In honor of International Talk like a Pirate day this week, I briefly asked the question on my facebook page who was the most successful pirate in history? And I’ve asked this very same question before while playing a pirate mmorpg game. Sadly, no one knew the answer. And the reason why is because is history likes to exploit its powerful men and cover up its powerful women.
So this is for all you naysayers out there (some of them are women) who say there were no powerful women in history.
Cheng Sao I which translates to wife of Jingh Yi started her career as a Chinese prostitute and married a small time sea robber named Cheng I. Together they organized a confederation of pirates over the years until his death in 1807 in which they commanded a fleet of over 400 ships and 70,000 men.
Cheng took over after some political maneuvering and developed a code of law. Commands were not to be delivered by anyone except leaders of the fleets. It was a capital offense and harshly dealt with. Deserters lost their ears. Any pirate who stole from the fleet was flogged, the second time they were killed. Any pirate who raped a captive was executed. If they woman consented to the sex, the man was beheaded, while the woman was tied to weights and tossed overboard.
It wasn’t long after that Cheng became lovers with her husband’s adopted son and made him commander of the “red” fleet and later had a son together.
Entire fleets sent by the Chinese government were taken or destroyed. By 1808 the Chinese had lost 63 vessels to the pirates. Cheng captured entire villages and stored her booty in warehouses along the wharves. Militia’s were created to combat the pirates but failed miserably and the seamen were forced into service.
When the Imperial government enlisted aid from the British and Portuguese governments, Cheng decided to negotiate terms with the government. Her lover became a lieutenant in the Chinese government and she retired a very wealthy woman, opening a brothel. Her lover died in the military at the age of thirty-six and she lived the rest of her days wealthy and quiet until the age of sixty-nine.
Of all the written documents kept on this one woman the only thing history didn’t record was what she looks like. But we can all agree she was cunning, resourceful and probably the most powerful woman in history — even by today’s standards — this one small woman commanded an army of 80,000 pirates. And she was the most successful, shrewd commander of men, and notorious pirate to have ever lived.
There were many women who quietly run things behind the scenes but few women commanded men outright in what we term today as a “man’s world.” Cheng was one of those few. And so hopefully, the next time I ask this question next year, perhaps I’ll get more than one person with the correct answer. Powerful women in history did exist and it’s important that keep telling their stories. Imagine what this one woman could have accomplished had she put her mind to it.