Ching Shih – Female Pirate
Ching Shih was the Chinese prostitute who became one of the most powerful female pirates of her time through her control of the Red Flag Fleet. Under her command, the fleet grew and became one of the most organized system of businesses on the seas. With huge resources, she had (for a short time) the power to rival any government in the world.
Little is known about Ching Shih’s early life apart from the fact that she was born in the Guangdong province of China around 1775. She became a prostitute on a floating brothel in Canton, and the infamous pirate Zheng Yi, the leader of the Red Flag Fleet, noticed her beauty and had the floating brothel plundered to gain ownership of Ching. After his men had plundered the brothel, she was brought before Zheng, and he asked her to marry him. She agreed—but asked for an equal share of his plunder. Soon, the two of them were running the Red Flag Fleet together in harmony.
Under their joint leadership, the Red Flag Fleet grew quickly from under 200 ships to over 600 ships, which eventually grew to almost 2000 ships. The fleet was color coded and organized into red, black white, yellow, blue and green fleets. Zheng Yi died in 1807 only 6 years after marrying the beautiful Ching Shih. At the time of his death, the fleet contented nearly 100,000 pirates. Ching was faced with two choices. She could return to her life of prostitution or rise to become one of the most powerful female pirate lords of all time, but she craved the power and glory of being the leader of the organization. With the help of Zheng Yi’s second-in-command, she took charge.
As a leader, she was strict and controlled. She was driven by business and strategy and even went so far as to try and form a government that would protect her pirates through laws and taxes. All plunder captured was registered before distribution and the ship that captured the loot was entitled to retain just over 20% of its value—the rest of its value would go into the fleets coffers.
Ching Shih set forth rules that protected captured prisoners. Female prisoners were released. A pirate who wished to take a beautiful captive as a wife was free to do so—but was bound to treat her as he would a wife. Unfaithfulness and rape were both offenses for which a pirate could be executed.
As Ching Shih took leadership over many coastal villages, word got back to Canton. The Chinese offered amnesty to all pirates hoping to end her reign over the sea.
The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule could not be defeated — not by Qing dynasty Chinese officials, not by the Portuguese navy, and not by the British. But in 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates, and Ching Shih took advantage of it. She ended her career that year, accepting an amnesty offer from the Chinese government. She kept her loot and opened a gambling house. She died in 1844, at the age of 69.