Do you guys want to hear a story about a badass nineteenth-century woman who amassed a private naval force of more than 50,000 pirates? OF COURSE YOU DO.
I found this information in David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag.
First of all, let me preface this by saying that she was known by many names: Mrs. Cheng, Mrs. Ching, Chen I Sao, Ching Yih Saou, or Ching Shih, among a few (75). I will refer to her as Mrs. Cheng, because that’s primarily how the author refers to her, and I’m sure he’s done far more research than I have on the subject.
That said, I would really love to call her by the name I associate with my first exposure to her:
That’s right–that’s Mrs. Cheng (i.e. “MISTRESS CHING!”) at the Brethren Court in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. She was my favorite character then, and she’s like 16X my favorite character now that I have some context.
Please keep in mind that her appearance in the film is at least 80 years too early (especially given her apparent age in the film). She pirated from 1800-1810, when she was 25-35 years old, although the film is set roughly in the 1720s and she appears to be at least 60 here. (We can tell it’s set in the 1720s, because when Jack Sparrow salutes the hanged pirate at the beginning of the first film, that pirate was supposed to be “Calico” Jack Rackham, who was executed in 1720. Since the clothes on his skeleton don’t appear to be that decomposed, he was probably hanged within a year of Jack Sparrow seeing him.)
ANYWAY, back to Mrs. Cheng, who deserves 150% of your attention.
“In the ports and along the rivers of southern China, entire communities lived and worked on the boats. In these floating villages the women played an active role in handling the sailing junks and small boats, and worked alongside the men when fishing and trading. The same conditions prevailed in the pirate communities. English observers such as Lieutenant Glasspoole noted that the pirates had not settled residences onshore but lived constantly on their vessels, which ‘are filled with their families, men, women and children.’
“It was not unusual for women to command the junks and to sail them into battle. The Chinese historian Yuan Yung-lun described a pirate action which took place in 1809: ‘There was a pirate’s wife in one of the boats, holding so fast by the helm that she could scarcely be taken away. Having two cutlasses, she desperately defended herself, and wounded some soldiers; but on being wounded by a musket-ball, she fell back into the vessel and was taken prisoner'” (75).
“Against this background it was not so surprising that a woman should assume leadership of a pirate community, particularly as there was a long tradition in China of women rising to power through marriage. Mrs. Cheng was a former prostitute from Canton who married the pirate leader Cheng I in 1801. Between them they created a confederation which at its height included some fifty thousand pirates.
“By 1805 the pirates totally dominated the coastal waters of southern China. They attacked fishing craft and cargo vessels as well as the oceangoing junks returning from Batavia and Malaysia. They lived off the provisions and equipment which they plundered at sea, and when these supplies proved insufficient they went ashore and looted coastal villages. They frequently ransomed the ships which they captured, and they ran a protection racket in the area around Canton and the delta of the Pearl River” (76).
This is all pretty cool, but shit really went down as soon as Cheng I died in 1807. She wasted precisely zero time in mourning before maneuvering into his place. Like, imagine if Cersei Lannister actually had political chops (and her husband died presumably of natural causes. Or at least not by her hand).
Then things got really shrewd. She knew that it would probably benefit her to consolidate her power, so she appointed a man named Chang Pao as the commander of the most badass fleet under her rule. Chang Pao had been a fisherman’s son who had once been captured by her husband, and he had proved himself to be a brilliant naval leader. He became so beloved to her husband, Cheng I, that he adopted Chang Pao.
So Chang Pao was ‘of the people’ (always a good move), he was battle-tested, had a stellar track record, and was highly respected (an even better move), he already had strong familial ties to Mrs. Cheng through her late husband (so there was a loyalty element there), and now he was in charge of her most hardcore fleet, which was a way of keeping all of the other fleets in line.
Now, Mrs. Cheng was NOBODY’S fool. She knew full well that even the most loyal lieutenant can turn on you, even when he’s your adopted son. After all, would Chang Pao be satisfied with only being her lieutenant forever? What if he staged a coup with her most powerful fleet?
So Mrs. Cheng got even shrewder. And by ‘even shrewder’, I mean ruthless to the point of being fucking WEIRD.
Knowing that both trusted lieutenants and your own children can betray you for power or money, Mrs. Cheng lashed Chang Pao to her in a third way . . . by starting a sexual affair with him immediately after her husband’s death. That’s right. Her fairly new-ish adopted son.
Again, the Cersei Lannister parallels don’t stop, they just get a little easier to bear. At least Chang Pao wasn’t related to Mrs. Cheng by blood. And they did this fairly openly. And people didn’t really seem to care. In fact, Mrs. Cheng and Chang Pao married a few years later and seemed to have a happy, strong working relationship. She was the master planner and did all of the political strategizing, while Chang Pao carried out the day-to-day management.
Although she clearly handled some of the day-to-day management. Like reprimanding this employee. With her cutlass.
They held all of these pirate fleets together by laying out a strict set of rules and punishments. “The punishment for disobeying an order or for stealing from the common treasure or public fund was death by beheading. For deserting or going absent without leave a man would have his ears cut off. For concealing or holding back plundered goods the offender would be whipped. If the offense was repeated, he would suffer death. The rules were equally strict over the treatment of women prisoners. The rape of a female captive was punishable by death. If it was found that the woman had agreed to have sex with her captor, the man was beheaded and the woman was thrown overboard with a weight attached to her legs” (76).
I’m not entirely sure why consensual sex between a captive woman and her captor resulted in death for both. If anyone could shed light on that, it would be very useful.
Mrs. Cheng and Chang Pao, rather inconceivably, managed to hold all this shit together for three years. And it wasn’t the 50,000 pirates with their own agendas that threatened to break it all up, either: the government was coming down pretty hard on pirates. In 1808 the government sent General Li-Ch’ang-keng, who was the commander in chief of Chekiang, to root out the pirate haven. Instead of the massive victory for the government, as predicted, the pirates managed to kill Li-Ch’ang-keng in a fire fight, destroy fifteen of his ships, and captured almost all of the rest.
So the government decided that if they couldn’t break up the pirates by direct force, they could dry up their supply lines and make it difficult to survive at sea. But Mrs. Cheng is adaptable as shit. She just landed her boats and raided any village she could find.
“One if by land, two if by sea. No signal at all if it’s Mrs. Cheng, because then you’re just screwed. Give up.”
I think that’s how that old saying goes.
Because Mrs. Cheng’s fleet was bigger than entire navies of most countries, the Chinese government called in some help. Specifically Great Britain and Portugal. So now she was not only holding together a massive force of her own (which, I’m sure, must have had its fair share of drama and assassination and mutiny and political machinations), but she was also fighting off three separate, major navies.
So in 1810, when the Chinese government offered a total amnesty for pirates, Mrs. Cheng cashed in her chips. And she cashed them in in a totally baller way. She just showed up unannounced at the Governor-General’s residence, bringing with her seventeen women and children (I assume to dissuade violence).
Even though she was unarmed and he was probably swarming with guards, she still held the upperhand and used her unexpected and theoretically ‘unthreatening’ presence to work out a nice cushy deal for herself. After all, if the Governor-General tried to arrest her, she had a son-husband with 50,000 pirates who was probably on speed-dial for these kinds of events.
At the end of the day, she gave up the life of piracy, I imagine because true badasses have nothing to prove. “Yeah, I’m going to retire. And yeah, I could still kick your ass.”
Most of her pirates got off free, with 226 ships being handed over to the government, 60 pirates being banished for two years, 151 being permanently exiled, and 126 executed. Think about that. Out of 50,000 pirates, only 337 got any sort of punishment. That’s 0.67%. And some of them, like Mrs. Cheng and Chang Pao, actually got rewarded.
As part of her deal, Chang Pao got the official military rank of lieutenant and was allowed to keep a private fleet of 20 ships for his own use. He eventually rose to the rank of Colonel. She and Chang Pao had a son and lived in great wealth for the rest of their days. Chang Pao died twelve years later. She outlived him for 22 peaceful years (dying at age 69 in 1844).