In a rags-to-riches story for the ages, prostitute-turned-pirate-lord Ching Shih remains one of the most feared and successful pirates in history. After her husband’s death, Shih took over the infamous Red Flag Fleet, led over 50,000 pirates, and lived to tell the tale with all of her acquired riches intact.
Who Is Ching Shih?
Born Shil Gang Xu in 1775, Shih grew up in the Guangdong (Canton) province of southeastern China, where at one point she worked as a prostitute on a floating brothel. But an 1801 encounter with Zheng Yi, pirate commander of the Red Flag Fleet, would pluck Shih from this floating obscurity and change her life forever.
Yi proposed to Shih, however the nature of the event itself remains a source of speculation. Some say Yi ordered a raid on the bordello and captured his concubine, while others retain Yi simply asked Shih to marry him.
By either account, Shih said yes to Yi’s proposal, but only after Yi assured her that he would meet certain conditions — conditions which included an equal partnership in fleet leadership, as well as 50 percent of the admiral’s share of anything attained. Yi agreed, stayed true to his word, and the pair would go on to run the ever-growing fleet of pirate ships together.
The Red Flag Fleet Grows
The couple only possessed 200 ships at the time of their marriage, but a coalition with powerful Cantonese pirate forces would soon allow the Red Flag Fleet to comprise somewhere between 1700 and 1800 ships. These combined efforts would result in a color-coded fleet of ships, led by the “Red Flag,” and followed by convoys labeled Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green.
One of their largest successes came in 1804, when the fleet issued a blockade of a Portuguese trading port at Macau, located on the south coast of China. The Portuguese sent a squadron to fend off the pirate attack but the Red Flag promptly overpowered them. Even the British Royal Navy declined to get involved, instead providing naval escorts to ships belonging to them and their allies.
Just six years after marrying Shih, the Red Flag Fleet’s co-commander, Zheng Yi, fought his last fight amid the Tay Son Rebellion in Vietnam, where he died in 1807.
Seeing an opportunity to rise to power, Shih, with the support of the Fleet’s second in command, Chang Pao, oversaw command of the entire squadron. Soon, Shih would go on to rule hard, celebrating success at nearly every turn.