Forget about that chump Edward Teach, the world's greatest pirate was a 19th-century Cantonese prostitute who commanded over 80,000 men and 1,800 ships and ruled the South China Sea like she owned the place—which she did.
In researching our HK Dollar Blanket (above), we came across the incredible story of Madame Ching and her pirates and decided we had to share it.
Geography: South China Sea
These days you hear a lot of noise about territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The stakes are pretty high—over one-third of the world's shipping passes through this body of water—which is why at least 6 countries have overlapping territorial claims that have yet to be worked out. That's also why there's talk of U.S./U.N. intervention to maintain "freedom of navigation" and keep the waters "international."
South China Sea territorial claims—it's a mess. [Map by Voice of America]
This was not always the case though. 200 years ago the South China Sea was very much the undisputed territory of one woman, Madame Ching Shih. She beat the Chinese, the British, the Dutch, and the Portuguese, and not only lived to tell the tale, she retired at the top of her game with all of her treasure intact.
Started From the Bottom Now We Here
Her story begins as inauspiciously as can be imagined. Born in 1775, Madame Ching spent the first half of her life as a prostitute on the floating brothels of Canton (now Guangzhou) just northwest of Hong Kong.
City of Canton circa 1800.
In 1801 she was captured by a notorious group of pirates called the Red Flag Fleet, headed by a man named Cheng I. Though he came from a long line of successful pirates going back at least a century, Cheng I saw in Madame Ching a spark of greatness that could take his modest fleet of a few hundred ships and turn it into something much bigger.
During her time in the floating brothels, Madame Ching wielded significant political influence over her rich and powerful clientele using secrets gleaned from their pillow talk.
Canton's floating dens of iniquity were called "Flower Boats." Sounds so innocent.
So Cheng I did what any captain of piracy worth his sea salt would do and proposed a strategic alliance through marriage. Madame Ching, ever the businesswoman, shrewdly accepted on the condition that she be granted co-ownership of Cheng I’s criminal enterprise.
This proved to be a prescient move as only six years into their marriage Cheng I died under mysterious circumstances, either killed by a tsunami at sea or murdered in Vietnam or you know, just straight up whacked by the Madame herself.
Her next step was to solidify her authority by taking the name Ching Shih (“Cheng’s widow”) and marrying Cheng I’s adopted son, heir, and male lover Cheung Po Tsai. Intrigue on the high seas!
The Red Flag Fleet used an ancient Chinese sail boat called a "junk." The fleet had 1,800 of these versatile boats, and they were definitely not junk. [Lai Afong]
The Pirate Code
Recognizing that a motley crew of murderous rogues was likely to resent taking orders from a woman, Madame Ching appointed Cheung Po Tsai captain (in name only) after laying down some harsh rules that she called “The Code.” The code was very strictly enforced and involved a lot of beheading:
- Anyone who disobeyed an order—head chopped off on the spot.
- Anyone caught stealing, either from the public fund or from villagers who supported the pirates—head chopped off on the spot.
- All plunder was to be presented for group inspection, registered by a purser, and surrendered to the ship’s leader to be added to the public fund. The person who seized the loot was given a 20% commission. Don’t like your cut of the profits? Head chopped off on the spot.
- NO raping female captives, EVER. Pirates had three options when it came to female captives. One, old and homely women were immediately released. Two, young attractive women were ransomed. Three, the most beautiful women could be taken as wives by the pirates on the condition that they were faithful husbands. Not faithful? Head chopped off. Rape a woman? Head chopped off. Have consensual sex with a woman before marrying her? Head chopped off and the woman was shackled to cannonballs and dropped in the ocean.
- Anyone caught deserting had their ears chopped off and were paraded around the other pirates as a message. Can’t hear the message? Well let's cut those useless ears off then.
Pirate battle on the South China Sea from the Qing scroll on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
Madame Ching’s code was unique for a pirate to say the least—particularly when it came to the treatment of women—but it was brutally effective. When a Dutch East India employee named Richard Glasspoole was captured in 1809, he got to witness firsthand the code in action. He wrote:
“[The code] gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.”
For the next three years Ching’s fleet remained undefeated on land and sea after multiple clashes with the Qing dynasty's royal forces, the Portuguese and British navies, the Dutch East India Company, and of course the numerous towns and villages they ransacked along the Chinese mainland and even up and down the Pearl Delta.
"Hong Kong ain't got sh*t on me!"
The Red Flag Fleet was so formidable that after a decade of fighting them, in 1810 the Qing dynasty caved and offered Madame Ching a very generous pardon. In exchange for turning over their ships and taking an early retirement, Ching and her men were allowed to keep every last cent of their booty (without ever having to bury it!) and live out the rest of their lives in peace.
Needless to say they took the deal and many of Madame Ching's men were offered employment in the Chinese royal navy, including Cheung Po Tsai who rose to the rank of colonel and spent the rest of his days battling other pirates.
Madame Ching opted for semi-retirement and used her considerable wealth to start a casino and brothel empire. She died of natural causes in 1844 at the ripe old age of 69.
Madame Ching inspired "Mistress Ching" in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. [Walt Disney Pictures]
About That Other Pirate...With The Beard.
Just for frame of reference, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach—arguably the most infamous pirate in the Western world—at the height of his power only commanded about 400 men and 4 ships. SAD!
"Does anyone else smell smoke?" [Getty Images]
He's also not actually known to have killed anyone (he was so scary people usually surrendered) and died at the tender age of 38-years-old by being hacked to pieces, shot 5 times, and beheaded, with his headless corpse thrown into the ocean and his head mounted on the bowspirit of the ship that defeated him.
Sorry Blackbeard, real pirates get to keep their booty...and their head. [The Pirates Own Book (1837)]
Well played Madame Ching, well played indeed.
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– Hiller Dry Goods