From Canton across the South China sea to the edge of the Philippines the Red Flags of Pirate Junks waved in the fragrant breeze. These were the ships of the greatest pirate fleet ever to sail the sea, the only true pirate confederation to actually exist and it was all headed up by one very mysterious woman named Ching Shih. There’s allot of information out there about Shih, and most of it is either unrealistic, unprovable, tentative or just wrong. If you believe most internet sites then you will come off with the impression she took on the world and won. Well it didn’t quite happen that way and the it’s time for the Internet to step back from sensationalising her. This (so far be understood) is the real story. Despite her famous exploits Ching Shih is a elusive woman to pin down, but then again pirates never made it easy to catch them. Unlike the famous pirates of the West Indies who took great pains to project an image, Ching Shih, probably the top big time pirate of them all, remains in the shadows, very little of her personality comes through the reports of her activities. Looking at her disreputable life broadly (and we should remember that the reality of piracy is always disreputable) she was a woman who wanted to get on in the world (a trait common in all pirates) and used every trick at her disposal to achieve this (Also a common pirate facet). She was intelligent, loyal and brave but also ruthless and cruel, pretty much staples of pirate leaders across the world really, but what made her stand apart was the sheer scale of her operation. For a start it helped that Eastern pirates operated differently to their western counterparts. For one it was a family business that could be inherited and it tended to be run on a much larger scale, whereas in the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean a group of three to four ships was considered a large pirate fleet. Chinese pirates of the Qing dynasty plied their trade in large groups of over twenty to a hundred junks of varying sizes all answering to one fixed leader, not even the Buccaneers worked on this scale. Many of the pirates were married, and it was common seafaring tradition that their families went to sea with them, it was not unusual for their wives to fight alongside them and in desperate circumstances take command of ships. In the east piracy was a business, a big one, luckily most of the pirate gangs were in competition with each other, lessening the burden on the Imperial shoulders, but by 1800 it was time for a change, the world was changing and foreigners were coming to China in growing numbers selling opium for tea, the pirates would have to adapt or dissapear.
For a 20 something year old prostitute working on one of Canton’s floating brothels in the year 1801, Ching Shih’s prospects looked bleak. She would most likely be dead before the age of 40 and it would be hard, if not dangerous, to get out of her contract to try and better her station. Quite how Ching Shih ended up on that junk no one knows, she was born around 1775, nothing is known about her family but one assumes she fell on hard times and after selling everything else she sold herself. The South China Sea in those days was the Caribbean of the east, a fertile bowl for merchant ships and bustling trade ports making a boom in spices, tea and opium and it was rich in pickings for the pirates, many of whom doubtless frequented the brothels and taverns of Canton. The romantic story goes that the pirate lord Cheng Yi (Also known as Zheng Yi) sent his men to loot Canton for supplies told them that while they were out to bring him back the most beautiful girl in the town. Apparently they chose Ching Shih, obviously this story has a slightly suspicious ring to it. Pirate stories are never as romantic as they are in novels. The other story is that I have managed to cobble together from various confused and perfunctory sources was that Cheng was a regular at the brothel were Shih worked, she was his favourite and one day decided he no longer wanted to pay for her and ordered his men to take her. It is more than possible given her future actions that Shih contrived to get Cheng to kidnap her, she was certainly a shrewd enough operator to see an opportunity when it walked in the door and take advantage of it. If you put the two stories together you get a relatively believable story plus a hidden bonus. No reliable description of Ching Shih exists either in word or picture, but here we can logically assume that at the very least she was an attractive enough looking woman to hook the pirate leader, who could have his pick of all the girls he wanted, and at most she was a stunner. Later when Ching Shih drew up a code of behaviour her pirate’s were to follow she included a clause about how to treat women captives that allowed an ugly captive to be sold off, but a good looking one to be kept by her captor. The catch was that if this happened the pirate in question was then considered married to that prisoner and was to treat her accordingly. This is what seems to have happened to Ching Shih. The practice was in general use (and most pirate practices were borrowed off legitimate sea codes) so when Cheng kidnapped Ching Shih he intended to marry her, which he did. Whether or not she knew of the custom of mariners wives joining them on their ships and helping them in their business and therefore contrived to get him to kidnap her is unknown but highly likley. She consequently became a part of the floating community of Cheng’s fleet. Chinese pirates rarely left their boats and usually disdained a permanent port, when they needed something they attacked a town and took it. Over the next six years Shih saw how the system worked, they looted ships and extracted fines for protection from business’ and local officials in ports like Canton and smaller communities on the Pearl River Delta, most of Guangdong province submitted themselves; not to the Qing Emperor in the forbidden city, but to the pirate lord Cheng I and his wife. Together they looted ports, ransomed ships and captives and generally spread a reign of terror across the South China Sea. Many people credit Shih with dreaming up the idea of a pirate confederacy, the story reads better that way, but it is likely that Cheng already had ideas in that direction, he had inherited his fleet from his father and doubtless he had his own plans about how to become the greatest pirate in China. Wanting to become invaluable to him and to the pirates in general Shih, who appears to have had more than the lions share of brains, helped foster these ideas, she was going to make everything she could out of her marriage and had lost nothing of her ambition. By 1807 most of the pirates operating along the southern coast of China had formed a league of subordinate and allied fleets, and were now travelling together in huge numbers under the leadership of Cheng and his formidable wife, who was probably at pains to put trusted relatives and protégés in charge of the various fleets, whose collective numbers were estimated as high as 50,000. Mrs. Cheng as she was now called was firmly embedded at the centre of the pirate world, and one is inclined to imagine her as the calculating brain behind the charismatic Cheng.
In 1807 a crisis arose which gave Shih an opportunity to seize power herself. Cheng I was cruising off the coast of Vietnam doing the usual pirate things, looting, extorting and generally being scurvy to all and sundry, when a typhoon blew up which sank his ship and drowned him.
The newly made Widow Cheng moved quickly when she heard the news of her husbands watery demise. She gathered Cheng’s closest relatives to her and gained their support by appealing to their loyalty to Cheng, it was an emergency situation and everyone knew the wife of a captain had the right to command in such a time, the confederation had to be kept together and the Window of Cheng was the one to do it. Shih wasn’t so naive as to think that her newfound position was secure however, when the emergency ended the need for her presence might become irrelevant, and she was in this for the long run. In an adroit manoeuvre she used her newfound power to appoint Cheng’s right hand man Chang Pao to the command of the Red Flag fleet, the largest and most powerful of all the confederate fleets. Pao was a fisherman’s son captured by Cheng, who had grown into one of the most respected pirate leaders in the league, Cheng had thought so much of him that he had made him his adopted son, and so Pao was actually principally in line to take Shih’s place himself. Gaining his loyalty and support was a master stroke, because he was immensely popular with the pirates of the various fleets, and it instantly put the most powerful fleet in the confederacy at her service. If that was not enough she made sure Pao would never try and turn those guns on her and take her place as pirate leader. Employing the same wiles on him that she had possibly deployed on Cheng she soon became his lover. The young Widow Cheng always got her way and several years later she married Pao and with his ambitions firmly aligned with hers, all the pieces had fallen into place. It was a triumph of political cunning which was to prove immensely successful.
Shih and Pao made an excellent team, with Shih in supreme command of the confederation and Pao in charge of day to the day to day running of the business, the pirate league went from strength to strength. Under their leadership a strict set of rules was imposed on the pirates. Insubordination or theft from the common fund was punished by death by beheading, for desertion or going AWOL you would lose your ears, if you were caught stashing loot for yourself you would be flogged and if you did it again you lost your head. Mistreatment of women captives was not tolerated, and while there were specific rules discriminating between plain and pretty captives, any man caught assaulting one of them was sentenced to death, if the act had been consensual they were both executed, the man lost his head and the woman was dropped over the side with a weight tied to her legs.
Discipline was harsh, harsher than most pirate codes, but the pirate life was harsh and the only way to keep such a large amount of pirates in line and under control was to employ harsh measures. Chinese pirates didn’t believe in the aimless wandering and pillaging of western pirates. It was a business to them and it had to be profitable or you may as well have stayed a fisherman or a whore. No sooner had Shih succeeded in taking power, than the pirates of the South China sea were confronted by their biggest challenge yet, and it was up to the Widow of Cheng to make sure they weathered the storm. At the death of Cheng I the Qing government saw an opportunity to rid the seas of the pirate menace that had grown so monstrous over the last six years. In January 1808 Imperial General Li Ch’ang-keng the provincial commander in chief of Che-kiang seized the opportunity to attack the pirates while he thought they were still leaderless. Under cover of darkness he attacked the Pirates with fireships, yet Shih’s & Pao’s forces emerged the next morning having won an astonishing victory, Li was dead, fifteen junks sunk and the rest captured. Pao followed up the victory by launching a campaign of devastation against the province. He sailed up the Pearl river in smaller boats to threaten the city of Canton. But as he advanced his retreat to the sea was cut. Resourceful as ever Pao took his men on shore and looted the surrounding villages. After a string of humiliating defeats the Qing navy lost over 63 vessels during 1808, & the Pirates essentially now ran the entire coast. It would seem that devoid of protection the local populace took matters into their own hands and banded together in militias for mutual support. They laid ambushes for the pirates, some of which worked. But more often than not the pirates emerged from the hail of tiles, lime buckets and rocks determined to teach them a lesson. In August 1808 Pao raised the village of Sanshan to the ground and beheaded 80 villagers; hanging their heads from a banyan tree as a warning, the woman and children were all captured hiding in a temple & brought back to the fleet. In September Pao launched an attack on the island of Tao-chiao killing a thousand people and capturing 20 women. By 1809 Shih’s forces were at the height of their power, more successes against the goverment drawing new recruits to her, and soon the red flags were going into action with several hundred vessels and 2,000 men, of which 200 of her junks were large ocean going vessels mounting 20 to 30 guns holding up to 400 pirates, between six and eight hundred coastal vessels with 12 to 25 guns carrying 200 men, and dozens of river junks manned by twenty to thirty crew which had sails and up to 20 oars to loot villages an destroy defaulting farms along the shallow rivers. Despite this she never underestimated the Emperor’s power, no matter how large her forces were at sea, Imperial China had numberless armies and endless provision to rebuild the ships she sank or captured, to win she would need to defeat the Emperor and that would require more fleet actions, land battles and sieges for an uncertain period of time, and though she could probably have had a good go of it, she doesn’t seem to have thought it either necessary or practical. Nor was becoming ruler of China a main priority. By 1810 Emperor Jiaqing was looking elsewhere for help and he asked for British and Portuguese assistance. With the Napoleonic Wars still raging help was not going to come in the numbers needed to take on the pirates but he probably knew that the British had large fleets for the protection of India. Further the East India Company had allot of good reasons to deploy its own fleets against her. Shih had good reason to view the movements of the Europeans with concern. To answer why Shih was weary of them, you need to consider that her biggest Junks could mount at most 40 guns, not all of large caliber, but a European ship of the line could deploy over 100 guns from 9 pounders to 32 pounders on a single ship, they were faster and more suited to war than a junk, even a 40 gun frigate was a match for a number of 40 gun junks. Yet the Emperor knew that European intervention would be limited & being in debt to the westerners would be as bad as being humiliated by Shih, if not worse. He therefore deployed a carrot and stick method, offering an amnesty to all the pirates, to prevent further fighting and loss of commerce. Essentially he was asking for terms. Seeing that even if she defeated the Europeans and then the Chinese with her superior numbers, the war would not end Shih decided to quit while she was ahead and get good terms. On 18 April 1810 She went to Canton and met the Governor General at his residence, she was unarmed and accompanied by a delegation of seventeen women and children to highlight that the pirates had families. It was a gambit that payed off, for the Governor General could probably see from his window the forest of masts anchored off his harbour mouth waiting to lay waste to his city if he tried anything clever.
The terms were generous. The pirates were to surrender their junks and weapons and in return they could keep their plunder. Those who were willing could join the army; Shih arranged for her husband Pao to get a Lieutenancy and was allowed to keep a personal fleet of 20 junks. On April 20 17,318 pirates formally surrendered their weapons and ships, 226 junks were handed over. Nevertheless the Emperor had to make examples of some of them, perhaps of the most notorious offenders. 60 were banished for 2 years, 151 were permanently exiled and 126 were executed. Some might say it was a salutary lesson, but it had more of the ring of a pathetic act of petty piqué as empty as the emperors threats. Shih and Pao settled in Canton but later moved to Fukien were they had a son, Pao became a Colonel and died in 1822 aged 36. Shih returned to Canton after that were she used her considerable wealth to open a gambling house which some say was also a brothel but that might just be tattle. She lived the rest of her life in comfort and supposedly saw her grandchildren born. She died in 1844 just after the 1st Opium War ended at the age of 69, when laws were coming in to try and suppress those pirates still active. A mysterious figure whose exploits as the leader of the pirate confederation are legendary. She was one of the few pirates ever to retire with her plunder, but whose appearence and personality remain cloaked in obscurity. Despite this when compared beside the pirate A listers she surely ranks up there with the other big time pirate Henry Morgan as one of the greatest in history.
Thanks for reading, see you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.