The Pirate Queens law: abuse captive women, lose an ear… it again…...

let’s just say there were no 3rd time offenders


In 1801 a powerful Chinese pirate lord fell in love with a beautiful prostitute named Ching Shih. She worked on floating brothel (very convenient for servicing the pirate fleet) and the 26-year-old probably received an offer she couldn’t refuse. She was married to Zheng Yi, the master of about 200 pirate ships known as the Red Flag Fleet. Ching was one smart fortune cookie. She may have had little choice about the marriage but she was able to negotiate her way to some meaningful authority within her new husband’s pirate organization and even her own share of the plunder, a very unusual arrangement to say the least. It turns out that marrying Ching may have been the smartest move Zheng ever made. It soon became obvious she had a natural grasp of best pirate practices and strategies.


The newlyweds prospered as a team and soon the fleet of 200 ships became 600 and ultimately became several color coded fleets totaling some 1700-1800 ships. They formed the first “Cantonese Pirate Coalition” with another powerful pirate partner and reigned supreme until Zheng Yi died in 1807, only 6 years after their nuptials. Cheng definitely couldn’t see herself returning the brothel barge but it wasn’t easy in those days for a gal to just take over her husband’s business. The 50,000-70,000 male pirates in the Red Flag Fleet weren’t all too keen on having some bitch for a boss, even if she was their late commander’s widow.


Fortunately for Cheng, she and Zheng had adopted themselves an adult son. This had to be extremely rare but perhaps it was part of Cheng’s master plan from the get-go. With the support of her adopted son, Chang Pao, who also just happened to be Zheng’s second in command, Cheng was able to take the helm of the entire massive fleet.


Never one to be satisfied with simply maintaining the status quo, Cheng set about to reorganize and to a degree legitimize the practice of piracy. She must have had to kick some serious pirate booty but she implemented a series of reforms that turned her Red Flag Fleet into an even leaner, meaner and virtually unbeatable force. With businesslike acumen and military precision, she subdued and ruled and earned her moniker “The Terror of South China”. She imposed levies and taxes on all coastal villages from Macau to Canton. Anyone with balls enough to challenge her ended up brutally beaten with feet nailed to the deck to discourage running away.


Ching Shih seems to have had a soft spot when it came to captured prisoners and especially the females among them. She set forth strict guidelines for the treatment of captive ladies and harsh punishments for “non-compliance”.  The less comely girls must have found themselves thanking Buddha for their unattractiveness since being considered ugly was a kind of “get out of jail free card” and they were simply released unharmed. The beautiful captives didn’t stand much chance to avoid becoming pirate-brides but…. very strict conditions had to be met if the handsome grooms wished to remain unmutilated. Rank n file pirates were free to take a beautiful captive as their wife but they had better take it seriously. Bound by law to remain faithful and to protect and care for their blushing bride, they faced brutal execution for the crimes of unfaithfulness and rape. Other punishments like flogging, quartering, lopping off ears or the occasional keel hauling weren’t uncommon for lesser offenses like ogling other pretty winches or “grog-breath”.


 The story has a happy ending except for some feckless husbands that violated Ching’s code of conduct. She became so completely invincible that she even kicked British and Portuguese naval butt when they got in her way. The Chinese Monarchy, tired of losing so many ships, decided to grant amnesty to Ching and her pirate minions. They even helped her go “legit” and allowed her to keep all of her ill-gotten spoils. She ended up marring her adopted son Chang and opening a gambling establishment in Canton where she remained until she died at age 69, a ripe old age in those days.


Unfortunately, Ching’s code of conduct never became ingrained in pirate culture. Fair treatment of women was never really embraced by any culture until fairly recent history and then only in more advanced societies. Ching got it right over 200 years ago. She made sure women were treated decently on her watch and still managed to be the most successful pirate ever. Imagine what a woman with her strength, courage, ingenuity, intelligence and resolve could accomplish in a world where women have no male dominated barriers to overcome!

Published by Bill Hoover