Rags to riches do not make good copy always. But you need to medal some women for their sheer guts and strength of mind.

From a concubine to a queen takes some and some more.

Who Is Ching Shih?

Ching Shih, The Prostitute Who Became Queen Of The South China Seas
The Queen of South China Seas Pirates

Picture Credits: https://allthatsinteresting.com/ching-shih

Ching Shih was born in 1775 in Canton, China.

She grew up in the shadier parts and eventually became a prostitute in a bordello that was afloat.

This area was the fiefdom of Zheng Yi, The commander of the Red Flag Fleet, which controlled all trade in the South China Seas. The Red Flag was essentially a pirate outfit.

As the story goes, Yi proposed to Shih, who readily accepted. The deal was a 50% partnership in the proceeds of Yi’s exploits. The year 1801.

The Proliferation Of The Red Fleet

Ching Shih, The Prostitute Who Became Queen Of The South China Seas
The Red Fleet

At the time of their marriage, Yi had around 200. However, he kept his word, and Shih proved to be an excellent marketing tool. 

The couple struck a coalition deal with other powerful Cantonese pirate lords. The Red Fleet’s expansion was phenomenal. They had some 1700 or 1800 ships now.

The ships were color-coded, red convoy followed by Blue, Yellow, White, Black, and Green.

The Blockade of Macau 1804

The audacious attempt to blockade the trade port of Maca, a Portuguese-controlled dominion, was the first open attack of the Red Fleet. The Portuguese sent out a fleet to neutralize this threat but beat a hasty retreat.

The British Royal Navy, nestled in Hong Kong, would have a minor role in this. But, on the other hand, they offered naval escorts to the Red Fleet.

The Demise Of Zheng Yi, 1807

Cheng Yi, the co-commander of the Red Fleet, died in Vietnam, a Confucian state where the French were trying to gain a foothold in the Orient. The rulers of Vietnam were hard put to resolve the issue. Mercenaries like Cheng came in to help repel these outsiders.

Six years after his wedlock with Zheng Shih, he died in combat.

The True Homecoming Of Madame Ching Shih, The Terror of The South China Seas

The name Zheng’s widow would resonate in those waters. 

She now had some 50,000 to 80,000 pirates in her service. A formidable force indeed.

She was ruthless. Her new diktat began with a code of conduct.

  • Crew to account and register all money gleaned from raids before distributing it amongst themselves.
  • The responsible ship could retain 20% only. The rest was to be a deposit in a collective fund to use the whole Red Fleet.
  • The crew of any vessel found to be withholding bounty would be subjected to severe whip-lashing or beheading.
  • Pirate lords were obliged to keep concubines on the riding condition that they take care of them. Any defiance of this edict was immediate beheading.
  • She empathized with women. Any women captured were to be free if they so wished.
  • Loyalty was a demand. Anyone deserting the Fleet would be sought and have his ears chopped off.

The pillage of the South China Seas continued under her dominance. This domination included the capture of whole towns and imposing taxation.

Ships that did not obey had the registers nailed to the deck before the torture began.

Under her helm,  63 Chinese Governmental ships met their end.

The English and the Portuguese slunk off, deciding to steer clear of her affairs.

The End Of The Red Fleet And Ching Shih

After three years of her assuming command over the Red Fleet, the Chinese Emperor decided she and her army of pirates were undefeatable.

He offered an amnesty deal to all willing to return to the mainland.

Ching could retain all her wealth if she came back to civilian life.

The run of The Red Fleet Story ended.

The Wind-Up

Ching got married to one of her underlings, Pao.

Together they returned to her home province Guangdong (Canton), where she opened and operated a gambling house.

She died in 1844.

Her legacy is one of the characters, one of the nine Pirate Lords as depicted in the Hollywood buster Pirates Of The Caribbean. 

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