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The most successful pirate in history was not Blackbeard (Edward Teach) or Barbarossa, but Zheng Shi or Ching Shih of China. She acquired great wealth, ruled the South China Seas, and best of all, survived to enjoy the spoils.
We know next to nothing about Zheng Shi's early life. In fact, "Zheng Shi" means simply "widow Zheng" - we don't even know her birth name. She was likely born in 1775, but the other details of her childhood are lost to history.
Zheng Shi's Marriage
She first enters the historical record in 1801. The beautiful young woman was working as a prostitute in a Canton brothel when she was captured by pirates. Zheng Yi, a famous pirate fleet admiral, claimed the captive to be his wife. She pluckily agreed to marry the pirate leader only if certain conditions were met. She would be an equal partner in the leadership of the pirate fleet, and half the admiral's share of the plunder would be hers. Zheng Shi must have been extremely beautiful and persuasive because Zheng Yi agreed to these terms.
Over the next six years, the Zhengs built a powerful coalition of Cantonese pirate fleets. Their combined force consisted of six color-coded fleets, with their own "Red Flag Fleet" in the lead. Subsidiary fleets included the Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green.
In April of 1804, the Zhengs instituted a blockade of the Portuguese trading port at Macau. Portugal sent a battle squadron against the pirate armada, but the Zhengs promptly defeated the Portuguese. Britain intervened, but did not dare take on the full might of the pirates - the British Royal Navy simply began providing naval escorts for British and allied shipping in the area.
The Death of Husband Zheng Yi
On November 16, 1807, Zheng Yi died in Vietnam, which was in the throes of the Tay Son Rebellion. At the time of his death, his fleet is estimated to have included 400 to 1200 ships, depending upon the source, and 50,000 to 70,000 pirates.
As soon as her husband died, Zheng Shi began calling in favors and consolidating her position as the head of the pirate coalition. She was able, through political acumen and willpower, to bring all of her husband's pirate fleets to heel. Together they controlled the trade routes and fishing rights all along the coasts of Guangdong, China, and Vietnam.
Zheng Shi, Pirate Lord
Zheng Shi was as ruthless with her own men as she was with captives. She instituted a strict code of conduct and enforced it strictly. All goods and money seized as booty was presented to the fleet and registered before being redistributed. The capturing ship received 20% of the loot, and the rest went into a collective fund for the entire fleet. Anyone who withheld plunder faced whipping; repeat offenders or those who concealed large amounts would be beheaded.
A former captive herself, Zheng Shi also had very strict rules about treatment of female prisoners. Pirates could take beautiful captives as their wives or concubines, but they had to remain faithful to them and take care of them - unfaithful husbands would be beheaded. Likewise, any pirate who raped a captive was executed. Ugly women were to be released unharmed and free of charge on shore.
Pirates who deserted their ship would be pursued, and if found, had their ears cut off. The same fate awaited any who went absent without leave, and the earless culprits would then be paraded in front of the entire squadron. Using this code of conduct, Zheng Shi built a pirate empire in the South China Sea that is unrivaled in history for its reach, fearsomeness, communal spirit, and wealth.
In 1806, the Qing dynasty decided to do something about Zheng Shi and her pirate empire. They sent an armada to fight the pirates, but Zheng Shi's ships quickly sank 63 of the government's naval ships, sending the rest packing. Both Britain and Portugal declined to directly intervene against "The Terror of the South China Seas." Zheng Shi had humbled the navies of three world powers.
Life After Piracy
Desperate to end Zheng Shi's reign - she was even collecting taxes from coastal villages in the place of the government - the Qing emperor decided in 1810 to offer her an amnesty deal. Zheng Shi would keep her wealth and a small fleet of ships. Out of her tens of thousands of pirates, only about 200-300 of the worst offenders were punished by the government, while the rest went free. Some of the pirates even joined the Qing navy, ironically enough, and became pirate hunters for the throne.
Zheng Shi herself retired and opened a successful gambling house. She died in 1844 at the respectable age of 69, one of the few pirate lords in history to die of old age.