Why you should care
Because what we think about men and women in history often just isn’t correct.
Part of an OZY series on History’s Forgotten Women.
Video by Charlotte Buchen
The history of piracy is full of clichés. Thanks to classics like Treasure Island and blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, the word “pirate” still conjures the image of a rugged British man with an eye patch, a parrot and a horrid accent. Yet the world’s most successful buccaneer might have been Chinese — and a woman.
Ching Shih — also known as Cheng I Sao — instilled fear in the hearts of merchants across the China Sea in the early 19th century. During her relatively short run as a pirate lord — only about a decade — this ruthless and cunning woman went from being a prostitute to commanding the famous “Red Flag Fleet” and sending hundreds of thousands of men into battle.
She was a prostitute in one of Canton’s floating brothels when pirates captured her at age 26. To her surprise, she was asked to marry one of them, Cheng Ch’i, who belonged to a long and famous dynasty of sea thieves. From then onwards, they were partners in bed and business. With her help, Cheng Ch’i managed to assemble one of the largest and most dangerous fleets in China.
But only six years later, Cheng Ch’i died in a typhoon and his wife Ching Shih skillfully maneuvered to replace him. The mourning widow rushed to secure the support of her late-husband’s family and chose his protégé, 21-year-old Chang Pao, as her lieutenant, right hand and lover.
Ching Shih was strict and controlling, requiring written application to her for all kinds of actions. She issued her own code of laws and enforced them severely. Crewmembers were not allowed to steal from the loot or the villagers — at risk of losing their heads — and female captives were to be released. At least the unattractive ones; if they were beautiful, they could be kept as concubines or wives. But pirates had to be faithful to their spouses and those who raped or hit female prisoners without permission were sentenced to death.
Following the great tradition of the Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled China from 690 to 705, Ching Shih was ruthless. Her goal was profit and anyone who defied her direct orders or tried to impose their own were beheaded on the spot. She was also notorious for chopping off the ears of her enemies or those who tried to desert her fleet. And, despite her experience as a prostitute, she owned a vast and lucrative chain of brothels.
At the height of her success, Ching Shih’s pirate armada boasted 1,600 ships, and she commanded more than 70,000 male and female pirates, spies and suppliers. Her sphere of influence stretched from the waters of the South China Sea through much of Guangdong Province and she even had spies working within the ruling Qing Dynasty.
The queen of the pirates had a child, opened a brothel and lived a comfortable life until she died, aged 69, a wealthy aristocrat.
The Qing emperor, Jiaqing, raised a large fleet of ships against her to no avail. After several failed attempts, the Chinese navy enlisted Portuguese, British and Dutch ships for help. But even they could not sink the Red Flag Fleet.
In 1810, the Emperor finally capitulated and offered her and most of her followers amnesty in exchange for abandoning their bloody trade. For Ching Shih, the timing was perfect, as serious internal differences over spoils and women had already started splintering her organization. She signed a treaty agreeing to dismantle her fleet in exchange for freedom and the right to keep their loot. She even received the noble title of “Lady by Imperial Decree.”
After marrying Chang Pao, who joined the Chinese navy as a captain, she went on to retire at the ripe age of 35. The queen of the pirates then had a child, opened a brothel and lived a comfortable life until she died, aged 69, a wealthy aristocrat. Her name has been largely forgotten, but her infamous legacy still lives today on the pirate-infested waters of the South China Sea.