When most people hear the word ‘pirate’ they immediately think of the stereotype created by Robert Newton’s portrayal of fictional buccaneer ‘Long John Silver’ in Disney’s 1950 film ‘Treasure Island’, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel – the peg-leg, parrot on shoulder, and west country accent. However, in reality, pirates came from all over the world, and could be any race or gender. In fact, one of the most successful pirates of the 19th Century was a female Chinese pirate from the Guangdong province.
Ching Shih (pronounced ‘Zheeng Shi’) commanded well over 300 ships, with approximately 35000 pirate followers, men, women, and even children – the largest army of any pirate from history! Unsurprisingly, she remained undefeated in all of her conquests – challenging the likes of the British Empire, Portuguese Empire, and the Qing Dynasty of China.
She was born in 1775 and, before being captured by pirates, worked as a prostitute. She married a notorious pirate captain, Cheng, giving her the name she is best remembered by, which translates to ‘Cheng’s Widow’.
After Cheng’s death in 1807, Ching Shih began her assent to leadership of the ‘Red Flag Fleet’.
Unlike many famous pirates who met a grizzly end, either at the hands of a pirate hunter or at the noose, Ching Shih is one of the few known pirate leaders who retired from piracy to live out the rest of her life, she took advantage of the amnesty offered in 1810, and with the vast amount of loot that she had claimed during her piratical career, she opened a gambling house. Ching Shih eventually died in 1844 at the impressive age of 69.