The Chinese woman who became queen of piracy with a fleet of hundreds of ships

Ching Shih in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

The classic image we have of piracy is that of a masculine and Caribbean world, something that would have to be quite nuanced. Firstly, because although it is true that buccaneers and filibusters operated basically in the Caribbean and its surroundings, it is also true that piracy is probably one of the oldest occupations in history and, consequently, it was a widespread activity in almost all the seas. And secondly, because being true that the immense majority of its practitioners were men, it is also true that there were some women who dedicated themselves to it, like Ann Boney or Mary Read. Today we will see an example of both things: that of a Chinese woman called Ching Shih, considered the greatest pirate that has ever existed.

In her case, we can add another novelty: her forays did not take place in the Modern Age or in Antiquity or in the Middle Ages but already in the Contemporary Age, in the middle of the 19th century. She did, however, carry them out in the always tempestuous waters of Southeast Asia, “from the Yellow Sea to the rivers off the coast of Annam“, as described by Borges in the chapter he dedicated to her in his A Universal History of Infamy (although most will be more familiar with her appearance in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which also features another famous pirate, her stepson and husband).

Ching Shih was born as Shi Yang in Canton (present-day Guangzhou) in 1775, during the rule of the Jiaquing emperor, the seventh of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Hardly anything is known about her childhood and one has to jump ahead, until a more advanced youth, to find her in another of the older occupations, that of a prostitute. In that last quarter of the 18th century, Canton was one of the main commercial ports of China and that is why there was an abundant presence of western ships in its docks, both Portuguese and American, and of East Indian companies from various countries (Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark), among others.

Location of the current Guangzhou province / Image: TUBS on Wikimedia Commons

In that environment, Cantonese prostitution grew to become a way of life for hundreds of people. Some progressed and one of them was Ching, who became an important lady owner of a floating brothel, being known by the nickname of Shi Heang Koo. Nothing seemed to indicate that her life would undergo a transformation like the one she experienced when she met Cheng Yud (or Zheng Yi), whom she married in 1801.

Cheng, born Zheng Wenxian in the same province but in 1765, belonged to a family that had been involved in piracy for several generations; in fact, he and his family were indirectly involved in the intrigues that were taking place around the government. Cheng was not a simple pirate; he had a whole fleet at his command.

As we were saying, in 1801 he met Ching and they got married. The reasons for this are not clear, although it was probably merely a mutual strategic interest, since her work allowed her to have an important information supply network. Love seems to be out of the question, or at least under suspicion, considering that in 1798 the pirate had kidnapped Cheung Po Tsai, a fifteen-year-old son of a fisherman, whom he not only taught the ins and outs of the business but also turned into a lover.

However, this did not prevent him from going ahead with the wedding plan, signing a marriage contract that stipulated that Ching would contribute the capacity for intrigue granted by her brothel in exchange for half of the profits from the resulting pirate actions. She then became known as Cheng I Sao (Cheng I’s wife) and, although she agreed to adopt Cheung Po Tsai as her stepson and heir, she had two more offspring with her husband: Cheng Ying Shi and Cheng Heung Shi.

As planned, the marital union yielded great benefits and in 1804 they went a step further by gathering most of the Cantonese pirates into a formidable fleet of three hundred ships and nearly forty thousand troops (including their respective families), which was called the Red Flag Fleet because of the colour of its ensign. The emperor himself used their services to suppress the Vietnamese rebellion of the Tây Sơn dynasty.

It was precisely in Vietnam that this joint stage ended. To be exact, on November 16th 1807, when Cheng I fell overboard his ship, according to some sources in the middle of a typhoon, according to others by accident (and within these there are those who point to the hand of his wife or his heir). In any case, she became known as Ching Shih (Cheng’s Widow) and quickly took over the reins of the family business, getting the support of the main captains to convince the rest to accept her leadership.

To strengthen her position, and to win over other relatives of her late husband, she appointed Cheung Po Tsai as a lieutenant. In fact, the relationship between the two was not limited to professional matters: widow and stepson fell in love and began a love affair, thus establishing the family’s control over the Red Flag Fleet. The Fleet continued to grow to four hundred ships and nearly seventy thousand members, a force so enormous that it demanded some kind of common rules to make it act effectively and safely.

That code was called san-t’iao and was conceived by Ching herself. It was not transcribed in documents, but we know some of the basic rules, starting with the most important one: absolute obedience to the commands under penalty of death. Then there were others such as the registration by a treasurer of all the spoils obtained for distribution; the obligation to hand over three quarters of the booty to constitute a common fund with which to cover expenses and compensate those who were unlucky in making catches; a strict prohibition on taking anything from the fund; not to deprive the villagers who supplied the fleet.

It is curious to note one more rule that applied in the case of taking prisoners, although there is some controversy about it. The classic version says that they were usually released when they reached land but some studies indicate that there were cases in which pirates took them as concubines or even wives. However, they had to do so officially and with respect for the promise of fidelity. Sex on board was totally outlawed, whether it was consensual, in which case the man was beheaded and the woman was thrown overboard with a cannonball tied to her to act as ballast, or rape, which resulted in death for the accused.

All other offences were punished by whipping or red-hot iron the first time, while repeat offences led to execution. But the catalogue of sanctions was broader and more atrocious; for example, deserters had their ears cut off and then had to parade around in front of the entire crew. A harsh regime indeed, though only slightly worse than that applied by the Western navies, and for all intents and purposes tremendously effective, as the actions of the Red Flag Fleet demonstrated for three more years.

Cantonese pirates ravaged the eastern seas, assaulting both ships and coastal towns, and even sailing up the rivers from their mouths to surprise other inland towns. All this in the face of the impotence of the Chinese government, which throughout 1808 sent several expeditions to confront them, being not only defeated but also losing the ships, forcing the executive to have to confiscate fishing vessels to cover the casualties. It is significant that the greatest danger to Ching Shih was posed by another pirate, O-po-tae, a former renegade collaborator who offered his services to the emperor in exchange for a pardon and who forced her to reduce the frequency of her actions.

Now, the end of that unusual woman’s lawless career came from the West, when she pulled the string too tight and captured The Marquis of Ely, a British East India Company ship. Then they sank a Portuguese merchant ship killing its crew, which decided the Loyal Senate of Macau (a colony of Portugal) to arm three ships under the command of Captain José Pinto Alcoforado de Azevedo e Sousa with the mission of carrying out a punitive operation. They were joined by a British frigate that was anchored in Macau.

The clash took place in the Strait of Humen at the mouth of the Pearl River. Although the contest was uneven, as the Portuguese Navy never came to have more than half a dozen ships totaling about seven hundred men to face the attack of hundreds of enemy units carrying about thirty thousand pirates, the truth is that the Portuguese artillery superiority was a balance. The help that came from the Chinese government in the form of sixty more ships should also be noted. Thus, between September 1809 and January 1810 there were several clashes grouped under the general heading of the Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth that ended with great losses in the Red Flag Fleet, which was also blocked in the river delta.

1910 map of the Pearl River delta with the location of Canton, Macau, Hong Kong and the fighting point at the mouth, marked as Bocca Tigris / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks later, Cheung Po Tsai was forced to parliament, asking for an emissary to be sent. When he saw that it was Alcoforado himself who was on the move, he was impressed by his courage and on February 21st signed the submission to the imperial authority in exchange for his pardon and rehabilitation in an amnesty that reached most of the pirates. Moreover, he was incorporated into the Chinese Navy at the command of a squadron and charged with ending piracy that remained recalcitrant, just as it had happened in the Caribbean with some captains who went after their former comrades. Portugal made no demands, which left the Chinese puzzled.

Cheung and his stepmother, who also accepted the amnesty when they learned that they were next in line, asked the governor of Canton to dissolve their mother-child relationship so that they could marry, and they married soon after. In 1813, she gave birth to a new son but the father, who devoted the rest of his life to fighting piracy, died in the Penghu Islands in 1822. She then decided to settle in Macau and engage in various businesses, including the salt trade, a gambling house and a brothel. It is known that she had another daughter, but it is not recorded at what date.

Despite her retirement, Ching Shih would still play a leading role in a final episode as military advisor to Lin Zexu, the Chinese governor who strove to end the opium trade by provoking the first war of the same name with Britain in 1839. As is well known, the Chinese army was no match for the British and the 1842 Treaty of Nanking not only sealed the war disaster but also the loss of Hong Kong until 1997. Zexu was accused of thoughtlessness by the emperor and fell into disgrace as Ching Shih returned home to die two years later after an intense existence.

Sources: The history of piracy (Philip Gosse) / Mujeres piratas (Germán Vázquez) / Memoria dos feitos macaenses contra os piratas da China e da entrada violenta dos inglezes na cidade de Macáo (José Ignacio Andrade) / Bandits at sea. A pirates reader (C.R. Pennell) / Historia universal de la infamia (Jorge Luis Borges) / Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810 (Dian Murray) / Wikipedia.