Terror of the High Seas – And She’s Not Blackbeard

Before Keira Knightley ever donned a tricorn and swung cutlass beside Jack Sparrow, the high seas of piracy already had their female captain: the notorious Ching Shih.

In the early 19th century, she commanded a fleet of about 1,800 ships and 80,000 men (the much more famous Blackbeard led only 4 ships and 300 pirates), and is thus became known as the most successful pirate in history.


Sorry Jack Sparrow, it’s true.

Once a prostitute on a floating brothel in Canton, Ching Shih married up (and down) when she wed Cheng I, a pirate of the South China Sea and leader of the Red Flag Fleet. He had already gathered various pirate groups under his banner when he died for reasons unclear (sources suggest tsunami or murder) at age 42.

The newly widowed Ching Shih (which literally means Cheng’s widow), chose to rise up at this point by wedding the heir – her stepson, who was also Cheng I’s adopted son and lover (it’s a complicated family picture) – thus working her way to leadership of her late husband’s pirate confederation.

As captain, she boosted the number of ships and men under her command, and instituted an iron code of conduct for pirates under her. Anyone who gave his own orders, or disobeyed a superior was beheaded on the spot. Pirates who raped a female captive would be killed, but if the sex was consensual, both parties would be put to death.

Despite attempts by the Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese navy, and the East India Company to stamp out their piracy, the Red Flag Fleet sailed undefeated for three years under Ching Shih.

At the end of her infamy on the high seas, Ching Shih did what few pirates were able to: retire. By 1810, internal conflict within the Red Flag Fleet combined with external suppression probably led to her accepting the Chinese government’s offer of amnesty. (Considering how some other pirates met their end, this was the red carpet treatment.)

Ching Shih lived for three decades more till the age of 69 and died in 1844. Even now we remember her in popular culture (for instance she inspired Mistress Ching the Pirate Lord in the Pirates of the Caribbean series), for proving women can be as powerful and brutal as the most infamous of the male buccaneers.


By Vincent Tan