Ching Shih was a legendary Pirate Queen who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century and is regarded as one of the most successful pirates in all of history.
Shih’s early life was spent working as a prostitute in Canton until she was kidnapped by pirates. In 1801 she married the pirate Zheng Yi, who was a member of a notorious crime family. Shih fought actively alongside Zheng Yi as he amassed one of the largest pirate forces in China, known as the Red Flag Fleet.
When Zheng Yi died in 1807, Shih quickly manoeuvred herself into becoming the new leader using her good relationships with the fleet’s captains and by marrying Zheng Yi’s adopted nephew, Chang Pao.
Once in control of the fleet Shih set up about unifying it with a rigorously enforced code of conduct. The code punished disobedience with beheading, forbade stealing publicly owned money, and set up a system to redistribute loot to help fund the needs of the fleet. The code also punished pirates committing rape, adultery or sex out of wedlock with death.
Under Shih’s leadership the Red Flag Fleet established dominance over many coastal villages, some of whom were heavily taxed, but in turn the fleet was forbidden from attacking allied settlements. Shih’s fleet numbered over 300 Junks (ships) and tens of thousands of sailors, which included men, women and children. Reports from the British admiralty at the time called Ching Shih “The Terror of the South China Sea”.
The Chinese navy lost 63 ships trying to defeat the Red Flag Fleet and even the hired navies of Portugal and Britain proved useless. In 1810 an amnesty was offered to all pirates which Ching Shih took advantage of and retired. She kept her amassed wealth and used it to open a gambling house. She died in 1844, at the age of 69.