Ching Shih (fl. 1807–1810)

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Ching Shih (fl. 1807–1810)

Chinese pirate who built one of the largest pirate fleets in history. Name variations: Ching Hsi Kai; Ching Yih Saou. Flourished from 1807 to 1810; married Ching Yih (d. 1807).

The famine of 1799 drove many Chinese to piracy. The early years of the 19th century saw the rise of the pirate Ching Yih, who by 1805 maintained almost complete control of the coast around Canton with a fleet of 500 to 700 junks. Ching Yih's fleet held sway over the corrupt, demoralized imperial navy, and attacks on European trading vessels took place seemingly without effort. A European hostage, John Turner, who was held for ransom by Ching Yih (1806–07), observed the fleet firsthand during his five-month imprisonment. The vessels were divided into six squadrons, each of which flew a flag of a different color as it cruised for victims along its designated stretch of the China coast. Rules of engagement were simple: if a ship surrendered without resistance, only its cargo was taken; if the crew resisted, they were fair game for torture, murder, and hostage taking. Turner witnessed scenes of atrocity—bodies cut to pieces, disembowelment, cannibalism—at the hands of Ching Yih's fleet. In 1807, Ching Yih died in a typhoon. His widow, Ching Shih, succeeded him. Whereas incidents of female captains were not uncommon, Ching Shih would prove no ordinary captain.

An exceptional leader, Ching Shih was known to possess abilities as an administrator and businesswoman that equalled her successes as pirate chief. At the height of her power, the number of those under her command reached some 70,000 to 80,000 men, women, and children upon more than 2,000 vessels, as she built a pirate fleet of unprecedented size. Of her war junks, the largest weighed almost 600 tons, mounted up to 30 guns, and carried 300–400 men. The pirates who served her were kept to a set of rules governing all aspects of pirate life. Among these rules were:

No pirate might go ashore without permission. Punishment for a first offence was perforation of the ears; a repetition attracted the death penalty.

All plundered goods must be registered before distribution. The ship responsible for the taking of a particular piece of booty received a fifth of its value, the remainder became part of the general fund.

Abuse of women was forbidden, although women were taken as slaves and concubines. Those not kept for ransom were sold to the pirates as wives for $40 each.

Country people were to be paid for provisions and stores taken from them.

While it appears that these rules were not always followed, Ching Shih was, at least for a time, known for her sympathy to peasants. Encouraging her fleet to prey upon Portuguese, English, and Mandarin ships, she insisted that the coastal peasants not be attacked, and molestation of peasants carried the death penalty.

Ching Shih worked in conjunction with her second in command, Chang Paou (Pao), a lieutenant of her late husband, who is said to have been her lover. She sailed in his junk, heading the Red Squadron. As the chief division of her fleet, this squadron was as large as the other five collectively. A brilliant engineer of military tactics, Ching Shih won out over the Mandarin navy in their attempts to rid the waters of the "wasps of the sea." One navy fleet sent to destroy her retreated upon first sight of Ching Shih's ships. For three masterful years, her control over the waters was so complete that she alone, for a fee, could provide a vessel safe passage.

In September 1809, Ching Shih captured Richard Glasspoole, fourth officer of the East Indian marquis of Ely. Remaining her prisoner until he was ransomed in December, he witnessed life aboard the pirate junks and noted an atmosphere of dirt, overcrowding, and boredom in which rats, considered a delicacy, were encouraged to breed. "We lived," he said, "three weeks on caterpillars boiled in rice." This landscape was replete with extreme violence. After the Chinese government attempted to starve the pirates out of commission by forbidding all ships to enter Ching Shih's waters, her previous policies of protection toward the villagers were abandoned as her pirates stormed the coastal regions, plundering. In October 1809, they torched entire settlements west of Bocca Tigris; inhabitants were kidnapped for ransom or murdered. Glasspoole's men, threatened with death, were coerced into participating in the slaughter and were provided with $20 for each head with which they returned. Apparently Glasspoole too participated in the attack, remaining on board manning one of the large guns. He noted that slung around the necks of returning pirates were pairs of heads tied together by pigtails. Ching Shih, it is said, regarded Glasspoole as a favorite and would sprinkle him with garlic water before battle as a guard against injury.

Despite all efforts by Mandarin and foreign ships to hunt her down, Ching Shih held strong. Her downfall, however, was a result of dissension among her own pirates. Kwo Po Tai, commander of the Black Squadron, was jealous of the relationship between Ching Shih and her lieutenant Chang Paou, and he refused to come to Chang Paou's assistance in battle. Chang Paou survived this betrayal to do battle with Kwo Po Tai directly. At Lantao, near the future colony of Hong Kong, the Red and Black Squadrons met in battle. Many ships were blown up, fully crewed, and Chang Paou, his decks soaked in blood, retreated.

Foreseeing that the fracture in pirate alliance would break up the fleet, Kwo Po Tai surrendered. Made a naval mandarin, he was employed to bring down the other pirates. Ching Shih's fleet had been weakened. She and Chang Paou, learning of Kwo Po Tai's pardon, likewise surrendered. Accepting an amnesty offered in 1810, they sailed toward Bocca Tigris, and the fleet was surrendered at Canton. Like his adversary, Chang Paou was appointed a naval mandarin. His men were offered a choice—return to their homes or join the imperial navy—and several thousand sailed under his command against their former partners of the Yellow and Green squadrons. Ching Shih, chief of perhaps the largest pirate fleet ever amassed, now fades from view. It is thought, however, that her abilities were turned to the smuggling trade and that she lived out her days on land in prosperity.


Cordingly, David, and John Falconer. Pirates. London: Artabras, 1992.