From Atlas Obscura by Ching Shih
Ching Shih, who lived and pillaged during the Qing Dynasty, has been called the most successful pirate in history.
Though the name under which we now know her, Ching Shih, simply means “Cheng’s widow,” the legacy she left behind far exceeded that of her husband’s.
Her husband, Cheng I, was the formidable commander of the Red Flag Fleet of pirate ships.
The story goes that Cheng sought his bride out due to her reputation as a shrewd businesswoman: Ching Shih apparently used the secrets she learned as a prostitute to wield power over her wealthy and politically connected clients.
It is rumored that Ching Shih demanded equal control of the pirate fleet as a condition of her marriage to Cheng I in 1801.
Six years into their marriage, Cheng I died at the age of 42. Not much is known about how he passed away.
Her husband’s adoptive son and heir, Cheung Po Tsai, was originally the one to inherit control of the Red Flag Fleet.
“Unlike in the West, ‘adult’ adoption was often practiced in China in order to establish a kinship basis for further interaction, particularly of a business or discipleship sort,” says Murray.
Within weeks of Cheng I’s death, Ching Shih had taken Cheung Po as her lover as well, eventually solidifying the relationship through marriage.
As a woman in command of a huge pirate fleet, Ching Shih had her work cut out for her.
An East India Company employee named Richard Glasspoole was captured by Ching Shih’s pirates in September 1809, and held until December of that year.
Ching Shih unified her enormous fleet of pirates using a code of laws.
There are further accounts of Ching Shih’s code that state that if a pirate took a captive as his wife, he was required to be faithful to her (although others say that captains would have multiple wives). “Whatever they thought about her, it does seem clear that the pirates respected and obeyed her authority,” says Murray.
The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule went undefeated, despite attempts by Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese navy, and the East India Company to vanquish it.
“What precipitated the surrender seems to have been an internecine conflict between the Black and Red Fleets and their leaders, which first led to the surrender of the Black Flag Fleet and then ultimately, to the Red Flag fleet,” says Murray.
Ching Shih died in 1844, at the ripe old age of 69.