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Was Ching Shih the Most Successful Pirate in History?

Updated May 16, 2024
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Women typically don’t come to mind where piracy is involved, but maybe that should change. Talk about famous pirates will inevitably land upon the name of Blackbeard, for example. Yet despite all of the conventions of the time, some women really did rise to notoriety as pirates. Perhaps the most successful was Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih, a Chinese female pirate who once commanded thousands of outlaws on the South China Sea.

Born in 1775, Ching Shih lived during the Qing Dynasty. Following the death of her pirate husband in 1807, she took over command of his 1,800 ships, known as the Red Flag Fleet, and over 40,000 men (or 80,000 according to some sources). Her authority was respected, and her strict code of laws was obeyed by the men. Several attempts by Qing Dynasty officials, the Portuguese Navy, and the East India Company to bring Ching Shih down were unsuccessful, and she gained the notoriety of becoming arguably the world’s most successful pirate.

In 1810, Ching Shih accepted amnesty from the Chinese government after a series of battles with the Portuguese Navy left the Red Flag Fleet severely weakened. She retired from her life of piracy and returned to her hometown, where she became the proprietor of a gambling house. In 1844, Ching Shih died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 69.

More about Ching Shih:

  • Ching Shih was working as a prostitute in Guangdong province when she met her infamous pirate husband, Zheng Yi (also known as Cheng I).

  • Ching Shih gave birth to three sons: Zheng Yinshi, Zheng Xiongshi, and Zhang Yulin.

  • The character of Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, was inspired by Ching Shih.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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