On this date in 1891, Chinese authorities beheaded 15 at Kowloon, including the leaders of the then-notorious Namoa pirates.
They were nicknamed for the steamer they had infamously commandeered six months before. The tale is related by an English maritime official’s orientalist (and now public-domain) memoir, The Mystic Flowery Land:
The most daring and disastrously successful piracy of late years … was the “Namoa” piracy in 1890. The startling news of this outrage created a general feeling of unsafety and consternation among the foreign communities in China, mingled with grief and just resentment for the cold-blooded murder of Captain Pocock and Mr. Petersen, both most popular and respected men, the latter being a member of the Customs Service.
On Sunday, the 3rd of December, 1890, the Douglas, Lapraik, and Co‘s coasting steamer, “Namoa,” commanded by my late most esteemed friend Capt. Pocock,* left Hongkong at noon, bound on her usual trip up the coast to Swatow, Amoy, and Foochow with several European and a large number of Chinese passengers, most of the latter being Fuhkien people returning to their native homes after many years absence in the United States and California, each with his little hoard of hard-earned dollars, gained by a small lifetime of frugal toil and self-denial in a distant land. These poor men were nearing their well-remembered haunts of earlier days, to once more spend among the relations and friends of their youth the fast-approaching New Year.
Several Chinese passengers [during the voyage] came up out of the main between-decks and walked about for some minutes in a seemingly aimless manner; then others emerged from the hatch, until there were between forty and fifty on deck — some forward near the hatchway leading down to the junior officers’ mess, others near the bridge ladder and entrance to engine-room and stokehole, and the rest at the main hatchway, saloon entrances and after skylight.
Suddenly, at a given signal, off came their loose outer garments, and these harmless-looking passengers were armed men; each with a cutlass and two revolvers in hand, and at their appointed stations.
The ship was now entirely in the hands of the pirates, whose leader placed one of the gang at the helm, with directions to steer a certain course.
The attack had been planned and carried out with consummate tact and forethought, for the pirates were old hands — desperate scoundrels … two or three ventured below … among their terror-stricken countrymen, and ransacked their luggage, robbing them of their treasured packets of dollars, saved during long and lonesome years of comparative exile and drudgery. Every cent was taken from these poor fellows, who wept in vain, and heart-rending scenes ensued. But the wretches took all.
Then [the European passengers] were all driven into the captain’s little berth, which was barely large enough to hold them all, where they were nearly suffocated.
At this point, the pirates steam off to rendezvous with their confederates, transfer their persons and their booty to the getaway ships, and — after debating whether to burn the Namoa — instead abandon the ship unsunk and the hostages unkilled.
These put the ship to rights and got it back to Hong Kong.
Public indignation was great, and considerable pressure was brought to bear on the Chinese Government to bring the pirates to justice. Skilled foreign and Chinese detectives were sent out on their track, doggedly determined to run these criminals to earth and make them pay the full penalty of their dastardly deeds.
… most, if not all, of these notorious crime-hardened criminals were eventually brought to justice, suffering decapitation outside Kowloon city, the majority of them being executed on Monday, April 17th, 1891, and the remaining nineteen on Thursday, 11th May, of the same year.**
The pirates were such big news that posed photos were taken of their public executions. (Both images are detail views; click for the full picture.)
For some time great precautions were taken by the captains and officers of coasting steamers to search the luggage of all native passengers, and thus guard against a similar catastrophe.
** According to a tome on legal administration in Hong Kong, the pirates were beheaded in batches mixed in with other criminals.
A wholesale execution took place at Kowloon City on the 17th April, 1891, when nineteen pirates were decapitated, thirteen of them for participating in the Namoa and other piracies, and six others for various offences in Chinese territory … on the 11th May fifteen more prisoners were beheaded at Kowloon by the Chinese authorities, amongst the number being six Namoa pirates, including the three leaders of the gang, one of the men being the captain of the junks on board which the pirates put their plunder … One of the leaders decapitated, named Lai A Tsat, was a man whose boldness and cunning in carrying out piracies had long made him a terror both at sea and on shore.