Chinese fire-rafts as illustrated in the Wujing Zongyao, a military treatise written in 1044 during the Song Dynasty. This demonstrates the antiquity of such devices.

An illustration of a fireship from a book written about 1553 by the Chinese imperial official Li Chao-Hsiang, superintendent of the Dragon River Shipyard near Nanking. The Chinese devoted a great deal of ingenuity into making fireships look like ordinary warships. The main trick was to conceal the boat in which the crew would make their escape. In the `mother-and-child’ boat the escape-boat was completely concealed within the after part of the hull, and appeared only when the victim had been rammed and set on fire. To make the principle clearer, the escape-boat in the picture is more visible than it would have been in reality. At the bow we see the `wolf’s-teeth nails’ which secured the fireship to its victim.

The Chinese fireship represented here also derives from Li Chao-Hsiang’s book about the Dragon River Shipyard. We can see it is a kind of combination-vessel, with the fastenings amidships working on the hook-and-eye principle. At the bow the `wolf’steeth nails’ were rammed into the opponent’s hull, the rockets and fire-missiles which are to be seen in the forward part of the hull were ignited, and the crew made their escape from aft. In this arrangement, too, the escape-boat for the fireship crew was invisible.

Fireships were becoming increasingly popular in Europe by the beginning of the seventeenth century. But these destructive inventions were not limited to the West. Fireships were also used by the Imperial Chinese Navy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their deployment and the deception of the enemy that went with them formed a well-understood part of the general Art of War.

In China, naval skirmishes occurred for the most part in rivers or in the mouths of estuaries, rather than on the open sea, for in these relatively calm waters it was possible to make use of favourable tides and currents, which were ideal for fireships. There are even descriptions of successful fireship attacks from Chinese antiquity, one example being the battle of the Red Cliffs, fought on the Yangtze-Kiang in 208 AD. One side set alight a large number of boats laden with brushwood and oil, and these `fireships’ caused such panic among the enemy ships that they were run aground on the banks, with huge loss of life.

About 1553 there appeared a book written by Li Chao-Hsiang (Li ZhaoXiang), the superintendent of a large and important installation near Nanking called the Dragon River Shipyard. In this book, which is illustrated with woodcuts, he discusses historic vessels and events, from which it is clear that in China, just as in Europe, there were a number of specialised types of ship, and men of seemingly limitless inventiveness. As regards fireships, for the Chinese the most obvious problem was that of getting the ship within striking distance of an enemy without raising his suspicions. This was not regarded as purely a function of technology, but also a matter of psychology: how to exploit the enemy’s wishes and expectations. For example, in the fourteenth century (by the Western calendar), there was an incident in which one of the warring parties managed to convince the other that some of its ships intended to defect, and as a result they were allowed to come near – too near, as it transpired, when it became clear that they were fireships and there was no way to avoid them.

In his book, Li Chao-Hsiang discusses several technical tricks from the Chinese Art of War that could be used to disguise a fireship. Prominent among these were various methods developed by the shipbuilders of constructing the hull in two parts, either in tandem or side by side. The original function of these `two-part’ junks was to divide on reaching shallow water, since each half drew less water than the whole ensemble. The fireship variation of the principle was built so that one part of the vessel – the inflammable `business end’, so to speak – could be made fast to the enemy, while the crew used the other section to make their escape. The combination-vessel looked harmless enough as it approached, because one sure sign of a fireship was missing: a boat in tow, ready for the crew to make their escape. Li Chao-Hsiang described it as follows:

A vessel of this type is about fourteen metres long, and from a distance looks just like an ordinary ship. But in reality, there are two parts to it, with the forward section making up about one third, and the after part two thirds of the length. These are bound together with hooks and rings, the forward part being loaded with explosives, smoke-bombs, stones and other missiles, besides fire emitting toxic smoke. At the bow are dozens of barbed nails with their sharp tips pointing forward; above this are several blunderbusses, while the after part carries the crew and is equipped with oars. Should wind and current be favourable when they meet an enemy vessel, they set a collision course, ram the bow as hard as possible into the enemy’s bulwarks, and at the same moment let go the fastenings between the two sections, and the after part heads back to its base.

A variant of this vessel was the `mother-and-child boat’, a perfectly camouflaged fireship about twelve metres in length. The forward part was seven metres long and was built like a warship, while the after section, 5.25m long, consisted of a framework with what appeared from a distance to be the sides of the vessel separated only by a scaffolding, which supported the big balanced rudder and concealed the oar-propelled escape-boat. On either side of the bow there were `wolf’s-teeth nails’ and sharp iron spikes to prevent boarding. The attack was made by ramming the enemy ship, which was then held fast with grapnels, and at the same time distracting the victim with a hail of arrows, stones and other missiles. The vessel was loaded with reeds, firewood and flax saturated with inflammable material and bound together with big black-powder fuzes. Once it had been ignited and the enemy was on fire, the daughter-boat was cut loose and the crew made their escape.

Europeans would encounter such weapons when their desire for commercial expansion brought them into conflict with the Chinese. The Portuguese first came to China about 1516, and by the following year an ambassador had visited the Chinese capital and obtained permission for merchants to establish themselves and transact business in the trading centre of Canton. For a long time the Portuguese were the only foreigners with this privilege, which they later tried to turn into a total monopoly of the export trade in the waters of southern China on the basis of their military strength. They expected to repeat the success they had enjoyed in India, but in 1521 and 1522 the Chinese decisively defeated them at sea, and when trade was resumed it was on Chinese and not Portuguese terms. The merchants switched to smuggling, and when the authorities found they could not stamp this out completely, in 1587 they permitted the Portuguese to set up a trading post on the island of Macao, at the mouth of the Pearl river. This was the foundation for the Portuguese monopoly of trade between China and Japan.

For decades the Portuguese suffered no competition from other Europeans and made huge profits, but at the beginning of the seventeenth century the first Dutch fleets began to poach upon the preserves of their colonial empire. The sea power of the Dutch slowly increased after the foundation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602; Molucca came under their sway, and the town of Batavia was established on Java, on the Sunda Strait. Apart from some minor setbacks, Dutch merchants enjoyed great success in Asia, but they could not get a toehold in China. They failed to establish a permanent trading post on the mainland, never winning the trust of Chinese high officials. In the Middle Kingdom the `red barbarians’ were considered cunning and greedy. The only notable thing about them was their powerful ships, with their double-planking and `rigging like a spider’s web’.

In the year 1622 the Governor of the VOC in Batavia gathered enough courage to take his fleet on an offensive against the Portuguese in Macao, in an attempt to take over the China trade by force. However, the attack was repulsed and the Dutch proceeded to the Pescadore Islands in the Formosa Strait, where they began work on a fortified strong-point. At the same time they tried to set up a permanent trading base in Amoy (Xiamen), but just as before, their negotiations with the mandarins went nowhere, and they failed.

The Dutch now decided to use a trade war and a blockade to force the Chinese government to trade with them. Thus in January 1623 a VOC fleet raided the coasts of Fukien and Kwantung in south China, destroying the huts of the farmers and reducing the trading junks in the little coastal ports to ashes. This was a poverty-stricken part of the country, and the Chinese military were powerless to stop them ashore. At sea, the navy could not stand up to the heavily armed vessels of the Dutch, but there was one thing it could do: attack with fireships. The fireship was the one Chinese weapon that inspired fear in the Europeans.

As previously mentioned, Chinese fireships were normally deployed in rivers and estuary mouths, for the most part disguised as fishing boats, so the apparently innocent craft could drift down on the anchored Indiamen at all hours. However, the Dutch learned to moor their ships with two anchors, athwart the stream, so that if need be they could slip one, allowing the ship to swing round and avoid the attacker. The crews were kept on the alert, with the slow-match always burning and guns at the ready, so they could engage quickly; any suspicious vessel would be immediately brought under fire and sunk. Standing orders were nailed to the mainmast by the commandant of the fleet, with stiff penalties for disobedience: anyone absent from his post, or sleeping on watch, would be hauled up to the main yardarm and dropped into the water three times for the first offence; a second offence attracted fifty lashes; and if he further misbehaved, the ship’s council might decide it was a capital matter, and he would be hanged.

The VOC’s war on the Chinese state did not have the desired effect and, apart from gaining a seasonal trading permit which they had to renew every year, the Dutch again failed to establish themselves on the mainland. The strongpoint in the Pescadores had to be abandoned, and only in 1624, after building a fort and trading post on Formosa, did they gain indirect access to the lucrative China trade.

It was not just the Dutch who had to face the Chinese fireships. Among others who had to deal with them on the Pearl river were three English East Indiamen under the command of Captain John Weddell. The English ships were observed with hostility and suspicion by their competitors, the Portuguese, as they sailed up the river, trying to get as close as possible to Canton, the trading entrepot of the area. On board one of them was a remarkable man, Peter Mundy, a traveller who had roamed all over Europe and Asia recording his adventures and observations, and it is from his journal that we know what happened on the Pearl river on the dark night of 10 September 1637.

The three ships, the Anne, the Catherine and the Dragon, lay at anchor astern of one another, and at two in the morning the water was flowing quickly, with the ebb-tide reinforcing the normal current. They were expecting goods to arrive from Canton and did not think too much about it when they saw some junks sailing towards them. The Anne, the smallest of the three, lay furthest upstream, and at first it looked as if the junks were just going to sail past, but then they altered course to bring themselves athwart the hawse of the bigger Catherine. The alarm was raised and the junk was fired on, alerting the other ships. The shot appeared to act as a signal to the junks, which all at once burst into flames – they were fireships!

Immediately the English realised what was going on. The first two fireships were connected by chains, and then three more appeared, all steering for the English ships. However, they had no more time to observe, for they had to work flat out if they were to save their lives. Luckily it was almost the end of the ebb, and the current slackened somewhat, which gave them time to cut or slip their cables and make sail. Even more fortunately, just at that moment a light breeze sprang up, and having had the foresight to keep their boats in the water, they were quickly able to take the ships in tow. `The fire was vehement. Balls of wild fire, rockets and fire arrows flew thick as they passed us, But God be praised, not one of us all was touched.’

The night was lit up by blinding flames, which illuminated the hills above the river bank. And the noise as the fireships drifted by was unnerving, the cries of the Chinese crews aboard them blending with the crackling of burning bamboo and the whistling and hissing of rocket and fireworks canisters. In the light of the flames, the English watched as the men on the burning junks jumped into the water and swam for the shore. One of the junks ran aground at the level of the Indiamen, while two more drifted out of sight downstream, and one junk seemed to have been set on fire prematurely and burned out harmlessly, before she reached the English ships. Now they awaited a second attack while it was still dark, but after two hours the fireworks were finally over.

When day broke the English looked on the river banks for Chinese sailors who had abandoned the burning junks, but they found just one swimmer, who attempted to evade them by diving. Finally he was hooked with a pike and hauled aboard halfdead. Then behind an island they found the biggest of the fire-junks, which was still intact, having run aground before being set on fire. Peter Mundy learned about the appearance of this vessel from the crew of the boat:

This being full off dry wood, sticks, heath, hay, etc, thick interlaid with long small bags of gunpowder and other combustible stuff, also cases and chests of fire-arrows dispersed here and there in abundance, being so laid that might strike into ships’ hulls, masts, sails, etc, and to hang on shrouds, tackling, etc, having fastened to them small pieces of crooked wire to hitch and hang on any thing that should meet withal. Moreover, sundry booms on each side with 2 or 3 grapnels at each with iron chains; other also that hung down in the water to catch hold of cables, ground tackle, etc so that if they had but come to touch a ship, it were almost impossible but they catch and hold fast.

The English salvaged the grapnels and chains from the junk and then set it alight. `It burnt awhile so furiously that it consumed the grass on the side of the hill as far as a man could fling a stone; so that had they come within as they came without us, they had endangered us and at least driven us out.’

The Chinese sailor in the boat was patched up by the ship’s surgeon and survived, and was put in irons. The English learned from him that the fireship attack had been instigated by the Portuguese at Macao, and that the intention had been to catch the ships just at change of tide, when they would swing broadside to the stream and present a bigger target. Captain Weddell and his men had been very lucky.


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