The most powerful pirate in history was a woman who was born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1700s. When pirates attacked her town and the captain took a liking to her, she saw a way out. Zheng Yi Sao agreed to marry him only if she got an equal share of his business. When her husband died six years later, she took command of the fleet.
Known for her expert management skills, she also created a pirate code – a highly effective set of regulations that kept her subordinates obedient to her
she commanded over the famous Red Flag Fleet that consisted of over 1800 ships and 80 thousand male and female pirates. Under her rule, Chinese pirates became invincible, resisting attacks from every major naval power of her time.
facts related her life:
- She was born in 1775 in the Guangdong province of China in the period of the Qing dynasty. Her birth name was Shi Yang. Some other accounts list her birth name as Shil Xiang Gu or Shil Gang Xu.
- She was a prostitute in a floating brothel in the city of Canton (Guangzhou) in China. Her nickname as a prostitute was Shi Xianggu.
- She became famous in the region for her intelligence, business acumen, capacity for intrigues, and trading in confidential information.
- In 1801, at the age of twenty-six, she married notorious pirate lord Cheng I (also known as Zheng Yi), who belonged to a powerful pirate family that was in the business of piracy for many generations. It is said that Zheng Yi noticed Ching Shih’s beauty and was infatuated with her, subsequently proposing to her for marriage.
- Other accounts say that Zheng Yi was impressed by the intelligence and business acumen of Ching Shih and wanted to marry her to have a companion to run his vast piracy empire.
- She agreed to Zheng Yi’s marriage proposal under the condition that she would have half of the control and share over her husband’s piracy business. At the time of their marriage, Zheng Yi had about two hundred pirate ships and was one of the major pirates of the region.
- Due to Zheng Yi’s tact and military acumen, other pirate lords of the Guangdong province formed an alliance with him which became a major pirate force by 1804. Zheng Yi’s pirate force was known as the ‘Red Flag Fleet’.
- On 16th November, 1807, Zheng Yi died in Vietnam at the age of thirty-nine years (according to some accounts he was aged forty-two at the time of his death).
- She got support of the most powerful members of her late husband’s family. Her husband’s powerful nephews Ching Pao-yang and Ching Ch’i became her allies which helped her in gaining the full loyalty of her husband’s family.
- She gained the trust of the fleet captains most loyal to her husband and also expanded her influence on other captains as well.
- She made her lover and her late husband’s second-in-command, Cheung Po Tsai, as the official captain of the Red Flag Fleet. Although he was officially the captain, Cheung Po Tsai remained loyal to her and therefore the overall control of the Red Flag Fleet was in her hands.
- She began her piracy career as the head of the largest pirate fleet of her times. Her fleet consisted of approximately eighteen hundred ships of varying sizes and about eighty thousand men.
- As leader of the Red Flag Fleet, Ching Shih laid down a strict code of laws for her men in order to maintain unity and discipline in the fleet. The code was strictly enforced
- Zheng Yi Sao married Chang Pao, and they settled in Canton before moving to Fukien; they had one son together. The former pirate chief eventually returned to Canton and spent the rest of her career managing a large and successful smuggling racket fronted by a gambling house. She died, aged 69, in 1844. Zheng Yi Sao’s legend meanwhile only grew, and she has inspired many fictional female pirates ever since, perhaps most recently with the character of Mistress Ching in the 2007 Disney film Pirates of the