Woman Becomes One of World’s Most Powerful Pirates

“On this day in 1807, the notorious Chinese pirate Zheng Yi died, making his widow Zheng Yi Sao one of the most successful female pirates ever to lead a powerful pirate fleet.

Born in 1785, Zheng Yi Sao, whose birth name is unknown, spent her early years engaged in a variety of illicit activities. By 1801, she was working as a prostitute in Canton’s floating brothels, which is where she met the notorious pirate captain, Zheng Yi. The two were married in 1801, with the condition that Zheng Yi would share equally with his wife his power and that he would give her the opportunity to help them secure more wealth from their pirating activities. For six years the husband-and-wife team grew their piracy business along the coast of the South China Sea. Using military coercion and his family’s pirating credentials, Zheng Yi was able to gather together a bevy of competing Cantonese pirate fleets into a strong coalition. Within several years, the Red Flag Fleet was one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China.

Then, on 16 November 1807, Zheng Yi died. Rather than step aside and assume a quiet life as a widow as other women may have done in 19th century China, Zheng Yi Sao (whose name means “”widow of Zheng Yi””) deftly manoeuvered to assume control of her late husband’s booming pirate business. She oversaw and led a fleet of more than 1,500 ships staffed with more than 60,000 pirates. To uphold appearances in the male-dominated world of 19th century Chinese pirating, however, Zheng Yi Sao made her husband’s second-in-command, Chang Pao, captain of the fleet while she tended to the enormous tasks of business and military strategy, as well as governing a growing group of pirates. Zheng Yi Sao steadily brought more pirates under the banner of the Red Flag Fleet, whose size and power eventually rivaled that of neighbouring states’ navies. She also diversified their operations, expanding from simple attack-and-pillage jobs to spying, blackmail, extortion, and protection schemes. She enacted some of the harshest pirate laws in history, prescribing beheading for disobeying an order, for example. By this point, the Red Flag Fleet was such a menace in the region that the Chinese navy, and numerous Portuguese and British bounty hunters were tasked with capturing the elusive Zheng Yi Sao. For years she repelled their attacks, until, in 1810, the Chinese government tried a different tack: they offered Zheng Yi Sao amnesty in exchange for peace.

She took the opportunity, worked out a deal (according to some sources fewer than 400 of her men received any punishment, 126 were executed, and the remaining ones kept their booty and were offered military jobs), and retired from piracy, keeping all her acquired loot.

The famous female pirate married the fleet’s former captain and her late husband’s former second-in-command, Chang Pao, and opened a gambling house. In 1844, after a dangerous life of illicit activities on the high seas, Zheng Yi Sao died peacefully, on land, a grandmother aged 69.”