Contrary to what many people tend to think and say, the most ruthless pirate ever wasn’t a European man, he wasn’t even from someplace like Somalia. In fact, she was actually a legendary Asian woman. I would even go so far as to say that the infamous freebooter was not only the greatest pirate of the 19th century but of all time. She was an absolutely extraordinary and completely merciless marauder.
No one could have ever have guessed that a little girl who was born in 1775 in the Guangdong province of China would go on to become the legendary Pirate Queen. Back then her name was Shi Yang, and she grew up into a life of prostitution like many other young women at the time. She gruelingly worked as a commoner on one of the many flower boats, which were highly frequented floating brothels in the port city of Guangzhou.
Eventually, the incredibly ambitious woman became a Cantonese madame and changed her name to Ching Shih. However, while out at sea working in a bordello on the water, the boat was bombarded by pirates and Ching Shih was taken on board. So, at the turn of the 19th-century captain Cheng I tried to claim her as his own. The thing was that she cunningly demanded that the only way that she would ever marry him is if she received half of his share of the plunder and partial control of the fleet. The madame was so beautiful and clever that Cheng I simply had to agree to her terms. So, she went from a prostitute to a pirate overnight.
This was all historically significant because at the end of the 18th century in neighboring Vietnam a recent peasant uprising had changed things in the East quite dramatically, so Cheng and Ching took full advantage of the situation. Victorious Vietnamese rebels had unified their country, but they soon faced invasion from China as a result. This led to ongoing battles on both land and sea. So, the Vietnamese were ultimately forced to commission pirates to raid the coast in the fight against the Chinese.
The notorious power couple knew that Guangzhou’s fishermen often engaged in small-scale piracy to supplement their meager incomes during the off-season and were ready and willing to take part in anything. By serving the Vietnamese, the amateur band of boisterous rogues went from being members of ragtag gangs aboard lone vessels to that of professional fleets of pirates with dozens of ships working together for a common cause. Regardless, in 1802 they were defeated and had to retreat.
Of course, Cheng I and Ching Shih just went on to unite rival Cantonese groups into an even more formidable alliance, which would come to include a staggering 1,800 pirate ships. The confederation of corsairs soon contained 70,000 sailors aboard 800 junks and 1,000 smaller vessels. They were organized into six fleets, each under a different colored flag. The Red Flag Fleet alone contained 200 canons and 1,300 guns.
These incredibly well-armed pirates were not like history’s more famous privateers, such as Barbosa, who worked for legitimate naval powers. Instead, these were hardened criminals who only ever did anything on their own behalf. They operated without government support or approval of any kind. The Pirate King and Queen ruled over their armada with absolute power. They were truly a force to reckon with.
Then, in 1807 Cheng I died in a disastrous typhoon, so his widow took charge of everything he had built up over his career. She used diplomacy to expertly convince all the other captains that their best interest lay in continued collaboration. Ching Shih then appointed the protege and heir of her late husband as the commander of the most powerful squadron. Their adopted son Cheung Po became the head of the Red Flag Fleet and the Pirate Queen’s confidant.
Ching Shih went on to consolidate more and more power through strict discipline backed by a code of conduct that was quite progressive at the time, especially for pirates. For one thing, she demanded that female captives were not to be subjected to sexual assault. If such a woman was then taken as a bride, mistreatment or infidelity towards her was punishable by death. In this way the Pirate Queen sought equality of the sexes, thus promoting egalitarianism among the ranks. Along with this anyone caught trying to conceal plunder from their fleet was beheaded as part of strict policy, and deserters were brought back and their ears were cut off as a warning.
Every pirate that Ching Shih encountered willingly bowed to her command, wanting to be part of all the looting, blackmailing, and extorting taking place. As part of this rise to power, she eventually came to control the trade routes along China and Vietnam, among other places. Making use of her administrative talents she established financial offices in towns all along the coasts in which people were forced to pay tribute to the pirate fleets. This allowed her immense team of marauders to collect protection payments on both land and sea, far and wide.
Ching Shih’s daring exploits only increased over time. Once, she drove five American schooners to safe harbor, captured a Portuguese brig, and blockaded a tribute mission from Thailand, all in a single day. At one point, the armada successfully blockaded a trading port in the Portuguese Empire, easily defeating them. Even the British Empire didn’t want anything to do with her. To avoid going into battle they only provided escort services to merchant ships. No one dared attack the mighty Cantonese Pirate Coalition.
Within a few years time, her ships had destroyed more than sixty Chinese military vessels. This eventually forced the commanders of the province to hire dozens of private junks. However, Ching Shih was so feared that people would often sink their own ships in an effort not to have to face her. So the majority of people who were charged with apprehending the Pirate Queen often just stayed ashore. At that point, there was really nothing to stop her armada. The pirates mounted raids on markets, garrisons, and villages all along the coast with little to no resistance from anyone at all.
However, the Chinese government was desperate to put an end to all of this, so Jiaqing the 7th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty offered the pirates amnesty in exchange for surrender, but Ching and Cheung would only agree to it on their own terms. In the end, the Cantonese Pirate Confederation was dismantled in April of 1810. Although many of the loyal freebooters were executed or incarcerated, Cheung Po was allowed to retain 120 junks and he became an officer in the Chinese navy. Meanwhile, Ching Shih was given the title “Lady by Imperial Decree” and allowed to retain everything she had accumulated from years of plunder.
Although, more than a decade later in 1822, Cheung Po died and Ching Shih became a widow yet again. She then returned home to the port city of Guangzhou with her eleven-year-old son. At that point, she opened a gambling house and brothel and lived off of the proceeds for the rest of her life. Ching Shih eventually died in bed as a very content grandmother in 1844 at the age of sixty-nine, having completely gotten away with all of her crimes. For this and so many other reasons, she was undoubtedly the greatest pirate that ever lived.