Reading: Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

I was aiming for Dian H. Murray’s Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810, which is probably the definitive work on the subject in English. Alas! Have you seen the price for that? It’s like reading Michel Serres when the only translations were hardcover university press, for which said universities charged obscene amounts and I was reduced to photocopying below the sign that said “Do Not Photocopy Entire Books!” and accompanying security camera (thankfully now reprinted at normal person prices). Even I balk at haemorrhaging such quantities of euros for a book. So I settled on the second on the list, Robert J. Antony’s Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.

This fits in closely with Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates, and is so far the most concise and well-researched book on the subject (for which I have an unhealthy fascination) that I’ve come across. Antony describes his approach to history as coming from the bottom up, a little perhaps like Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, an approach that is by far my favourite; there are only so many books you can read on important men fighting each other before you get the general idea on a subject. Mostly I think Antony achieves this, though definitely not with the same depth and rigour of Hershatter.

Mainly I wanted to read this for the Cantonese pirate Jihng Sih (or Zhang Yi Sao) the wife of a pirate who rose to command hundreds of junks and tens of thousands of pirates. Sadly there wasn’t much, as Antony seemed to regard her husband Cheung Po Tsai (Zhang Bao) as the real leader, which doesn’t agree with what I’ve read to date. Nonetheless, Antony introduces me to a couple of other formidable woman pirates who made things miserable and provided much-needed trade along the South-China coast.

I still have my eye on Dian’s book, but in the meantime, for a quick, well-researched (though a little dry) introduction to the subject that is also affordable, Like Froth Floating on the Sea does the job.

Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China
Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China