The world’s most successful pirate in history was a lady
Ching Shih, who lived and pillaged during the Qing Dynasty, has been called the most successful pirate in history. At the dawn of the 19th century, a former prostitute from a floating brothel in the city of Canton was wed to Cheng I, a fearsome pirate who operated in the South China Sea in the Qing dynasty. Though the name under which we now know her, Ching Shih, simply means “Cheng’s widow,” the legacy she left behind far exceeded that of her husband’s. Following his death, she succeeded him and commanded over 1,800 pirate ships, and an estimated 80,000 men. In comparison, the famed Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 pirates within the same century. As a result, Ching Shih is known as one of the most successful pirates in known history. Her husband, Cheng I, was the formidable commander of the Red Flag Fleet of pirate ships. He had managed to unite many rival Chinese pirate organizations. He married a 26-year-old Ching Shih in 1801, “who participated fully in her husband’s piracy,” writes Dian H. Murray in Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810. The story goes that Cheng sought his bride out due to her reputation as a shrewd businesswoman: Ching Shih apparently used the secrets she learned as a prostitute to wield power over her wealthy and politically connected clients. There are no primary Chinese sources to support this tale, but Ching Shih’s financial savvy certainly became undeniable over the course of her career in piracy. It is rumored that Ching Shih demanded equal control of the pirate fleet as a condition of her marriage to Cheng I in 1801. Six years into their marriage, Cheng I died at the age of 42. Not much is known about how he passed away. Some accounts indicate that he was killed at sea by a tsunami, while others insinuate that he was murdered in Vietnam. Regardless of the circumstances, his death left Ching Shih in a precarious position.