Piracy in the Far East: A Family Affair [Women Pirates, Part 2]

If you missed part 1 of my women pirates blog, fear not: you can still read it here.

Compared to the West, the Far East was much more accommodating toward women on ships. In fact, it was noted that pirate communities in the Far East had no settled residences on land. Rather, they lived constantly on their ships with their entire families. Thus, it was not uncommon for women to take an active role in handling ships and sailing them into raids.

Ching Shih: History’s Most Successful Pirate

It was against this backdrop that Ching Shih started life as a prostitute in Canton before marrying the leader of a pirate band named Cheng I. When her husband died in 1807, she positioned herself well among her relatives and assumed command of the pirate navy. She assigned her husband’s adopted son, whom she later married, to command the primary pirate fleet.

She was, for all intents and purposes, the pirate community’s CEO, concerned with long term strategic planning and policy. Her second husband, Chang Pao, was the Chief Operating Officer, concerned with the day-to-day running of the community. Between the two of them, they put in place a strict code of conduct that beheaded anyone caught stealing from the common treasure, and even dealt with the issue of rape by beheading, which is unusual for a pirate community.

A Pirate Armada

For three years, the pirates fought off all government attempts to bring them to justice with the final result being the loss of 63 government vessels. At the height of its power, the pirates had some 200 ocean going junks with 20 to 30 cannons apiece. There were a number of smaller, river-going vessels as well that ensured that coastal communities paid for the pirates’ “protection.”

It was not until Chinese officials enlisted the help of English and Portuguese warships, combined with an ever-increasing number of Chinese naval ships, that Ching Shih took the initiative to meet with the emperor and amnesty was offered. As she was negotiating from a position of strength, she was able to ensure that her sailors were able to keep all of their plunder and join the military as experienced fighters once they gave up their ships and weapons. Based on this agreement, her husband joined the military at the rank of Lieutenant and eventually rose to the rank of Colonel before his death at the age of 36.

After her career as a pirate, Mrs. Cheng led a peaceful life running a gambling house until she passed away at the age of 69 in 1844.

This is my final post for the HMNS blog on Pirates!

Check out previous posts to read up on pirate history and lore – and come see me at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

How To Rule the Sea: A Guide For Privateers 1500s – 1800s
Jean Laffite: Texas Pirate
Pirates: Romance vs. Reality
Real Pirates: Attackers, Thieves…Equal Opportunity Employers?
Women Pirates – Scourges of the High Seas! [Part 1]

Real Pirates is in its final weeks! Preview this stunning exhibit in the slideshow below. Click here to view if it loads slowly.

Women Pirates – Scourges of the High Seas! [Part 1]

Though we most often associate piracy with men, we know that there were circumstances where there were women pirates.

Famous Female Pirates

In the West, the two most famous were Anne Bonny A.K.A. Anne Talbot A.K.A. Ann Fulford and Mary Read.  Meanwhile in the Far East there was a woman pirate who is arguably one of the most successful pirates man or woman to ever exist, Ching Shih.  Though separated by thousands of miles and nearly 100 years, these women pirates excelled in their raiding and serve as interesting counterpoints to what is traditionally associated as a largely male domain.

The Pirate Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny: Raised As A Boy

The story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read follow along similar lines.  Both were essentially raised as boys.  Anne was the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer who was having an affair with his maid in Ireland.  To hide Anne from nosy neighbors and prevent a scandal, the father dressed her up as a boy and began to train her as a legal clerk.  Unfortunately for Anne, the lawyer’s wife found out about the affair and child and he was forced to move to America, as his practice was ruined once his affair and duplicitous life were discovered by the community.

Anne and her father ended up in the Carolinas and Anne grew up to be quite the headstrong young woman.  Counter to her father’s approval she ran away with a penniless neer-do-well sailor whom she quickly discarded for the pirate captain Calico Jack.  Once she bore him a child, she dressed as a man and joined him on ship – where she met up with Mary Read.

Mary Read: Man-Of-War Maiden

Like Anne, Mary spent much of her life working alongside men.  In fact at the age of thirteen she was a footman to a French lady.  Being a youth, she grew tired of waiting after pampered ladies of high society so she went and dressed as a man again and worked on a man-of-war.

She later joined the army in Flanders where she married a soldier whom she was sharing a tent with.  Leaving the military behind, the couple opened a bar that soon became insolvent when her husband died.  After that she took a series of jobs on ships including one that was captured by pirates, where she grew accustomed to the lifestyle, and eventually joined the crew of Calico Jack.

The Fate of Anne and Mary

Calico Jack

Captain Calico Jack and the two women primarily focused on raiding small fishing boats until a privateer caught up with their ship. After a long chase and a brief firefight that left the pirate ship disabled, they were forced to surrender. The prisoners pled not guilty, but were quickly condemned, as the evidence against them was substantial. They were all sentenced to death.

However, it was at the sentencing that both Mary and Anne declared they were pregnant. After an examination, it was determined that they were and their sentence was delayed. What is known is that Mary Read passed away from disease shortly after the trial. As for Anne and her unborn child, little is known about their fate.

What is certain is that both women’s celebrity has far outstretched the notoriety of much more successful pirates and that they will continue to be an interesting chapter in the history of piracy.

Coming Soon! Piracy in the Far East: A Family Affair, Part 2 of our series on Women Pirates! Learn about Ching Shih, one of the most successful pirates in history, man or woman!

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

You can also meet several more female pirates in the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now in its final weeks!