Ching Shih - The pirate queen, who commanded 80,000 outlaws

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When we try to imagine the most successful pirate in our fantasy, this notion unintentionally becomes a man with dark bread, hard (maybe half) eyes and a hook instead of his hand, he is somewhere in the Caribbean Sea under the palms and of course he is drinking rum and saying "yarr". Actually this notion is wrong. The most successful pirate was a young Chinese woman who was smart, dangerous and engaging.

Junks in Guangzhou

Junks in Guangzhou, 1880 - The picture just illustration. (Source: By Lai Afong - caviarkirch, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38325399)

Ching Shih was born in 1775 in Guangdong Province, China. Her genuine name did not survive in human memory, but the name as we know her, Ching Shih, means Cheng's widow. The first information what is known about her life is that she was a professional prostitute in the famous floating brothel of the city of Canton.

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The sources are divided on how it really happened, but in the year of 1801, captain Cheng married her. Some says that Cheng has taken the brothel ship like a prey and just kidnapped the woman, but others says that he was Ching's client and the marriage took place by mutual agreement.

Captain Cheng was the leader of the Red Flag Fleet, or Zheng Yi in Chinese, a powerful pirate horde what was operating the South China Sea in the era of the Qing dynasty. The captain married the women for a reason. Ching Shih was leery, tricky, and smart and what is also important besides of these: she was silent. So she was an awesome wife for a pirate captain with lots of plans.

Cheng took the woman for an equal partner to lead the fleet, and with her effective help the Zheng Yi has reached a higher level in greatness, strength and power. Within a few years the number of Red Flag Fleet's ships has escalated from two-hundred to six-hundred and they formed some close alliance with other colourful flag pirate fleets.

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Ching Shih helped her husband not only with her intelligence, but with her ascendancy too. From her past she had many important relationships whit the Chinese political elite and several pieces of secret information about them. In this way most of the time Cheng and his wife knew about the determinative things before they could happen.

However, six years into their marriage, in 1807, captain Cheng has died in the 42nd year of his life near the Vietnamese coast. Not much is known about how he passed away. Some myth preserved about a huge typhoon or tsunami what destroyed his ships and took him to the bottom of the sea to sleep there forever, but there is also a chance he was simply murdered by the Chinese government or the British East Indian Company.

After the death of the leader the cohesiveness in the fleet began to disintegrate. Not only did the sailors start to desert, but so did the captains. Their allies sensed the weakness of the Red Flag Fleet and started to weave plans for their future, and their enemies prepared to strike them to finally cut this "problem" short.

In this dangerous and doubtful time Ching Shih came forward to fulfil her destiny. First of all, after the death of Cheng, his stepson, Cheung Po Tsai, became the new leader. He originally was a son of an old and poor fisherman, but in China it was not really out of the ordinary to adopt an adult man for inheritance, instruction and business reasons. By the way, Ching Shih and his stepson, Cheung Po liked each other's personal closeness, and they saw that the best way to save the fleet is to solidify the relationship through marriage.

After Ching Shih obtained the leadership of the Red Flag Fleet, she convened the captains of the fleet, and made them decide whether to serve her and make the fleet stronger, greater and richer than before and gain glory for themselves, or just suffer a horrible death. This is the hard story how a woman could get, shortly after the death of her husband, the leadership above 1800 ships and closely 80,000 pirates. These numbers come from the report of Richard Glasspoole, an employee of the East Indian Company, who was kidnapped by the Red Flag Fleet in 1809. By comparison, the fearful Blackbeard had 4 ships and only 300 men at the peak of his career in piracy.

Contrary to the Western customs, in the East there were not any stigmas against women on the ships, for example being bad luck for the ship, so pirate vessels often had at least one woman on board or female pirate. There is another known female pirate captain in history, and she was Mrs. Hon-cho-lo from Hong Kong, in the first half of the 20th century.

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Ching Shih had some strong rules to keep her fleet under control.

- If somebody disobeys her orders or dare to give his own, he is beheaded on the spot.

- Anything that is claimed as booty during an attack has to be turned over to self superior. The original seizer could retain 20% of the prey, and the rest was placed into the public fund.

- If somebody makes close physical contact with a female captive against her will, he loses his head. If the contact occurs in agreement with the female captive, both of them are sentenced to die. If a pirate wanted this type of contact with a captive, he had to marry her. If he takes a look for another woman, of course he loses his head.

- If somebody leaves without permission, he loses his ears. If he does it again, he dies.

Her laws, discipline and leadership were effective that she ruled the seas from Macau to Canton, more and more ships and men joined to the Zheng Yi, and the fleet grew steadily. Thanks to her spy system she knew every steps of the Chinese government before they would have done it, including their attacks of curse. Once when the Chinese fleet planned to strike the Red Flag Fleet in an opened water battle, she sent messages to all of the captains of the enemy ships that if someone decide to switch side and start to be a pirate and serve her for a life before of the battle, than the whole crew of the ship can save their lives. At the next morning Ching Shih started her daily routine with 63 vessels more.

After a time, the Chinese, British and Portuguese fleets realised they could only close this case permanently if they worked together. The British and Portuguese ships were larger in size and had stronger firepower than the Chinese types of vessels. Ching Shih could not fight against the united fleets that was now strong enough to beat her army. So after three years of war this time, in 1809, she started thinking about the end.

Anyway, she was not that type of woman who just gives up everything and simply goes to the prison. Taking advantage of her deep and old connections with the Chinese political elite, she started negotiations with the government. Finally she put down the weapon, but she asked for a high price in exchange for peace. First of all, her stepson, or husband, became a Chinese Navy officer and all pirates who served her received amnesty.

Ching Shih herself, the Chinese pirate queen, who spent years to steal from the three largest naval powers of that time and plundered villages along of the Chinese coast, got the noble title, and could keep twenty ships as a private army. After Cheung Po's death in 1822 she moved with her son to Macau, and opened a gambling house and a brothel. In her later years, she served the Chinese government as an advisor against the British Army during the First Opium War. Ching Shih died in 1844, surrounded by her family, at ripe old age of 69.

Donát Novák

February 2020