The most successful pirate in history was beautiful, strong, and powerful. From establishing an extensive spy network to expanding China’s economic ties, Ching Shih’s legacy has woven itself into films, books, and even video games.
Madame Ching Shih, or Ching I Sao, was born in 1775 in the Guangdong Province. After working in a small brothel, she married Cheng I, an infamous pirate.
After becoming infatuated with Ching Shih, Cheng I proposed to her. However, this proposal also granted Ching Shih 50% control and share of Cheng I’s pirating business. Subsequently, they adopted Cheung Po as their step-son, making him the legal heir to the Cheng’s legacy. By 1804, this household of pirates became a formidable force, known as the Red Flag Fleet.
In 1807, Cheng I died in Vietnam. The cause of his death is unknown. However, some stories claim he drowned from falling overboard. Others state that Ching Shih murdered her husband to ascend to power. Ching Shih soon began establishing personal relationships to threaten her rival’s with power. She sought after the support from Cheng I’s family, recruiting her nephew and cousin’s son.
With her new intimidating fleet, she ratified new code of laws. These rules were revolutionary and brutal for her male subordinates. Those who disobeyed orders were beheaded. The brave few who left without permission had their ears chopped off. Yeah, I would be scared too.
The Armada, under Ching Shih’s command, pillaged towns from Macau to Canton. The Portuguese and British naval fleets, intimidated by her power and authority, challenged her. However, they faced imminent defeat. The Red Flag Fleet could not be defeated! In 1809, she captured Richard Glasspoole, an officer of the East India Trading company.
Unfortunately, her command began to fade as she suffered numerous defeats. Therefore, the Qing Imperial Government allowed for universal pirate amnesty in exchange for peace. Ching Shih accepted the offer, ending her notorious pirate career.
After her step-son Cheung Po died at sea, she returned to her home in Guangzhou and opened a gambling house. She died, surrounded by her family, at the age of 69. Nonetheless, her legacy and exploits are still felt worldwide.