You can forget about Blackbeard. You can forget about Captain Jack Sparrow. You can forget about every other famous pirate ever, actually, because the most successful pirate captain of all time was a 22-year-old Chinese woman named Ching Shih. Never heard of her? Let’s fix that!
Ching Shih was born into poverty in the Chinese city of Canton in 1785 and became a prostitute to survive — but in a twisted kind of Cinderella story, all that changed when she married the infamous pirate captain Zheng Yi, leader of the notorious Red Flag Fleet. After Zheng Yi’s untimely death by tsunami in 1807, his ambitious young wife managed to succeed him on the pirate throne, taking over the entire enterprise herself.
With Ching Shih in charge, the Red Flag Fleet soon grew to control every major Chinese pirate organization, at its peak in command of 1,800 ships and 80,000 pirates. As a female captain, she made herself twice as feared (and twice as ruthless) as any male leader: anyone found breaking her strict code of piracy had their head chopped off with an axe and their body dumped into the ocean, no questions asked. Ching Shih also made sure that no women were mistreated by her crew members; female prisoners were ordered to be set free unharmed, unless a pirate wished to marry one — and if she agreed, she was to be treated respectfully as his wife. Nobody knew the value of a pirate’s wife better than Ching Shih, after all.
As Ching Shih led raids and pillages up and down the Chinese coast, never losing a battle, the Chinese government decided she needed to be stopped and it was time for some serious military intervention. An Imperial fleet was assembled to take the Red Flag Fleet down, combining forces with British and Dutch warships, and Ching Shih sailed out to meet them head-on, easily defeating the armies and taking sixty Imperial ships (and a good majority of the surviving soldiers) for her own fleet. The Admiral of the Chinese Navy committed suicide rather than face capture by Ching Shih, and after two years of continued defeat at her hands, the Chinese government finally decided to try a different strategy: offering a peace treaty rather than continuing to attack.
Ching Shih showed up at the house of the Governor of her home city of Canton to negotiate a deal: the Red Flag Fleet would finally disband, and in return, she and all of her crew would be pardoned and allowed to retire unpunished… keeping all of the pirate loot they’d acquired over the years, of course. Ching Shih’s second-in-command — and new husband! — Chang Pao was ironically given a prestigious new position in the Navy, while Ching Shih herself was given the aristocratic title of “Lady by Imperial Decree” and retired from piracy to run a successful gambling house until her death in 1844, at the ripe old age of 69.
She died an extremely wealthy noblewoman, but she lived as an invincible pirate queen.
And don’t you forget it!