The most powerful pirate in the world was a woman, and among his pirate laws, raping a woman was punishable by death.
Zheng Shi (1775-1844), born in the province of Canton, then part of the Qing Dynasty and now China, lived an impoverished life as a prostitute before marrying Captain Zheng Yi, who commanded a pirate fleet. The couple fought in a Vietnamese rebellion on the side of Tay-son.
Sometime later, in 1807, her husband would die in a galley (violent storm); however, by that time she would have formed a pirate coalition of over 400 ships. At the end of her career, Zhèng Shì commanded over 2000 boats and 70,000 sailors, making her the commander of the largest pirate fleet ever recorded.
Sometime after she became a widow, she married her adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai (1783-1822), whom she had already made her lieutenant, thus consolidating her family’s hold on the fleet.
A master of manipulation, she used her fleet with political intentions by controlling much of China’s salt trade and destroying government ships that tried to stop her, disabling the Chinese navy and threatening the country’s ability to trade. For 15 years (in the middle of the 19th century) a woman ruled the southern coast of China.
Zhen Shi: the most famous female pirate
Zhèng Shì’s fleet carried out incalculable acts of piracy, looting from merchant ships to coastal or river populations. The Chinese government tried to destroy the pirates in a series of battles throughout 1808, but all they managed to do was lose ships that ended up in the hands of their enemies. The losses were so great that the government was forced to confiscate private ships.
This tenacious Asian pirate drew up a code of laws, a kind of constitution for her subordinates, which she strictly enforced. For raping a woman prisoner, the penalty was death, as well as looting the inhabitants of any village that had helped them in the past or stealing from the common treasury. Basically, it was considered a capital crime to disobey orders.
The only great rival she had during her golden age was another pirate named O-po-tae, who forced her to withdraw her fleet after a fierce battle. Knowing the lengths to which she could go for revenge, she decided to go to the Chinese government and ask for forgiveness. Her fear was so great that she preferred to take her chances with them. Finally, she was granted a pardon.
Zhèng Shì also sought forgiveness for herself and her subordinates, because the government was preparing a new fleet against her. When she decided to surrender, the Chinese government treated her as a nation. They negotiated an agreement that allowed most of their pirates either to become military officers or to resettle on land, and the pirate “queen” received no punishment.
Her adopted son and husband, Cheung Po Tsai, spent the rest of his life in a comfortable position as a government official until his death in 1822, while the world’s most powerful pirate died in 1844 running a brothel and gambling house in the city of Canton.
Her life permeated popular culture and even inspired a character in the film “Pirates of the Caribbean”, the powerful Mrs Ching (Mistress Ching).
Strategist to the death
He also seized much of the Emperor’s land, sending entire fleets that fell to the Red Flag ships: instead of fleeing, Ching Shih sailed to meet them.
In these battles, he managed to seize large ships and increase his army even more. So the Emperor, in desperation, went so far as to pay large sums to the British, Portuguese and Dutch powers to annihilate Ching Shih.
It was no use to him. Under the threat of nailing the prisoners by their feet to the deck and beating them to death, Ching Shih again expanded his army.
The constant defeats led the Emperor to take a different path. Instead of trying to defeat Ching Shih, he offered him amnesty. The pirate reached an agreement: it is said that less than 400 men were punished, 126 were executed and the rest kept their booty.
Having plundered other pirates, cities and the Emperor himself; having commanded an invincible army and become the master of the South China Sea, Ching Shih proved to be bold to the end of his days. Instead of clinging to power, or dying in a final duel, she retired from piracy and lived in peace, with her booty intact, until the age of 69.
He manufactured horror stories and controlled 80,000 men. Ching Shih was one of history’s first female Mafia.