Preble’s Flag: An Emerging Navy Fights Chinese Pirates
In December 2017, staff from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum unexpectedly rediscovered a number of flags from the 19th century, including flags from the Spanish-American War and the Korean Expedition of 1871. They had been thought long-lost, since no one had seen them in more than a century. One of the uncovered flags was captured from a Chinese pirate by George Henry Preble, a young Navy lieutenant in his first command. That flag symbolized more than a tactical operation. It represented the significance of international partnerships, matching naval platforms to meet the mission, and embodies the value of preserving and understanding naval heritage. As such, this oft-overlooked historical episode merits the attention of leaders today.
Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan for the second time in February 1854. This fleet, larger than the one he brought on his first visit, was composed of ten ships, including the former frigate USS Macedonian, a sloop of war under the command of War of 1812 veteran Capt. Joel Abbot. The Macedonian remained with the fleet until the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in March. Following his success in Japan, Perry divided the fleet and sent a squadron to survey the Chinese coast.
Although Japan had just become a new market for the Americans, commerce with China had been continuous since 1785, when the Philadelphia merchant ship Canton made the voyage to new shores. As with most international and domestic trade, pirates began preying on the unprotected ships. On Sept. 1, 1854, Perry ordered the charter of the local steamer Queen to patrol the coast between Hong Kong and Macau at a monthly cost of $750. American steamships had plied the local waters since at least 1830 when the Forbes became the first steamer to visit Macao. The Chinese called it Fo Shune — Fire-Ship.
Abbot placed Lt. George Henry Preble in command of the Queen, 40 sailors and 14 marines. Five decades before, Preble’s more famous uncle — Commodore Edward Preble — had commanded the third squadron against Tripolitan ships that had been preying on American commerce. One of the younger Preble’s first memories of being anchored off the city of Canton was watching the rebel forces of the Red Turban Revolt attacking the city and captured rebels being beheaded. Eventually, the Queen would have a standard complement of 27, including several Chinese liaisons. “The rebellion,” he wrote to his wife, “is likely to be as interminable as the war of the Roses.”
The Queen proved to be an able craft with a shallow enough draft to chase local pirates closer to shore and up the river. Queen was the only American ship up against numerous pirate ships and fortresses. On Nov. 2, Preble charged into Tylo Bay where he was fired upon by ten Chinese pirate junks. After 20 minutes of battle, testing the water depths and range of his weapons, Preble turned and requested international assistance. Nearby, Admiral Sir James Stirling commanded HMS Winchester, a 52-gun fourth-rate ship-of-the-line, along with a squadron of Royal Navy ships that included the six-gun paddle sloops HMS Barracouta and HMS Styx, as well as HMS Encounter, a 14-gun screw sloop. The anti-piracy flotilla grew with the chartering of two more local steam boats and the Portuguese ship Amazonia. Preble was joined by small boats from the British squadron as the Queen towed six boats from the Encounter. On the afternoon of Nov. 3, the boats landed and set fire to both pirate ships and encampment. Preble returned with his first trophy: a large, inscribed flag belonging to the chief pirate, Lue Ming Suy Ming.
Three days later, Stirling organized an expedition to attack the pirates at Kulan on Tylo Island — likely modern Dawanshan Island based on the description of a Royal Navy officer. Preble immediately volunteered. The anti-piracy flotilla engaged the defended pirate town of Kulan and other sites on Nov. 13. Preble recalled to his wife that “the whistling of the pirate shot was sharp and neighborly.” The small boats landed with a force of nearly 350 British, Portuguese, Chinese, and Americans. As the force went ashore, Preble estimated that his crew killed up to 5o pirates, though not without cost, as one of his own sailors fell. The Americans and British reached the fortress, seizing the guns. The American Consul to Hong Kong, James Keenan, fought with a British officer over a flag that Keenan had cut down from the fortress. Preble recounted in his letter that it was “ornamented with very curious devices, and is undoubtedly the flag of the chief pirate.” He sent this, along with ten other flags taken during the various operations, to the Department of the Navy.
Following their successful attack, the flotilla sighted 60 pirate junks under a single commander who deftly avoided defeat by signaling his allegiance to the Chinese government; shortly thereafter, he would command the Chinese imperial fleet. “This unexpected union,” Preble wrote to his wife, “brings our Expedition to a sudden conclusion.” Stirling appeared impressed enough with Preble’s gallantry that he wrote to Abbott encouraging further joint efforts against pirates. The expeditions were widely reported in the Hong Kong papers.
Six months later, Preble gave up command of the Queen and was ordered to the American steamship Confucius, a sidewheel paddle steamer, to escort merchant ships near Fuzhou. He again encountered and destroyed several pirate ships. “The whole coast between [Shanghai] and Amoy,” he wrote, “is infested by piratical hordes, which greatly endanger and annoy commerce.” On the third of August, the Confucius participated in a joint British operation against another pirate fleet.
Preble’s actions are not generally taught in naval history classes, nor are many similar, comparatively minor operations. They are often obscured by greater events, such as the War of 1812 or the Great White Fleet, with wider impact to the American Navy and the nation. This fact is particularly evident in naval history, which is taught in two or three weekly classes over the course of a 16-week semester. Nevertheless, even comparatively minor operations can provide important lessons.
First, international partnerships are an important aspect of maritime security. Maintaining free and open commerce on the oceans requires bilateral and multi-national partnerships and agreements. Hong Kong and other Chinese ports were important to British trade in 1854, but the empire needed the Royal Navy more critically and immediately for Crimean War operations, primarily in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. Even a dominant naval power like Britain in the 19th century, hampered as it was by the war, could not patrol all major shipping routes and coastlines. Absent that ability, a naval power needs to work with other nations, such as modern navies did off the coast of Somalia in the past decade with Combined Task Force 151, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, and the former NATO Operation Ocean Shield. American participation in the 1854 to 1855 expedition against Chinese pirates represented a nascent force that recognized the value of cooperation with partners both large and small to maintain regional security and the Royal Navy’s paternal approach to organizing and guiding its offspring. The historical significance of the multi-national operation was not lost on Preble, who realized that it was likely the first expedition to include Englishmen, Americans, Portuguese, and Chinese as allies. This is significant, even though American and British navies had already collaborated against pirates in the Mediterranean and West Indies in the past.
Second, small boats are essential in conducting maritime security and irregular operations. Captain Abbot, in command of a sloop, found his ship unable to conduct anti-piracy operations in the shallow waters around the islands near Macau. The private, commercial steamship Queen offered the shallow draft and maneuverability absent with the USS Macedonian. Macedonian served an important purpose as a mothership. Queen, however, engaged the slower Chinese pirate junks close to shore. As others have pointed out, small boats and irregular warfare have been a constant in U.S. naval operations since the American Revolution, and have built American sea power as much as large ships have in wartime. Moreover, additional smaller boats offer junior officers an opportunity to command — admittedly a risk since those opportunities can result in success or failure, but no more so than with major combatants. Other officers from the Macedonian had turned down the opportunity to command the Queen but appeared to have regretted it after they saw what Preble could do with its littoral capabilities.
The third and final lesson is the value of naval artifacts and their role in informing sailors and the general public about history and heritage. Heritage assets can be misinterpreted or deemed unacceptable or offensive by extremists who destroy them such as at Bamiyan, Palmyra, or Mali. Conversely, enlightened civilizations and nations can preserve and exhibit historical artifacts belonging to them and to those whom they once opposed. In 1815, Congress appropriated $500 for the preservation of enemy flags (trophy flags) captured in combat. President James K. Polk issued an executive order in 1849 directing that all trophy flags captured by U.S. naval forces be preserved at the Naval Academy. A congressional act in 1912 directed that trophy flags from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and other expeditions be preserved and displayed in cases in Mahan Hall at the Naval Academy. Congress appropriated $35,000 (approximately $850,000 today) for flag preservationist Amelia Fowler and her team of 40 seamstresses to preserve the War of 1812 flags. Fowler was hired two years later to conserve the Star-Spangled Banner.
George Henry Preble was also deeply aware of the value of history and properly recording events. In December 1852, Perry prohibited diaries, letters to newspapers and magazines, or private letters to friends that discussed squadron movements. This was curious, since two decades earlier Perry had led the charge of junior officers who had been threatened with punishment if they communicated with the media. Preble defied directions by framing his diary as simple letters home to his wife. He later collected and published them (he was certainly not the only one, nor the last to do so). In 1872, Preble wrote the first book on the history of the American flag. In 1873, he took the first known photo of the Star-Spangled Banner that had flown over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
Just as the Star-Spangled Banner was removed for preservation and restoration two decades ago by the Smithsonian Institution, after a century of being hung the War of 1812 flags were deteriorating and needed to be removed from Mahan Hall for preservation. In 2017, the Naval History and Heritage Command provided the Naval Academy Museum with funds specifically for the removal and preservation of the flags. After the glass was cut from the cases, conservators removed the faded British flags and, as they did so, saw additional flags and banners that had not been seen in more than a century. A 1913 catalog had photos of the cases, but retired museum historians thought the flags had since been lost or at best were there but had deteriorated beyond repair. Instead, flags from the Spanish-American War, the 1871 Korean Expedition, and one from Preble’s piracy raids of 1854 to 1855 had remained , looking as if they had just been mounted yesterday. At the Naval Academy they will be preserved and exhibited for current and future generations to promote discussions about war and peace, strategies and tactics, and current affairs and history.
Claude Berube is a contributing editor to War on the Rocks. He is Director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum and teaches in the History Department. The views expressed are his own and not those of any organization with which he is affiliated. Twitter @cgberube