SINCE time began, pirates have been the scourge of the South China Sea. A recent spate of piracy has been highlighted by the reappearance in December of the 'phantom' ship MV Tenyu at Zhangjiagang, under the assumed name of Sanei 1. The Tenyu vanished in September along with its $15 million cargo of aluminium ingots. A high-powered international piracy syndicate - spanning China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Burma - is thought to be involved. For years Japanese pirates, known to the Chinese as 'sea dwarfs', plundered the Pearl River Delta. In the middle of the 16th century, the Portuguese persuaded the Chinese to let them set up a 'dwarf catching station', which survives today and is known as Macau. Although the Japanese pirates were contained with the help of the Portuguese, ironically Macau spawned its own pirate, a Chinese Christian known as Captain China. When he died in 1625, his protege, Nicholas Iquan took over his fleet and captured Amoy, now Xiamen. From this base he became the terror of the China coast. The Dutch East India Company sent a fleet of galleons to Amoy to liquidate him, but Iquan beat them off and they were forced to return to Java. The Ming emperors solved the problem of Iquan in the traditional Chinese way. They persuaded him to give up buccaneering and become an admiral in the Chinese Imperial Navy and he was successful in his new career as a pirate hunter. With the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, Iquan tried to change sides again. He attempted to ally himself with the conquering Manchus but they murdered him. His son, Koxinga, took over his fleet and was probably the most successful pirate in the history of humankind. For years he waged a vicious private war against the Manchu Ching Dynasty. He also invaded Taiwan and drove the Dutch from their castle, Fortress Zeelandia. This gave him complete control of the South China Sea. With relentless fury he plundered the China coast. HE even planned to invade the Philippines which was a Spanish colony at the time. Only his death prevented this from happening. Although Koxinga's grandson did a deal with the Manchus and swapped Taiwan for a dukedom, piracy continued unabated. The problem was that China had no national navy. This had not always been the case. At one time it possessed a formidable fleet of 3,500 vessels, some as large as 130 metres long. The voyages of the eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho to Africa, India and the Red Sea are legendary. However, in 1527 the Emperor ordered all ocean-going junks to be destroyed, an edict that has puzzled historians for generations. The provincial fleets were no match for the pirates. In 1809, the woman pirate, Cheng I Sao, defeated a combined force of 93 war junks and six Portuguese vessels at Chek Lap Kok island, where the airport is today. However her two principal lieutenants and former lovers changed sides and became Manchu admirals. They persuaded Cheng to surrender as well. After China ceded Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking, the first governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the Mandarins in Canton to join forces and destroy the pirates. It was not until the arrival of Sir George Bonham, the third governor, that there was any real co-operation. In his previous post as Governor of the Straits Settlements, Singapore, Malacca and Penang, Bonham conducted a remarkably successful anti-pirate campaign. His favourite tactic was to disguise his gunboats as helpless Arab traders. When pirates attacked, Bonham's boats blasted them. It was Bonham who sent James Brooke to Brunei. Brooke, who was later made Raja of Sarawak, was largely responsible for the suppression of piracy in Borneo. Bonham realised that any successful campaign needed the co-operation of the Chinese. To everybody's surprise, Chinese Commissioner Su gave his tentative support. This resulted in the destruction of 13 pirate junks by HMS Medea at Kat O in 1849. Su was so pleased that he offered to pay for the steamer's coal. Bonham declined the offer, but the crew were presented with eight barrels of sugar candy, eight buffalo, eight sheep, eight baskets of dried oranges and other presents all in units of eight because the number is regarded as lucky. The Manchus provided Major-General Wang Hai-quang and eight Chinese war junks for the next expedition, which was to Hainan Island, where the notorious pirate Shap Ng-tsai and his lieutenant Chiu-Apoo were causing havoc. The intelligence supplied by the Chinese naval forces was vital. Chinese war junks battled side by side with the British gunboats, with Wang in the thick of the fighting. Edward Cree, the surgeon aboard HMS Fury, wrote in his diary: 'Our old General, Wang, showed some pluck in jumping overboard from one of the boats and swimming to a junk and capturing three of the pirates himself. 'They were so frightened at seeing one of their mandarins that they made no resistance.' Commander Dalrymple Hay claimed that in two days the combined British and Chinese might had sunk 64 junks and killed 1,700 pirates, with the loss of only one sailor. International co-operation improved as a result of the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860 and continued to improve when the Chinese navy started operating its own gunboats. Despite the vigilance of a dozen navies, piracy continued, but in a different form. In the old days when a sailing ship became becalmed, a dozen or so junks would appear out of nowhere and attack it. However, steamships proved too fast for the junks to catch. The new target of the pirates were the dozens of passenger steamers that plied the China coast. A typical case is that of the Namoa. The pirates came aboard hidden among the 220 paying passengers. They suddenly appeared on deck brandishing cutlasses and revolvers. They wore pseudo-military uniforms and were well organised. They murdered Captain Pocock, who was taking tiffin at the time of the attack, and locked all the Europeans in the captain's state-room. Although there was no treasure on board, they managed to steal $55,000 from the passengers, who were mainly emigrants from San Francisco and the Straits Settlements, returning to China with their savings. The loot was loaded on board six waiting junks. The British only managed to arrest two pirates, but these were later released due to lack of evidence. However, General Fong Yu was rather more successful. He managed to capture 19 of the 40 or so pirates involved. The Chinese authorities beheaded their prisoners outside Kowloon City, which was Chinese territory at the time. This sort of piracy reached its zenith in the 1920s during the warlord period. The ships carried armed guards and the bridges were turned into little fortresses, with steel plates and barbed wire. The ships were often successfully defended. There were 51 major piracies of this kind between the two world wars. China was in turmoil and the warlords in Kwangtung were sometimes extremely hostile. Some were possibly in league with the pirates. Anti-foreign fever had reached a point of hysteria. The case of the passenger steamer Irene, in 1927, demonstrates the extent of the lack of international co-operation that existed at the time. HMS Submarine L4 spotted the Irene entering Bias Bay without lights. It looked suspicious and the captain of the L4 ordered the ship to stop. When the Irene did not obey, a shot was sent across her bows. Pirates had prevented the captain of the Irene from stopping and the next shot from the submarine hit the Irene, disabling the engines. The British sailors of the L4 rescued the passengers and crew and arrested the pirates. However, as a result of being shelled, the Irene caught fire and sank. Unfortunately the ship was owned by the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company which belonged to the Nationalist Government. Instead of praising the L4's gallant crew for saving the passengers, the Nationalist authorities accused the Royal Navy of 'flagrant aggression and disregard for international law'. They even brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the captain of the L4. After the Japanese captured Canton in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese War, piracy, which was on the decline, almost ceased. This pattern continued after the Communists came to power in 1949. Although there were a few isolated cases in the late 40s and the early 50s, for the first time the waters of the South China Sea were almost free from pirates. Cynics maintain that this was because there was nothing worth stealing. Now the buccaneers are back. It is obvious that the only way to control piracy is by close international co-operation, but recent events indicate there is very little likelihood of this happening in the immediate future.