The link between women and piracy goes back as far as people turning to the seas for plunder. Pirates needed places to regroup on shore and store their ill-gotten gains, and the women who ran the saloons and brothels in coastal towns provided welcoming venues in exchange—of course—for a portion of the take. Much in the same way that particularly capable and ambitious crewmen could rise to command their own pirate ships, at times an especially remarkable woman would achieve the same kind of prominence.
Ching Shih was one such female pirate captain, a woman whose talent for politics and management earned her a spot as the head of a fleet that some say grew to include 80,000 crew members on 1,800 ships that swarmed the Chinese coastline in the early Nineteenth Century. In much the same way that Empress Theodora achieved power through the means afforded her by her culture, Ching Shih use her relationships with powerful men to advance herself.
A career as a prostitute and procuress on the sweltering coast of the South China Sea brought Ching Shih (then known as Shi Xianggu) into the arms of pirate commander Cheng I. Already equally revered and feared as such figures tend to be, Cheng I was involved in a love affair with his fifteen-year-old male protégé Cheung Po Tsai. The reasons why Cheng I chose to marry Ching Shih are muddied by myth and hearsay; some sources claim it was a consolidation of power between a spy-madam and an ambitious pirate while others point to Ching Shih’s impressive talent for seduction. Whatever the case, Cheng I and Ching Shih married and adopted Cheung Po Tsai as their son, creating a formidable criminal power bloc.
In 1807, Ching Shih’s life would change, and she would earn the title by which she is known: Ching Shih translates to “Widow of Cheng.” Her husband drowned after falling off a ship near Vietnam, and there were whispers that his death was not entirely accidental. Ching Shih’s six years of marriage had established her reputation as a full participant in her husband’s extra-legal activities and it appears to have been a smooth transition from Commander’s Wife to Commander. In a move that—once again—appears to combine a cagey need for political consolidation with a rather amoral sexual appetite, Ching Shih married her adopted son Cheung Po Tsai. The fisherman’s son was now the second-in-command of one of the largest pirate fleets in history.
The parallels between Ching Shih and Empress Theodora don’t end with the two women’s leverage of their bohemian sexualities. While Theodora turned her administrative attention to advancing women’s rights and protections, Ching Shih created a strict code of conduct to unify her pirate crew under a single set of standards. An effort to establish “honor among thieves” that proved remarkably effective, the code established the appropriate distribution of booty, meted out punishments for disobedience, and outlined how female captives were to be treated. Once again, the murkiness of history and hearsay cloud the real treatment of female captives under Ching Shih’s regime. While her laws stated that woman captives were to be released and that the punishment for rape was beheading, many pirates made the loveliest lady prisoners their lovers and wives, a scenario that doesn’t suggest enthusiastic consent.
Ching Shih’s career as a pirate commander was a short one, but perhaps not for the reasons one might suspect. Between 1807 and 1810, the Chinese Navy lost over sixty ships to attacks attributed to Ching Shih’s fleet and the government was unable to break this mega-gang of the coastline, even with the assistance of British and Portuguese forces. Realizing that some type of agreement had to be reached to stop the reign of terror, the Chinese government began negotiations with Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai. The fierceness of this pirate couple is demonstrated by the fact that the government ultimately absolved them of their crimes while allowing them to keep the profits of their enterprise. Proud Ching Shih even made the powers that be relent on their demand that the pirates kneel in a symbolic gesture of submission.
Unbroken, wealthy beyond imagining, and only in her mid-thirties, Ching Shih retired peacefully from piracy. In a beautiful twist of irony, Cheung Po Tsai was given a position with the Chinese government in which he helped to combat piracy, dying young at the age of thirty-eight. After her second pirate husband’s death, Ching Shih moved back to the muggy shores of South China Sea from whence she came, settling pleasantly into the demimonde role of running a gambling den until her death in 1844.