If you were asked who could be the most famous, successful and feared pirate of all time, who would come to your mind? The British privateers Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, the adventurer Blackbeard or the Turk Khireddín Barbarossa (the Redbeard)?
Well, it’s none of them.
It was a Chinese woman, a former prostitute, named Zheng Yi Sao, who in the early 19th century became the “Queen of Pirates” and terrorized the South China Sea.
He was born around 1775 under the name Shih Yang in the coastal region of Guangdong, during a period of social unrest and economic inequality.
Many poor families in Guangdong used their familiarity with the coastal region to become partially involved in smuggling and face hard times. It was what you might call part-time piracy.
Shih Yang was likely a Tanka — an ethnic group that traditionally lives on boats off the coast of Guangdong. In 1801, she earned her living as a sex worker in a floating brothel, in which she tended to wealthy clients.
With a true entrepreneurial instinct, he took advantage of his relationship with these wealthy men to wrest secrets from them and start trafficking that information to gain money and influence.
Later, in 1801, Shih Yang married a famous pirate named Zheng Yi. That’s when she became known as Zheng Yi Sao, which means “Zheng’s wife”, and the two became a power couple.
Zheng Yi Sao and her husband took control of all the smuggling ships in the region and created a united pirate confederation, with a fleet of 400 junks (Chinese vessels) and some 70,000 men under their command.
The couple also hired an apprentice, named Zhang Bao Zai, who they adopted as their own son.
In 1807, Zheng died when he fell into the sea during a storm, and Zheng Yi Sao took full command of the Guangdong Confederacy of Pirates.
To strengthen his power base, Zheng Yi Sao secured the support of two of Zheng Yi’s gang leaders and appointed his adopted son Zhang Bao Zai as the leader of her husband’s former squad, the Red Flag Fleet.
To further secure his loyalty, Zheng Yi Sao married Zhang Bao Zai, who was in his early 20s at the time.
The next step was to create a series of rules to keep his huge gang of pirates in order.
Thus, she imposed a code of ruthless laws under which members could be executed for cowardice, disobedience, or for stealing more than could belong to them in a loot.
They could also have their ears cut off for being absent without authorization or for other minor infractions.
Zehng Yi Sao then turned his attention to Guangdong’s lucrative salt trade.
Its pirates launched attacks on the salt fleets so successfully that, at one point, out of a total of 270 government salt ships, only four were not under their control.
And to the merchants’ misfortune, it didn’t stop there.
Zehng Yi Sao created a system of passports, whereby salt traders had to pay for safe conduct so that pirates would not attack them.
The system soon expanded to include all types of merchant and fishing vessels, not just those of the Chinese Qing dynasty, but British and Portuguese ships as well. She even set up a tax office to collect the fees.
As the pirates depended on local villages for their supplies, Zheng Yi Sao tried to maintain an alliance with them.
Thus, if any of the pirates attacked a ship that had paid for safe conduct, he was obliged to pay a high indemnity.
His methods were feared by those who crossed his path.
The pirates used a large arquebus about eight feet long that needed three people to operate it. They also intimidated boats by swimming towards them with long poles tipped with sharp machetes.
truce and retirement
By 1809, Zheng Yi Sao’s military and economic dominance was so high that the Chinese government asked the naval forces of Britain and Portugal to help him control piracy.
After several naval battles, the pirates were defeated.
In 1810, Zheng Yi Sao and his band of bandits decided to reach an agreement with the Qing dynasty authorities, whereby they would suspend their activities in exchange for a generous pension granted by the government.
Not much is known about Zheng Yi Sao after this, except that after Zhang Bao Zai’s death in 1822, she returned to Guangdong to raise the child she had with him.
After living an apparent luxurious retirement, Zheng Yi Sao died at the age of 69.
But her image, as the most powerful pirate in history, is so captivating that it continues to inspire numerous fictional characters, such as those in the film series. Pirates of the Caribbean.
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