One of the mightiest pirates that ever lived was a Chinese female prostitute. She controlled 1,800 ships and 80,000 sailors.
Ching Shih (1775–1844), was a prominent pirate in middle Qing China, who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded over 300 junks manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates another estimate has Cheng’s fleet at 1800 and crew at about 80,000 Men, women, and even children. She challenged the empires of the time, such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia’s strongest pirates, and one of world history’s most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy.
She is featured in numerous books, novels, video games and films.
Little is known about Ching Shih’s early life, including her birth name and precise date of birth. She was a Cantonese prostitute who worked in a small brothel in the city of Canton, but was captured by pirates. In 1801, she married Zheng Yi, a notorious Cantonese pirate. The name she is best remembered by simply means “widow of Zheng”.
Ascension to Leadership
On 16 November 1807, Zheng Yi died in Vietnam. Ching Shih immediately began maneuvering her way into his leadership position. She started to cultivate personal relationships to get rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority. In order to stop her rivals before open conflict erupted, she sought the support of the most powerful members of her husband’s family: his nephew Cheng Pao-yang and his cousin’s son Cheng Ch’i. Then she drew on the coalition formed by her husband by building upon some of the fleet captains’ existing loyalties to her husband and making herself essential to the remaining captains.
Since Ching Shih would have such a large force at her command, she knew she needed someone to assist her in managing the Red Flag Fleet’s day to day operations, but remain loyal to her and be accepted by the low-level pirates. She believed there was only one man for the job, and that was Chang Pao.
Now that she held the fleet’s leadership position, Ching Shih started on the task of uniting the fleet by issuing a code of laws (The Neumann translation of The History of Pirates Who Infested the China Sea claims that it was Chang Pao that issued the code. Yuan Yung-lun says that Chang Pao issued his own code of three regulations, called san-t’iao, for his own fleet, but these are not known to exist in a written form). The code was very strict and according to Richard Glasspoole, strictly enforced.
First, anyone giving their own orders (ones that did not come down from Ching Shih) or disobeying those of a superior were beheaded on the spot. Second, no one was to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supplied the pirates.
Third, all goods taken as booty had to be presented for group inspection. The booty was registered by a purser and then distributed by the fleet leader. The original seizer received twenty percent and the rest was placed into the public fund. Fourth, actual money was turned over to the squadron leader, who only gave a small amount back to the seizer, so the rest could be used to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships.According to Philip Maughan, the punishment for a first-time offense of withholding booty was severe whipping of the back. Large amounts of withheld treasure or subsequent offenses carried the death penalty.
Ching Shih’s code had special rules for female captives. Standard practice was to release women, but J.L. Turner witnessed differently. Usually the pirates made their most beautiful captives their concubines or wives. If a pirate took a wife he had to be faithful to her.The ugliest were released and any remaining were ransomed. Pirates that raped female captives were put to death, but if it was consensual sex, the pirate was decapitated and the woman he was with had cannonballs attached to her legs and was chucked off the side of the boat.
Violations of other parts of the code were punished with flogging, clapping in irons, or quartering. Deserters or those that went AWOL had their ears chopped off, and then were paraded around their squadron. Glasspoole concluded that the code “gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.