A Madame Pirate out of Guangzhou
From the Golden Age of Piracy, defined roughly as the period stretching from the early 18th century to the early 19th century, swashbucklers and outlaw sailors etched their names into the pages of history through daring exploits and brutal crimes at sea. Edward Teach, Barbarossa, Calico Jack, Henry Morgan, William Kidd: they have become mainstays in our culture because of their infamy. Seemingly endemic of the times, this highlights the scarcity of women on ships.. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his popular piracy-themed novel Treasure Island, reinforced this idea. No women were among his cast of characters. Yet, by many measures, the most successful pirate of the era was a woman: Ching Shih of Guangzhou.
Her entry into piracy began in Vietnam: it was there that her husband Cheng I, himself a somewhat successful pirate and a member of a large and feared pirate family, died in 1807 when he was only 39. Reacting immediately, Shih allowed herself little time for grief, seizing power over her late husband’s fleet. She then sailed throughout the seas around China, expanding from 400 small ships to 1,800 in only two years. Adding men and women alike to her fleet, she established herself as a dominant force in the South China Sea, drawing the ire of the Chinese Navy, the Portuguese Navy, and other high-profile pirates alike.
By the middle of 1809, Shih was in charge of a massive number of people, commanding by one count more than 70,000 men and women. She was a shrewd leader, offering her first lieutenants autonomy in exchange for their loyalty. Together, she and her pirate crew conducted raids along the coast of China, accumulating huge amounts of wealth, as well as fighting and winning battles with the Chinese Navy. The Chinese Navy, which was desperate to eliminate Madame Ching, tried to recruit her pirates into their ranks.
On her ships, Madame Ching instituted a strict legal code. For disobedience, unsanctioned theft, and unsanctioned pillaging, the punishment was beheading. The pirates had to share all the money they seized so that the less successful ships could purchase supplies and stay functional. She ran a tight operation, and it was only in 1810 that Madame Ching’s historic and rapid ascent came to a halt, after the Portuguese Navy attacked. Surrendering to the Portuguese, she nonetheless brokered one last deal – negotiating her own amnesty with the Chinese government, an amnesty that entailed rights to all of the wealth she had seized over the previous year and freedom for all of her fellow pirates who agreed to give up their arms. Madame Ching remarried, outliving her second husband as well. After his death, she relocated to Macau, where she used some of her riches to launch a casino and invest in a salt business. She lived until she was 69, dying a peaceful and comfortable death – all uncommon circumstances for a pirate. Uncommon circumstances, however, seemed more than anything else to define Madame Ching, who was a legend in her own time.
All photos used available via public domain.