So you think you know everything worth knowing about pirates? Think again. I wrote quite a bit about the Caribbean pirates last year, for Chapter 3 of my Latin American history project. However, I just learned about a pirate who wasn’t mentioned there, but was more successful than all of them put together. This pirate fits none of the stereotypes, because this pirate never went to the Caribbean, did not have a peg-leg or a parrot, and did not speak a debased form of English where the main word was “Arrh!” In fact, the only thing this pirate had in common with Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and the rest was that she swung a mean cutlass. You read that right, I said “she”; this pirate leader was a Chinese woman. Needless to say, she is getting a footnote on my Chinese history papers, that will read as follows:
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the south China coast was afflicted by the worst piracy problem since the days of Coxinga (see footnote #1). The most amazing part is that these pirates, the "Red Flag Fleet," had a female commander, Ching Shih (1775?-1844, also spelled Zhèng Shì, Jihng Sih, Hsi Ka and Zheng Yi Sao). Details of her personal life aren’t available; we don’t even know her real name (the name we have means "Widow of Zheng"). The picture shown here, for instance, is a modern artist’s idea of what she looked like.
Anyway, Ching Shih first appeared in the limelight in 1801, when Zheng Yi, the leader of the pirates around Canton, discovered Ching Shih in a brothel and married her. Zheng Yi’s career really took off after that; his force grew by leaps and bounds, and he made a handsome profit from raiding ships, kidnapping, and "protection" rackets. He died in a typhoon in 1807; Ching Shih then took over the fleet, by marrying Zheng Yi’s first mate, Chang Pao, and making him the chief executive officer. Of course many pirates thought they could misbehave when a former prostitute was in charge, and Ching Shih responded by imposing a Draconian code of conduct, that banned stealing from other pirates, raids on towns that gave money or supplies to the fleet, cowardice, desertion, rape and even consensual sex while on duty; beheading was the punishment for most violations.
Soon the Red Flag Fleet was more powerful than the Qing government in and around the South China Sea; estimates of the fleet’s strength at its peak range as high as 1,800 ships and 80,000 crewmembers. When the authorities attacked the fleet, they lost 63 ships, and captured sailors were given the choice of joining the fleet or being clubbed to death; the Chinese admiral reportedly committed suicide to avoid being captured. The Chinese navy could not beat the pirates even when they had help from Portuguese and British ships in the area.
Finally in 1810, the local governor realized it was a losing battle, and offered a general amnesty to anyone in the Red Flag Fleet who got out of the pirate business and committed no more crimes. Ching Shih accepted–pirates who do not quit while they are ahead die soon, and violently. In negotiating the terms of the amnesty, Ching Shih made sure that everyone got to keep their loot, and her crewmen had the option of joining the navy if they wished; that included a lieutenant’s commission for her second husband. After retiring from piracy, she opened up a casino/brothel in Canton and ran it for the rest of her life. Ching Shih may not have become an empress like Theodora, or a governor like Barbarossa, but still she is a contender for the titles of the most successful prostitute, pirate, and businesswoman who ever lived.