When we think of pirates, we think of the fictional and real characters whose ruthlessness and barbarity has captured the human imagination for centuries. We picture the ‘Argh!!’ of Blackbeard before he pilfers an innocent merchant vessel, the serene blue waters of New Providence island acting as a backdrop to plunder-laden tall ships, hunting for their next target. We very rarely picture female pirates, such as Chin Shih. At her height, she commanded over 70,000 men and terrorised China seas in the early 19th century, dwarfing the successes of her more famous male counterparts.
There is little information about her early life, though what is known is that after working in a brothel she married the powerful pirate captain Zheng Yi when she was 16. Together they built up a formidable fleet of over 1000 pirate ships and became very powerful as a result. Six years later her husband died and at the age of 21, she consolidated her power as head of the ‘Red fleet’ by amassing troops and creating strong alliances.
Shih is known for her intelligence and willpower. After her husband’s death, she continued to expand her power and influence across China, famed for living by a code of conduct and creating a barbarous rulebook that ensured the allegiance of her sailors. Anyone who launched an attack without her approval would be beheaded; anyone who disobeyed orders would have their ears chopped off; any woman taken as a prisoner was to be treated humanely and fairly; and, all seized property had to be presented directly to her. The rulebook meant that she was both feared and respected by her sailors. It can be said that she was running her own miniature socialist empire - profits of successful ships were shared so that less successful ships had food and supplies; the populations of towns and villages that supplied her were treated well.
Shih was a formidable leader and fought off hundreds of attempts to defeat her. One notable story is that despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, she crushed a fleet sent by Jiaqing Emperor of China, even recruiting his men into her ranks after the event. She was also involved in skirmishes with both the British and Portuguese Navies repelling them every time.
Realising her unrivalled power and support in a landscape that was becoming increasingly bloody, Jiaqing Emperor eventually offered her a deal of amnesty. If she disbanded her fleet and bowed to the Emperor she could keep her wealth and status. Shih accepted the offer and lived out the rest of her life as a free woman, running a gambling establishment and peacefully passing away at the age of 69.