Ching Shih/Zheng Yi Sao


More pirates!! After our last episode detailing the Pirates of the western seas questions came up about pirates in eastern countries. While my research didn't turn up a lot of options, a few notable accounts came up.

The first was that of Cheng I or Zheng Yi. This pirate was the commander of the Red Flag fleet, but his legacy isn't all that's interesting here. In fact he isn't all that interesting at all. For sure, he was a powerful pirate, and of note during the time. He managed to united many rival pirate crews under his flag. However, the story really gets interesting when he takes a young wife. It's also good to note that it would have been a particularly good time for pirates as the Qing Dynasty was well into is mid years, and was one of the more prosperous times for China.

Ching Shih was a sex worker in the 1700s on a floating brothel in the city of Canton, and in the year 1801 she was wed to Zheng Yi. When it came to his business in piracy, she not only supported him but took part in it as well. The rumors state that Cheng sought her out because she was a particularly adept business woman, and her knowledge would have been a great asset to him. In fact, in the marriage contract between the two, she demanded equal control over the fleet. Eventually, she would come to control the whole fleet on her own, being one of only two female Pirate commanders, the other being Hon-cho-lo, who operated in the early 1900s.

After 6 years of marriage, Zheng Yi would die at the age of 42, whether he was murdered or died at sea (the rumor was that he was hit by a tsunami), no one can confirm. Ching Shih was left in a weird position though, her late husband had adopted an adult son to inherit his fortune. This man Cheung Po Tsai, was not only his heir apparent, but his lover. These kinds of adult adoptions were pretty common for the time, it was often meant as a business transaction or discipleship with obvious other benefits. Since Ching Shih could see that with Zheng Yi's death, the marriage contract would be null and void, she made the next best step, and very quickly began a relationship with Cheung Po Tsai. She eventually married him and quickly took back control of the Red Fleet.

In contrast to western pirates, women weren't barred from being on pirate boats, the stigma of bad luck or crew controversy didn't permeate the ranks in south China. At one point, Richard Glasspoole who was an employee of the East India Trading Company, was captured in September of 1809. He would be released in December of the same year, but was able to take stock of the fleet. His account said that there was about 80,000 people, 1000 large junk boats, 800 smaller junk boats and various row boats.

Ching Shih would use a strict pirate code of her own making to unite 80k people. A few of note: Any pirate giving their own orders or disobeying their superior would be beheaded on the spot. Female captives would be safe from assault. A crew member caught sexually assaulting a captive female would be killed. If it was consensual, they would both be killed. There were options though, a captive female could be taken as a wife, but the pirate would have to be faithful to them. Captains however were allowed to have multiple wives.

During raids, 20% of the loot was allowed to be kept by the captain, the rest would be sent in to a central pot that was used to finance the fleet. If you were caught hoarding treasure you'd have an ear cut off, your second offense would be the rest of your head. Much like the code of some western pirates, there was also health benefits and compensation for injury. There was even retirement benefits for anyone who would leave.

At one point, the Imperial Government sent their admiral Kwo Lang to take out her fleet. The battle ended poorly for the government fleet when Ching Shih captured 63 of his boats, most of which would end up joining her fleet. Kwo Lang would die by suicide in response to the devastating loss.

Over the next two years the Portuguese and Dutch fleets would also be sent, and defeated. The British East Indian Trading company would send the Marquis of Ely, which was captured and held for a few months. This was the ship of the before mentioned Richard Glasspoole, who is one of the very few first-person accounts of Ching Shih's fleet. The village of Sanshan would also send out a fleet to oppose the Red Fleet, but they were eventually raided and all the males were beheaded.

In 1810 Ching shih would finally retire, after years of notoriety and a long streak of being undefeated on the high seas. Some think that mounting pressure from the Qing Dynasty, Portuguese navy and the East Indian trading company made her eventually rethink her position. Adding to the difficulty of continuing her work would be the conflict with the Black Flag fleet. Their ongoing conflict meant loses and major destruction on either side.

One thing we know about her retirement is that, she surrendered, she negotiated that her fleet would be disbanded and many of per people would be safe to go. When negotiations were settled, 126 people were executed, 200 were banished from China, and 180000 were pardoned. Ching Shih took her money, and was assumed to have lived a peaceful life until she passed away at the age of 69, in 1844. Other rumors say she ran a gambling house during her retirement, which seems more likely. She is still considered the most successful pirate to this day. She even went on to inspire the character of Mistress Ching one of the 9 pirate lords, in the pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Full Source List