According to legend, the greatest pirate ever to have lived was a woman known by several names, including Zheng Yi Sao, Zheng Shi, Cheng Shih, Madame Ching, and more.
It all started with a fateful meeting with a pirate by the name of Zheng Yi. In the 1800s, he and his crew were busy ravaging the region now known as Guangdong when they captured a brothel girl that caught Zheng Yi’s attention, and he swiftly asked for her hand in marriage. Although she agreed to marry him, she did so under the condition that he would share his treasure and power with her. He agreed. Through diplomacy and business deals with Zheng Yi’s rivals, his wife Zheng Shi (as she would come to be known upon her husband’s untimely death, meaning the widow Zheng), managed to help put together a fleet of around 1500 ships, a force to be reckoned with. In addition, she made several strategic offers of protection to villages in exchange for tribute.
Although Zheng Yi died in 1807, Zheng Shi would not fade into the historical background. In fact, upon Zheng Yi’s death, Zheng Shi, was quick to put Zheng Yi’s first mate to work (presumably to stave off doubts that might come from a woman running the show). After taking over, Zheng Shi’s power and influence only continued to grow. Zheng Shi’s navy, The Red Flag Fleet, was said to have over 1800 ships and 60,000 men at it’s height (about 30 times more than all of the different factions of Caribbean pirates put together) (the global dispatch).
Although she achieved great wealth and power, Zheng Shi’s reign over Southern China and the South China Sea was not entirely a reign of terror. There was a strict and ruthless code of conduct that all of the crew were forced to abide by:
- If you disobey an order, you get your head chopped off and body thrown in the ocean.
- If you steal anything from the common plunder before it has been divvied up, you get your head chopped off and body thrown in the ocean.
- If you rape anyone without permission from the leader of your squadron, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown in the ocean.
- If you have consensual sex with anyone while on duty, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown in the ocean and the woman involved would get something heavy strapped to her and also tossed in the ocean.
- If you loot a town or ship of anything at all or otherwise harass them when they have paid tribute, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown into the ocean.
- If you take shore-leave without permission, you get your head chopped off and body thrown into the ocean.
- If you try to leave the organization, you get your head… ha, just kidding, in this case you get your ears chopped off.
- Captured ugly women were to be set free unharmed. Captured pretty women could be divvied up or purchased by members of the Red Flag Fleet. However, if a pirate was awarded or purchased a pretty woman, he was then considered married to her and was expected to treat her accordingly. If he didn’t, he had his head cut off and body thrown in the ocean.
Finally, Zheng Shi and her Red Flag Fleet became such a thorn in the Qing emperor’s side that he decided to send the Imperial Navy after her. They failed. After two more failed attempts by the British and Portuguese navies later, it was time to talk treaties. At first, Zheng Shi ignored the Emperor’s requests, but she later showed up unannounced at the Governor-general of Canton’s house to discuss the terms of the treaty. She walked away with quite a bargain. Not only would the majority of the pirate fleet be given amnesty, but Zheng Shi was granted the title of “Lady by Imperial Decree” and allowed to keep her treasure.
In a few short years, Zheng Shi went from brothel girl, to pirate’s wife, to widow. As the Queen of pirates, she amassed the most powerful naval force at the time, but gave it up in favor of peace. By the age of 35, she gave up on the pirating and retired to the Guangdong countryside to run a combination brothel/gambling house. She had quite the career.
Next time you and your Pengyous have a debate about pirates, be sure to drop some knowledge on them about infamous and legendary lady-pirate, Zheng Shi!
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