Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Terror of South China

We’ve heard of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Calico Jack, and Henry Morgan—all famous for the piratical exploits and successful in their own ways. But who is the most successful pirate of all time? How about a captain of strength and courage who commanded a fleet of over 300 ships and, according to the varying resources, 20 to 40 thousand crewmen? This captain was also able to forge alliances with other pirate leaders, growing her control to over 1500 ships and 80 to 180 thousand pirates.

Her? Yes, her. Ching Shih must have been one hell of a woman.

Ching Shih was born in 1775 in Guangdong, a province in southern China. Not much else is known about her other than she was a Cantonese prostitute with a floating brothel. Her business acumen must have started at a young age because she climbed the ranks quickly, apparently through her beauty and effective, sultry tête-à-têtes with the wealthy and social elite.

In 1801, she caught the eye of a notorious pirate, Cheng I, who proposed marriage. She agreed on one condition—that she have an equal share in his power and loot. Ah...true love. And so for the next six years, this tag team managed a proper piracy, leading a butt-kicking, scary powerful armada called the Red Flag Fleet. But then Cheng I died. Could have been by a tsunami or it could’ve been murder, no one knows for sure. At any rate, Ching Shih had to do some shrewd thinking and maneuvering to keep her place as the ruler among men.

What’s a savvy girl to do? She began a romantic relationship with Cheng I’s adoptive son and likely heir, Cheung Po Tsai. This while nurturing coalitions and existing loyalties, solidifying her authority with business and military strategies. Beyond making money the old-fashioned pirate ways of attacking ships, pillaging coastal towns, and outsmarting British, Portuguese and Chinese navies, she also dipped into blackmail, extortion, instituting levies, and even offered protection plans for those who provided supplies to her fleet.

But what about the monumental task of governing her growing number of pirates? Her answer to that is the code of conduct she wrote. It was quite harsh, even by pirate standards. By example, anyone who disobeyed an order lost their head, on the spot. Ouch! Ching Shih’s policy on female captives was infamous. Not-so-pretty women, to put it politely, were released unharmed.  Attractive women were auctioned off to the crew as concubines. However, if a pirate outright purchased a prisoner, they were considered married and he was expected to care for her. And he better be faithful, lest he be executed by Ching Shih’s order.

The Red Flag Fleet was unstoppable and Ching Shih’s moniker “The Terror of South China” had been well earned. She simply could not be defeated, not by China, Britain, Portugal, or the bounty hunters hunting her. In an effort to stop the hemorrhaging, in 1810 the Chinese government offered her, Cheung Po, and all pirates prowling under their command a deal too good to refuse. Leave the pirate life and receive global amnesty. But negotiations stalled in regards to what would happen to the reserve of booty as well as the fact the Chinese government wanted the pirates to kowtow before them. Ah, but remember, Ching Shih was a foxy woman. She negotiated an epic deal where most of her followers escaped any sort of punishment and got to keep their earnings. As for the kowtowing, it was solved in a simple matter. The government officially recognized the marriage of Ching Shih and Cheung Po and the two kneeled before them in thanks. Brilliant, really.

Ching Shih and Cheung Po retired from piracy with their riches and had a son together. Cheung Po went on to secure a comfy military post in the Qing Imperial Navy in the same year of their amnesty and Ching Shih opened a prosperous gambling house. Not bad for a couple of ruthless pirates.

The poor prostitute who took over the world as a formidable, wealthy pirate queen lived the rest of her days in peace, dying in 1844 from old age as a 69-year-old grandmother.

About the Author

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.




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