Ching Shih – From Prostitute to Pirate


Part 3

Things started heating up for the pirates because in 1808 it was a constant barrage of naval battles between the pirates and the Chinese fleets. The Emperor had given up on any further assistance from the British, Portuguese and Dutch because they at the time were more concerned about keeping the spice and drug routes open and with the Napoleonic Wars raging on the other side of the world (1803–1815), pitting the French Empire, led by Napoleon I, against an array of European powers, there was definitely no help coming the Emperors way so the mandarin just had to get on with it on their own. Although to be fair, they did think that as Zhèng Yi, the head honcho was dead, his roving band of Sea dogs would be at nines and tens so they thought that they would have the upper hand in their last great stand with the pirates but they were as usual, they were out manoeuvred


A fierce battle ensued which led to the victory of the Red Flag Fleet. Ching Shih stole 63 of the Emperor’s ships and gave the surviving crew an ultimatum; get nailed to the deck by their feet, be beaten to death, or become pirates. Naturally, without having to consider the options too long, the majority of them swapped sides and enlisted on the spot. This worked out well for her because the pirates that had just died in the battle were immediately replaced with new ones so this was a definite win-win situation as far as the pirates were concerned

Half the imperial fleet was sunk, causing considerable embarrassment to the Chinese Navy. They promptly demanded that the British assist them who were still reluctant to get involved again as they had no success in capturing the pirates who were stealing their opium nor were the Chinese willing to offer insurance for the possible loss of British ships but as a concession, they did loan the HMS Mercury to the Emperor who at this stage managed to get his hands on six “man-of-war” ships from the Portuguese

Their interest was keeping Macau safe even though their relationship with China was tenuous to say the least. Ming China’s reception of Portugal was not just cool, but dismissive. Ming emperors, harking back to the glory days of China’s Confucian past felt that China, as the Middle Kingdom was superior to all other countries, (“middle” as in “between heaven and earth) and that all other countries were required to pay homage to China. Unfortunately the Portuguese felt as they were more educated and more enlightened than the Chinese, that they were superior and therefore ignored Chinese culture and myths and this caused diplomatic (for the want of a better word) outcry on both sides

So when the Portuguese first arrived in the East, it was not only for silks, spices, porcelain and teas but they were also on a “crusade” to convert all the “heathens” to Christianity as they had the Popes permission. In 1455, a Papal Bull gave any Christian mission carte blanche permission to “subdue and to convert pagans

[On a side note: A papal bull is a particular type of letters or charter issued by a Roman Catholic Pope. It is named after the lead seal (bulla) that was appended to the end of the document in order to authenticate it. Since the 12th century, papal bulls have carried the seal with the heads of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul on one side and the pope’s name on the other


So it’s no surprise that the Chinese Emperors were gung-ho in executing Catholic missionaries. Those that were not executed were sent to the Muslim owned territories to be gifted as slaves. Pretty ironic considering the Catholic conversion was even more celebrated back home if a pagan, who was tainted by Muslim influence, got converted to Christianity

Portuguese traders first settled in Macau in the 1550s and in 1557, Macau was rented to Portugal from Ming China as a trading port and they paid 18.9 kilogrammes of silver per year for that precarious privilege

The Portuguese acted as middlemen, shipping Chinese silks to Japan and Japanese silver to China, pocketing huge mark-ups in the process. This already lucrative trade became even more so when Chinese officials handed Macau’s Portuguese traders a monopoly by banning direct trade with Japan in 1547, due to piracy by Chinese and Japanese nationals the Portuguese had a definite interest in eliminating the pirates even if they were not going to do it directly themselves

[On a side note: Macau was both the first and last European colony in China and the last in Asia]

But even with all the ships loaned to the Emperor, Madame Shih evaded capture again. History makes no mention of these ships ever being returned to their rightful owners but a fearsome battle did ensue with all sides having numerous casualties


The emperor finally accepted that there was no way he was going to catch this wily woman and her companions so he did the next best thing, he offered all the pirates amnesty

Probably a whole lot of people breathed a sigh of relief. Including the Chinese sailors, the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and probably more so the British as their opium trade would go unmolested for a time and perhaps one or two pirates that never got over their motion sickness

One last precaution Madame Shih took when “surrendering” on the 18th of April 1810, she went to the official point at Governor General of Canton offices, armed only with a handful of women and children and stated her own demand that the pirates be allowed to keep all her plunder. What prevented the officials from killing her then and there especially as everybody knew she was unarmed?

All the pirate ships lay out in the bay, lined up and loaded and more than ready for combat if she did not return

It was a huge leap of faith on her part because nothing stopped the pirates in the bay leaving her to her fate and sailing away with her treasure and fleets. This indicates that either she was well respected or that there is honour among thieves

Amnesty was granted although records state that some pirates were executed, some were exiled never to set foot in China again and some were banished for a couple of years but 17,318 pirates surrendered their weapons and 226 junks were handed over to the navy

Then a most peculiar offer was made to the pirates. They could join the Chinese military if they so wished to assist the Emperor in capturing the pirates who reneged on their deal or who refused to surrender. Many of them took up the offer including Cheung Po Tsai. He was made Lieutenant and given command of 20 junks and he worked himself up to the rank of Colonel. He spent the rest of his short life actively pursuing Pirates, many of whom he had fought side by side with against the Chinese Fleet

Cheung Po Tsai did not live long afterwards as he died in 1822, only being 36


Madame Shih returned to Canton after his death where she used her considerable wealth to open a gambling house, which may have doubled as a brothel on the Pearl river and so her life had come to a full circle

She died in her sleep in 1844, aged 69

And this is the legacy of the great pirate Queen





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