like for real.
If your CO [commanding officer] is busy… all while you're driving a possibly inexperienced team, going into a port you're not familiar with where there could be certain risks or threats.
Being able to be in the position we're in now, a safe training environment… It's really helpful for the future."

As well as the "simple" navigation challenge, the course puts its students through a serious test of nerve in the Solent.
On a calm and sunny Friday this stretch of sea, captured between the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Southampton, plays host to scores of small sailing boats and powered vessels.

An RAF-liveried motor launch passes HMS Severn on the Solent in September 2021

Keeping to the planned navigation track in the Solent becomes an exercise in instinctively knowing the nautical Rules of the Road, keeping radio calls to, from and between other traffic in mind – and knowing how to navigate back on track after cutting a corner or extending a leg to safely avoid another vessel.
The students made it look effortless even as your correspondent tried and failed to follow the basic navigation plot by gazing at the WECDIS screen.

"Why am I doing this, or why would I do this in future?" mused Lt Dom Jacobs, 24, one of the FNO students.
"If you're running along an enemy coastline, blacked out, running along so you can get the main weapon into arcs so you can shoot [along] that river or feature… it gives us confidence.
It's all good things to help build capacity for when it all goes wrong – or we're at war.
Because that's what we're here for."

It's not all work and no joy aboard the Severn.
Here is the location on the Isle of Wight where Britain's Black Arrow rocket testing programme was based

It might seem from an outside glance that naval navigation would depend on technology but, putting aside the speed and spare mental capacity that WECDIS gives the navigator, it's really a very low-tech endeavour.

"You should see the specialist navigator course," remarked one of the FNO instructors during a night-time run.
"They use sextants."

Perhaps if there's a next time...

The Register thanks the Royal Navy, in particular: Commander Philip Harper, CO of HMS Severn; the warm and welcoming ship's company of HMS Severn; and the ever-patient students and directing staff of the Fleet Navigating Officer's Course.


*The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is the nominally civilian arm of Britain's Naval Service, the military arm being the RN itself.
The RFA runs the Ministry of Defence's fleet of tankers and naval supply vessels that feed, rearm and refuel the Navy at sea.
**When a boat or ship propels herself through water, her stern sinks lower than the rest of the hull depending how fast she's going.
This can be precisely calculated and the Royal Navy has tables for all of its ships giving the squat at known speeds.
***Severn has a sextant hanging on her bridge.
Your correspondent managed to clonk his head on it, mercifully while everyone else was looking the other way.
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