When we think of pirates, we envision swashbucklers with eye patches and impressive bears. After all, this is how they are portrayed in most movies. It is rare to think of a pirate and imagine a woman. Yet, the most powerful and fearsome pirate in history was not Blackbeard or any other male pirate, but in fact, Ching Shih, the Chinese female pirate whose fleet numbered 1.500 ships.
Although her birth name is not known, the Cantonese pirate chose to be known as Ching Shih or Zhèng Yi Sao, “wife of Zhèng”, and Zhèng Shì, “widow of Zhèng”. She was born at some point around 1775, though an exact date is not known. At 26 years old she was working as a prostitute in a brothel in Canton. It was there that she caught the attention of Zhèng Yi, an already successful pirate who had a small fleet at his disposal.
Although it is not known how the two ended together, history records that Zhèng Yi proposed to and married Ching Shih. Afterwards, the woman became deeply involved in her husband’s piracy business and helped him lead the Red Flag Fleet. During the following six years, the fleet grew from 200 to 600 ships first and eventually reached 1,700. In 1807, Zhèng Yi was caught in a typhoon and perished, leaving Ching Shih the leader of the fleet.
Instead of stepping aside and handing the organization to someone else, Ching Shih convinced her husband’s second in command to support her takeover. By 1810, she commanded about 1800 ships and 70.000 pirates. In order to unite the fleet, she issued a code of laws. The code was stern and strictly enforced.
The Emperor raised a fleet and moved to strike against Ching Shih. However, even with the help of the British and Portuguese navies, he was defeated. Left without options, the Emperor offered her and her men amnesty. In 1810, she accepted the offer. Herself and the majority of her crew walked free, some of them being allowed to join the military.
Ching Shih died in 1844, at the age of 69. She was undoubtedly the most powerful pirate in history and also one of the few who managed to die of old age. Did you know these facts about her?
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