The Journal of San Diego History
October 1958, Volume 4, Number 4
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By H. K. Raymenton

The Star of India is the oldest ship now in San Diego harbor, but forty years ago there was a vessel here many years older. This was the Ning Po, a Chinese junk, which was reputed to be the oldest ship then afloat.

The Ning Po had had a long and colorful history before coming across the Pacific to become a tourist attraction, if even a part of the stories told about her were factual.

According to the information disseminated at the time she was here, her history was as follows:

She was built at Fu Chau in 1753 and first was in trouble when, in 1796, she was involved in a rebellion against the Emperor. At that time 158 prisoners were beheaded on her deck. In 1806 she was seized for smuggling and piracy, but escaped from her captors. Eight years later she caught fire at Nanking, but only her interior was damaged. In 1823 she was seized again for smuggling silk and opium. A few well-placed bribes left her free to continue, however, until she was taken by the British, under Lord Napier, in 1834. In 1861 she was captured by another Englishman, Chinese Gordon, during the Taiping Rebellion, and in the same year she was wrecked in a typhoon. This caused only superficial damage. Three years later she was able to take part in the Battle of Nanking. After forty-seven years of smuggling and piracy she was mixed up in another battle, that for Hankow in 1911, when she was captured by by the rebels and sold. Then she came to California, arriving at Venice in February 1913, after delays incidental to being wrecked off Kyushu on the way.

She was a picturesque vessel, with a high and elaborate stern, surmounted by a huge tiller. From the bow hung a great anchor made of wood so heavy it would sink like iron. Her mainmast was of ironbark. Many different kinds of wood appeared in her construction, some of which was very fragrant, especially when rubbed. The compartments below decks were separated by water-tight bulkheads, an ancient device of the Chinese. They could only be entered by hatches from the deck.

The Ning Po was well stocked with exhibits calculated to make visitors shudder. There was a kee-long, or starvation cage, in which prisoners in China have been punished from time immemorial. There was a large collection of pikes and other weapons, including a beheading sword which had probably relieved many a Chinese of the cares of life.

I first saw the Ning Po tied up at the wharf from which the boats crossed to North Island, when I was visiting San Diego in the summer of 1915. 1 did not become acquainted with her until the following summer, when I was again in San Diego. She was then anchored out in the stream. After a year here she was about to be towed to Boston, via the Panama Canal, a trip that was never made. An old friend of my father, Charles Hoyle, was in charge of her. He entertained us aboard a number of times. Once we spent a night on her, sleeping on deck, out under the stars. My bed had belonged to one of her Chinese captains. It was a rectangular frame of closely woven cane, each corner of which was placed on a Chinese stool. The carved parts of the frame had been safely stored away, but what was left was very comfortable. The bed was placed next to the hatchway leading down to the lower parts of the ship adjacent to the kee-long. I had hoped to see a few Chinese ghosts, but none presented themselves.

From Mr. Hoyle and from an old British naval officer I learned a few of the details of the last years of her career.

For several years prior to 1884 the ship preyed on tourists in the Hong Kong area. She was then gorgeously decorated and carried. silk sails. The trick was to make up a party of wealthy foreigners for a few days’ cruise. When they arrived at an uninhabited part of the coast the passengers would be robbed and set ashore.

The British government finally took a hand in the matter. Her capture was authorized. H.M.S. Calliope, in which my friend was an officer, was sent after her. A cohort of the Ning Po, named the Kwang Su, was sunk by the Calliope when she failed to stop. A few days later the Ning Po was overtaken. The example of the Kwang Su was not lost on her. She hove-to when requested to, was taken back to Hong Hong and sold. Her crew of sixty was imprisoned. At the time of the capture there were twenty or more tourists aboard, enjoying themselves hugely, little dreaming of what had been in store for them.

Later she returned to piracy, attacking ships, small coastal villages, and fishing boats, taking as plunder to be sold in the cities everything from fish to women. After her troubles with the British, however, she left foreigners alone.

The Ning Po never went to Boston, as had been planned. She didn’t get away from Southern California waters; she was ultimately burned out and her timbers are now rotting on the shore of Catalina Harbor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For her transpacific crossing, the Ning Po’s matting sails were replaced by the gaff-headed canvas sails of a typical schooner — which made her appearance unusual, to say the least. The fire which destroyed her in Catalina Harbor
on the west side of The Isthmus, on Catalina Island – also claimed several wooden vessels which had been used in filming motion-picture “spectaculars.” Among them was the famous old down-easter Llewellyn J. Morse, which ended her active days
as the U. S. S. Constitution — re-rigged with commendable accuracy for the silent film Old Ironsides.