Cantonese Pirate Ching Shih/Cheng I Sao/Shih Yang (1775–1844)
Art by Naomi Ward (blog, tumblr)
The early details of Ching Shih’s life are unclear, but she is believed to be a former sex worker captured by pirates. In 1801, she married the pirate captain Zheng Yi and bore two sons. Ching Shih was a full participant in the fleet as Chinese pirate bands were family affairs including women and children. In 1807, Zheng Yi was killed in Vietnam and Ching Shih took control of the fleet, a bold move for a woman of the time. She built a coalition with her husband’s nephew and cousin, appointing his adopted son Chang Pao as her second in command.
Under Ching Shih’s leadership, the Red Flag Fleet became the most powerful pirate band in Asia. They expanded from pillaging into protection schemes. Ching Shih devised a new code of laws for pirates. Complete obedience was required. Disobedience led to beheading. Female captives deemed unattractive were returned to shore, but attractive women could join the fleet as wives. However, consent and fidelity were not optional. Both rape and adultery were punishable by death.
The Red Flag Fleet thrived under Ching Shih’s command, successfully evading Chinese, British, and Portuguese opponents. In 1810, the Chinese government offered the pirates amnesty and Ching Shih retired a rich woman. She ran a gambling house with her second husband Chang Pao until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.