Cool Cats: Ching Shih, Pirate Lord

Everyone’s heard the legends of the Golden Age of Piracy - tales of intrigue surrounding Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Stede Bonnet and a whole slew of others. If you recall your North Carolina third grade education, it would seem that pirates along the Atlantic coast were some of the most powerful, intimidating lawbreakers ever to rage against authority.

All that, of course, is nonsense.

As much as we glorify pirates, every man I just mentioned was either butchered on deck or left to swing. For all their victories, not one of them beat the navy in the end.

But, if you think that’s the story of every famous pirate, you’d be wrong. There was one captain who managed to amass a larger vigilante fleet than any other pirate in history and ultimately died free from capture.

Her name was Ching Shih.

Ching Shih was already a powerful woman in 1807. She was married to a notorious pirate lord who ran the Chinese ring The Red Flag Fleet, and by contract, she earned 50% of all their profits.

When her husband died, later that year, Ching Shih found herself positioned to take full control of the China Seas, and she was not about to let her station as a woman affect that.

It wasn’t long before she commanded an estimated 300 junkers and over 17,000 sailors – enough to qualify as a personal army. During her command, Ching Shih faced off against enemy pirate gangs and often squared off against the might of the Qing Dynasty.

Under her command, the pirate code laws saw some distinct changes. They included that any man who raped a captured prisoner would be put to death on the spot, and, if he decided to take a wife from amongst the female captives, he had to be faithful to her and financially take care of her for the rest of his life.

Ching Shih ruled the waters for another two years before running afoul of the Portuguese navy. After a series of attacks that stretched over five months, the Red Flag Fleet finally surrendered to the Portuguese.

Ching Shih’s story, however, did not end in death, as many other infamous pirates' stories did. Instead, she and her right-hand man, Cheung Po Tsai, bargained with the Chinese Emperor to ensure the safety of their men and the promise of their loot. They received everything they wanted and more. The vast majority of their sailors were allowed to go free, their loot divided amongst them as fair wages, and Cheung Po Tsai even received an admiralship in the Chinese navy.

As for Ching Shih? She married Cheung Po Tsai soon after their last battle and opened a gambling house with the profits from her time as a pirate lord. She ultimately served as an advisor to Chinese officials during the Opium Wars with Britain and was largely revered as a distinguished sailor and strategist.

When she died in 1844, Ching Shih was surrounded by family, and she was, most importantly, a free woman.