Monday, July 18, 2011

The Lady and the Pirates

While researching an unrelated topic in an online historical newspaper, I happened upon mention of a book with the florid title of A Lady's Captivity among Chinese Pirates in the Chinese Seas and I was swiftly diverted.
Who was this "lady" and how did she come to be in the "Chinese Seas" in the first place?

Fanny Loviot

It turns out she was a Frenchwoman, Fanny Loviot, who travelled from France to San Francisco in the rip-roaring days of the California Gold Rush. She was rather reticent in describing what she was actually up to but given her destination, it is more than likely that the "commercial" interests she mentions were the prostitution business. She later decided to travel to Hong Kong and it was while returning from there that she became the victim of pirates and the subject of a major rescue effort by the British. 
The full text of A Lady's Captivity ... is freely available to read online in a number of formats and even if some of the facts as related therein are as shady as Fanny's background, the voyage on the Chilean-registered brig Caldera in the company of the dashing Captain Matthew Rooney [see note below] and the Chinese merchant Than Sing whose actions saved Fanny from a desperate fate, still makes for an exciting read even today. The book was also reprinted recently by the National Maritime Museum in the UK.
On her return to France, Fanny gained much publicity and naturally enough published the account of her adventures. It was later translated into English by the equally fascinating and adventurous novelist, traveller, and Egyptologist, Amelia B. Edwards.
However, I have been unable to discover what happened to Fanny in later life and she seems to have faded from the public eye.
Another French Wikipedia entry describes the French lottery scheme under which Fanny purportedly travelled to California. This turns out to be an amazing historical scam in itself and Curt Gentry's 1964 book The Madams of San Francisco devotes an entire chapter to the scheme. It had various aims, primarily to fill government coffers and ensure the return of Louis Napoleon to power but was also a way of getting rid of many hundreds of French poor and undesirables by packing them off to California. Even the public drawing of the tickets in the Champs Elysees in November 1851 with 40,000 people looking on seems to have been conducted with sleight of hand and none of the citizens taken in by the scam ever received a penny.

See Chapter 5 "The Lottery of the Golden Ingots"
Note:  Assuming this has to be the same Captain Matthew Rooney, he was already a major player in the "Chinese Seas" himself and is worthy of having a biography of his own. Dealing in everything from opium to camphor, he is mentioned in various histories about Formosa (Taiwan). 
Some details can be read here.

Friday, July 8, 2011


This is a correction to an earlier post I wrote on female despatch riders.

Various experts (including Barbara Legrand a WW1 battflefield guide) have stated on the Facebook page for the Lost Diggers of World War I that this woman is most likely a French mademoiselle dressing up for fun by wearing a corporal's uniform and cap and she isn't a despatch rider herself.

It just goes to show how images and photographs can be misinterpeted, especially if one doesn't examine them closely enough or isn't an expert in the era!

This is not to say there were no female despatch riders at all during First World War, and women riders most certainly played a very important role in the Second.

The Wrens were among the first.

See also: