THERE is an echo from history in the news that the Royal Navy might have to take action against piracy in the South China Sea. They have fought many similar battles in these waters, right from the time that Hongkong was founded. There have always been pirates in this region. There was the great Ming patriot Koxinga who drove the Dutch out of Taiwan and held the high seas against the invading Tartars; the formidable Mrs Cheng whose buccaneers defeated a combined fleet of 93 Chinese Imperial war junks and six Portuguese vessels at Chek Lap Kok in 1809; and there were the Japanese ''dwarf robbers''. When the British arrived in 1841 the area was infested by pirates. Sir George Bonham was the first Hongkong Governor to do anything sensible about the problem. Already a veteran pirate fighter, Sir George had freed the waters of Singapore and Malaya of this menace by the simple device of disguising his warships as harmless Arab traders. When the pirates attacked, Bonham's ''Q Boats'' blew them out of the water. However, in Hongkong the Royal Navy had great difficulty telling the difference between an innocent fishing junk and a dastardly pirate. But Bonham was a practical man. He asked the Imperial Chinese Navy for help. With Chinese Mandarins aboard, the Royal Navy gunboats cleared the China coast of pirate junks in two years. From 1849 to 1850 British sailors of the China Station were awarded GBP76,690 in prize money. This was too much for the British Admiralty which had to foot the bill. It stopped giving financial rewards for the capture of pirates. In one incident, the crew of HMS Medea received GBP8,100 for sinking 13 pirate junks at Kat O. Chinese Commissioner Su was so delighted that he offered to pay for the gunboat's coal. When Bonham declined the offer the generous Mandarin presented the crew of the Medea with eight oxen, eight sheep, eight boxes of tea, eight barrels of sugar candy, eight barrels of dried lung ngan, eight barrels of dried lychees and eight baskets of dried oranges. The Royal Navy also relied on the intelligence supplied by Daniel Caldwell, at one time the assistant superintendent of police. In 1857, the great American pirate Eli Boggs was arrested. In his defence Boggs accused Ma Chow-wong, a bum-boat proprietor, and Caldwell of being the real villains. The chief of police, Charles May was deeply suspicious. He discovered that Ma Chow-wong and Caldwell were running a protection racket. If the pirates chiefs refused to pay Ma Chow-wong squeeze, Caldwell turned informer and the Royal Navy would sink the pirates' junks. It didn't help Caldwell's case when a British ship, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebmoy, raided a Chinese village near Macau. It had been hired by the comprador of P & O, Tam Achoy, who was waging a deadly vendetta against the village elders. When Tam and his British captain appeared in court charged with buccaneering, their defence was that Caldwell, who was Registrar-General at the time, had given them permission. To everybody's embarrassment this proved to be true. The Caldwell case was one of the great scandals of the last century. In the end Boggs was deported, Ma Chow-wong transported and Caldwell dismissed. Other casualties included two Attorney-Generals and the Governor Sir John Bowring who had unwisely thrownhis support behind the corrupt Caldwell. Hijacking boats was also popular. Pirates would board one of the hundreds of steamers which plied the China coast posing as passengers. Once underway, they would take over the ship, rob the passengers and steal the cargo. To prevent this happening, mostships' bridges were barricaded and carried armed guards. Early this century the Yau Ma Tei ferry was hijacked in the middle of Victoria Harbour. The ferry carried no cargo and the passengers were described as a ''number of Chinese girls of questionable repute''. The pirates took the ferry up the Pearl River where they escaped by capturing a passing junk. The police, who were totally bewildered by the audacity of the crime, arrested the innocent ferry crew. The pirates did not always get away with it. When the Irene was captured in 1927, HMS Submarine L4 steamed to the rescue. The Royal Navy boarded the ship, rescued 220 passengers and arrested the buccaneers. Unfortunately during the heat of the battle the Irene caught fire and sank. The Chinese Nationalist Government, which owned the vessel, accused the Royal Navy of ''flagrant aggression and disregard for international law''. They even tried to sue the captain of the L4. Since World War II there has been little piracy in the region - until recently. With the Royal Navy on the job I will feel much safer every time I take the Discovery Bay Ferry.