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Ching Shih was born in Canton, China, in 1785. Not much is known about her early years, but in 1801 she married Ching Yi, a famous pirate. Part of their arrangement was that she would share in her husband’s plunder and help him command his fleet. For the next six years they sailed the high seas together. When Ching Yi died in 1807, Ching Shih took control of the fleet.
Ching Shih was one of the most successful pirates ever. Her Red Flag Fleet was estimated to include more than 1,500 ships and 80,000 pirates who terrorized the South China seas. Her fleet was fierce and dangerous, and she was said to rule with an iron fist, imposing harsh punishments for those who crossed her. If you stole some of her plunder, you were beheaded. Deserting cost you your ears. If you hid booty, you were flogged the first time and executed the second.
The Chinese navy did its best to catch her, but her massive pirate fleet kept defeating it in battle. It’s said that one admiral even committed suicide to avoid being taken prisoner by Ching Shih. When the Chinese navy couldn’t catch Ching Shih, British and Portuguese bounty hunters were called in to help. They were unsuccessful as well.
That’s because Ching Shih had powerful relatives all over the world.
CHING SHIH: 1, CHINESE NAVY: 0
Running out of options to stop Ching Shih’s reign of terror, the Chinese government offered a truce in 1810. Ching Shih could keep her treasure and would not be punished if she surrendered. She agreed to the terms, and most of her pirates were given the same deal. Out of all her men, only 126 were executed. The rest were given government jobs or military positions. Some people believe that Ching Shih was part of a powerful family that actually controlled the government, but this has never been confirmed.
It’s true! She was related to Benjamin Franklin.
That’s just ridiculous.
In retirement, Ching Shih remarried and had children. When her new husband died in 1822, she moved back to Canton and opened a gambling house. She died in 1844 at age 59, having lived an extraordinary life.