Mention the word “pirate” and most people will immediately think of a one-eyed, peg-legged, hook-handed individual with an unusual speech pattern and a talking parrot on his shoulder. Figures such as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Black Sam” Bellamy, Anne Bonny, “Calico Jack” Rackham and more than likely the fictional Jack Sparrow (sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow) may spring to mind. These individuals all, with the exception of Sparrow, belong to the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, which in its broadest definition spans the period from about 1650 to the late 1720s and refers to European piracy almost exclusively. It is from this period that the modern stereotype of the pirate is derived.

However, the historical practice of piracy is a global phenomenon and has gone hand in hand with maritime trade since its inception millennia ago.

Large-scale outbreaks of piracy most often come after the conclusion of a war. Such was the case in 1713 when the War of Spanish Succession came to an end and thousands of European (mainly British) seamen suddenly found themselves out of a job. British ships that had been privateering in the Caribbean (raiding Spanish shipping with the authorisation of the British government) now simply began operating without restrictions. This was the period that produced Blackbeard and co.

While the Caribbean was largely purged of significant pirate activity by 1730, the same could not be said of other regions plagued by widespread piracy. In the first years of the 19th century, the South China Sea was one such place.

Pirates and the South China Sea

Before beginning the remarkable story of the woman who rose to the top of the pirate food chain, it is worth exploring the context that led to her meteoric rise.

The South China Sea in the 18th and 19th centuries was, as it is today, perhaps the most frenetic trade corridor in the world. It was the maritime crossroads that linked the Chinese mainland with Vietnam, the Philippines, the Malay peninsula and the East Indies. It was also the means through which Indian, Persian, Arab and European traders accessed the vast East and Southeast Asian market.

At the mouth of the Pearl River, which empties into the northern bounds of the South China Sea, lay the important cities of Macao and Canton. The former was held by the Portuguese as the base of their Asian commercial operations, the only such European settlement within Chinese territory at the time. Other Europeans, such as the British, were forced to anchor at Macao, at the pleasure of their Portuguese rivals. Canton, on the other hand, was the most important city in the region, strategically and economically. Now known as Guangzhou, the city was already so large a commercial hub that in 1703, Captain Alexander Hamilton observed that on any given day the port was host to no less than 5,000 merchant vessels lying at anchor awaiting service. Cantonese vessels in huge numbers traversed the water highways to Japan, Manila, Indochina, Achin (modern Aceh, Indonesia), Malacca (the principal port of the Malay peninsula), Siam (modern Thailand) and Dutch Batavia (modern Jakarta, Indonesia).

Painting of Canton around 1800

Fifty years after Hamilton’s observation, Canton became even more commercially important when, in 1757, it was named the sole port through which European trade with China could be conducted. It became Europe’s literal gateway into the Middle Kingdom. In this teeming metropolis, one could find whatever the heart desired, for a price.

Given all of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that piracy was a constant in the South China Sea. Even apart from the wealth that sailed across its waters, the very geography of the sea lent itself to piracy. Countless islands, many uninhabited, littered the coastline of the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi alone, which border the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea, providing potential secluded bases for pirates. Dozens of rivers emptied into the sea, providing convenient highways inland for those pirates with the ambition and courage to do so.

Additionally, Guangdong and Guangxi represented the very fringe of the Chinese empire. Canton, the capital of Guangdong, was itself over 2,000 km (around 1400 miles) away from the imperial capital at Peking (Beijing). This was the frontier and like almost all frontiers, it was difficult for Chinese provincial officials and military leaders to exert their lawful control over their nominal jurisdictions.

Model of a Chinese junk

The most common vessel in Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries was known as the ‘junk’, an umbrella term that includes ships typically ranging from 200 to 800 tons in weight, with crew complement varying from about 100 men to as many as 250. During his travels to Asia, 15th-century Italian explorer Niccolò de’ Conti described seeing huge junks the reached 2,000 tons, though clearly, these were not the norm. Junks used for military purposes were referred to as ‘war junks’. For Chinese pirates too, the junk was the primary tool of their trade.

Despite appearing to have all the ingredients necessary for rampant piracy, until the last half of the 18th-century piracy was a common enough but nonetheless small-scale problem, especially in comparison to the huge volume of shipping that passed through the area. Pirates were most often fishermen who had turned to banditry out of desperation or opportunism. Often enough they went rogue on a single occasion, extracted what profit they could and simply returned to their normal lives afterwards.South China Sea map

By 1770, the frequency of pirate attacks was beginning to rise, fuelled by the ever-growing volume of maritime trade and the rising level of poverty that came as a result of widening wealth inequality and overpopulation in a region that had relatively little arable land. However, this was still what some historians have termed ‘petty piracy’, consisting largely of small gangs or clans, often operating only a single ship, working independently of and in competition with each other. For Chinese provincial officials in Canton, these incidents, though more frequent, were still no more than pinpricks.

That was about to change.

The Pirate Union

In the 1770s, Vietnam was rocked by the outbreak of the so-called Tây Son revolt, in which three brothers from the Tây Son area rose up against first their local lord and then against the ruling imperial Le Dynasty more broadly. Over the next decade, the brothers would come to rule, at least temporarily, all of Vietnam. The eldest of the three was crowned Emperor in 1778. The last remaining member of the Le Dynasty, Nguyen Phuc Anh, was forced into exile, though he would soon return to reclaim what he believed was rightfully his. Crucial to the success of the rebellion was the partnership between the Tây Son and Chinese pirates, who both supplied much of the raw materials so critically needed in the early years of the war and raided merchant shipping that belonged to the Le Dynasty.

When Ch’en T’ien-pao was captured by the Tây Son in 1783, he might have felt that his days as a fisherman-pirate had finally come to an end. Instead, Ch’en’s fortunes were about to enter a golden age. Beset from simultaneous invasions by the Chinese from the north and a resurgent Nguyen Phuc Anh in the south, the Tây Son turned to Ch’en for aid. They granted him an official military rank and gave him a permit to recruit other, like-minded individuals (pirates) who were themselves granted subordinate military ranks by Ch’en. The Tây Son even furnished Ch’en with an initial six war junks and an additional 16 similar vessels a year later. While in the service of the Tây Son, Chinese pirates received not only naval ranks, weapons and ships but also proper military training as well. This was the beginning of the militarisation of the pirates as they transitioned from petty to professional.

In 1792, 40 more Chinese pirate junks were commissioned by the Tây Son. Four years later, this number had grown to more than 100.

As the scourge of piracy became more painful, Chinese officials attempted to exterminate the raiders on several occasions, none of which achieved any real success. Eventually, they turned to a tried and true Chinese tool of outlaw suppression: ‘pardon and pacification’. This involved offering amnesty to all outlaws (pirates) with the exception of the leaders. Those who surrendered would receive no penalty. The purpose of this was to sow dissension in the ranks of the troublemakers, pitting them against one another and isolating the leaders from the followers. In 1799, any pirate who turned himself in was offered an official military position if he so desired and, to top it off, a purse of 10 taels of silver (about 500 grams) to give him and his family a fresh start in life. However, even some Chinese officials were extremely sceptical of the wisdom of this last practice and, in the end, their concerns were validated when the ‘pacification’ eventually devolved into a money-making racket for the pirates. Interestingly, there was one notable pirate who did take up the offer of amnesty in the spirit in which it was intended: Ch’en T’ien-pao. He lived out the rest of his life in peace, with his family, far away from the coast.

However, despite their growing strength (there were now some 200 pirate junks in Tây Son service), the pirates soon experienced some true setbacks. By 1800, the tide had turned against the Tây Son as more and more of the country fell into Nguyen Phuc Anh’s hands with every passing campaign season. The pirates remained loyal to their patrons but by 1802 their enthusiasm for the cause had waned. By the end of that year, the Tây Son were all but wiped out and the pirates were chased out of Vietnam by the newly-enthroned Nguyen Dynasty, who captured and executed several prominent pirate leaders.

chinese pirates
Chinese pirate attack

Suddenly deprived of the safe harbours in Vietnam that had been their bases for decades, the previously united pirate groups now found themselves competing against one another for resources. As the competition intensified, the disunity that Chinese officials had failed to induce through ‘pardon and pacification’ rapidly developed on its own and suddenly it seemed the pirate scourge might consume itself.

Instead, something remarkable happened.

In 1805, seven of the most formidable pirate leaders came together and signed a contract. In broad terms, the agreement regularised internal procedures, prescribed its members’ conduct at sea and outlined the procedures for conducting business with outsiders. A formal registry of ships was created and each vessel was permanently assigned to a specific fleet. Members were prohibited from fighting or undercutting one another and agreements such as contracts for ‘protection fees’ were to be honoured by all. Harsh punishments could be expected for those who breached the terms of the agreement.

In effect, this contract heralded the birth of a pirate confederation.

Though initially signed by seven leaders, one of the signatories surrendered to Chinese authorities soon after so, in the end, there were six heads to this new pirate monster. Each leader commanded a single fleet, often identified as the Red, Black, Blue, White, Green and Yellow Flag Fleets. The smallest of these was comprised of 70 junks, the largest numbering as many as 200. Each fleet was divided into squadrons (10-35 vessels), which appear to have been the primary operational units. The chain of command within each fleet was fully formalised, a reflection of the growing professionalisation of the pirates as a whole.

The most powerful of all the original signatories and seemingly the principal driver behind the creation of the contract was Cheng I, a man of both considerable prowess and significant pedigree. His family had been pirates for almost 200 years. Under his command was the Red Flag Fleet. Consisting of around 200 junks, with 20,000-40,000 men, this was the most powerful armada of the confederation at the time of its creation.

Now that the confederation had been established, Cheng I’s attention turned to the matter of finding and securing a suitable base of operations. Such a location would need to have a suitable harbour, able to be easily supplied and defended and must be strategically positioned so as to provide ready access to the main maritime trade routes. Cheng I and his fellow leaders eventually settled (quite literally) on the Lie-Chou Peninsula. While possessing all of the prerequisites mentioned above, the peninsula was also relatively isolated from the strong administrative centres around Canton. After securing the peninsula, the pirates then began occupying a series of small islands that stretched eastwards along the coast.Pearl river delta

It is a testament to the confidence and boldness of Cheng I and his comrades that eventually the confederation seized Lantao Island, located at the very mouth of the Pearl River and just across the water from what would eventually become Hong Kong. In time, Lantao would grow from a secondary headquarters of the confederation into the primary base of operations. As a result, merchant ships entering the Pearl River on their way to Canton would have to pass within viewing distance of the largest pirate base in Asia.

By 1805, the pirates dominated the northern South China Sea. The official Chinese response to the threat had so far proven woefully inadequate. Any large junk sailing to or from Canton could expect to be the target of a pirate attack. Ocean-going junks were particularly appetising for the pirates not just because of their large cargo-capacity but also because they were highly sought after as pirate ships. Larger, sturdier and capable of carrying significantly more cannon, these ocean junks were the ideal vessel for terrorising the South China Sea.

However, in addition to the profits that came from seizing gold and silver, the pirates also made a fortune from ransoming both vessels and captives. On one occasion, the pirates ransomed a vessel, which they had already plundered, back to the Canton customs office for 3,000 Spanish dollars (each dollar is equal to an ounce of silver). When it came to ransoming captives, Europeans were a particular favourite. One group of eight American sailors taken from the small schooner Pilgrim were, after five months of complex negotiations, ransomed for the value of 7,150 Spanish dollars, half of which was in cash and the rest in goods.

The salt trade was particularly hard hit by the pirates. While the large salt fleets that made the 400-mile journey from Tien-pai to Canton four times a year had always been a virtually irresistible target for pirate attacks, the sheer scale of pirate activity now gave the sea bandits the resources and boldness to attack the fleets before they had even left the salt flats at Tien-pai. By 1805, the pirates had begun forcing the crews of the fleets to continue transporting salt on their behalf. Pirate domination of the salt trade grew to the point where salt merchants soon found it to more prudent to negotiate directly with the pirates and to pay a hefty sum for safe passage to Canton.

The power of the confederation grew to the point where virtually all vessels in the Guangdong region did not dare to set sail without first paying ‘protection fees’. Indeed, the pirates developed a system of passes, which could be purchased at offices set up in most ports along the coast. Upon being intercepted, a vessel merely had to present their documents as proof of payment and they were then sent on their way. The honouring of these documents was strictly enforced by Cheng I and the other leaders and for good reason. As soon as merchants felt that the passes did not confer any real protection, they would stop paying for them. On one occasion, a pirate captain was forced to restore a captured fishing vessel to its owner, who had purchased a pass, and, on top of that, also had to pay an additional 500 Spanish dollars as compensation.

Piracy in the South China Sea had virtually become a regulated business.

However, the pirates still felt the need to reinforce their reputation for terror. Any vessel that resisted was dealt with harshly, with the men often killed and the women handed over to the pirate crews. The crews of government ships were typically butchered outright, even if they had surrendered without a fight. Sometimes they were tortured before being put to death or tied to weights and thrown overboard.

Eventually, the pirates even began extending their influence beyond the sea. Coastal villages were regularly attacked and forced to pay protection fees just like the merchants. Those that resisted were usually destroyed, as was the case when pirates retaliated against a village that refused to pay by massacring some 2,000 residents and capturing large numbers of women and children. Government forts were seized all along the coastline. The rivers that were water highways soon became a convenient means of sailing inland and terrorising villages and towns that thought themselves safe from the sea.

The confederation was positively awash with cash. It was not uncommon for pirate flagships to carry sums of 50,000-100,000 Spanish dollars (1,417-2,834 kgs of silver) in hard cash.

Forget Blackbeard and co. This was the true Golden Age of Piracy.

Rise of the Pirate Queen

Shi Yang was born in Guangdong province in 1775. Unfortunately, almost nothing about her early life is known. The earliest record of her activities comes from the last years of the 18th-century when she was a prostitute and madame working in a small brothel in Canton. Known at the time by the nickname Shi Xianggu, she eventually caught the eye of none other than Cheng I. The nature of their relationship is a subject of some debate. Some historians assert that Cheng I became infatuated with Shi Xianggu, while others argue that theirs was a purely business relationship, established by formal contract which decreed that Shi Xianggu would ‘lend her powers of intrigue’ to Cheng I’s cause. In any case, the pair were married in 1801 and Shi Xianggu, who became known to her associates as Cheng I Sao (literally ‘wife of Cheng I’), left Canton behind in favour of the pirate life.

Women were not an uncommon sight among the pirates of the confederation. Most often they were the wives or concubines of pirate leaders, but this does not mean they were simply the property of the men. Indeed, these women were just as involved in piracy as the men. With unbound feet, they were active and mobile, with a well-earned reputation for being tough and aggressive. It was not usual for women to be seen fighting alongside their husbands in the heat of battle. According to a contemporary account, in 1809 one pirate wife refused to abandon the helm of the ship during an enemy boarding action, wounding several assailants while defending herself with a cutlass. Some women even rose to command entire war junks themselves.

Cheng I Sao.jpg
Sketch depicting Cheng I Sao

According to some accounts, Cheng I Sao is described as ‘fully participating in her husband’s piracy’. Whether this means she was as heavily involved as the woman mentioned above is unclear. In any case, Cheng I Sao’s partnership with Cheng I was a productive union, in more ways than one. In the first years of the 19th-century, Cheng I Sao bore her husband two sons and by 1807 the Red Flag Fleet contained no fewer than 300 junks and around 40,000 men. Unfortunately, 1807 was also the year that Cheng I would set sail for the last time.

It is not clear exactly how Cheng I died. According to one account, he was blown overboard during a typhoon while according to another he was struck by a cannonball while fighting to recapture Vietnam on behalf of his former Tây Son allies. In any case, Cheng I was dead and suddenly there was an enormous power vacuum within the pirate confederation.

No doubt some of the other pirate leaders would have been salivating at the thought of assuming control of the most powerful of all the pirate fleets. To them, Cheng I’s death was an opportunity. Unfortunately for the other leaders, there was another individual who was prepared to step into the void created by Cheng I’s untimely passing: Cheng I Sao.

Cheng I Sao 2
Depiction of Cheng I Sao

Almost as soon as she received word of her husband’s death, Cheng I Sao immediately began to forge the relationships that would help her consolidate her position. She secured the support of her late husband’s powerful kinsmen by offering them senior command positions within the Red Flag Fleet. She bound other fleet leaders to her cause by appealing to their staunch loyalty to her husband. Through no mean feat of political skill, Cheng I Sao managed to balance all of the myriad sub-factions within the Red Flag Fleet and positioned herself as the centre around with the confederation revolved. Still, the leaders were one thing. The rank-and-file were another. She needed someone who would be accepted by the pirate masses and could handle the daily operations of a massive armada while still remaining absolute in his loyalty to her.

There was only one man who she knew with certainty would be able to resist the temptation of assuming ultimate power for himself. That man was Chang Pao (commonly known as Cheung Po Tsai), who had been Cheng I’s protege and who Cheng I Sao and her husband had adopted several years prior. To secure her alliance, Cheng I Sao initiated a sexual relationship with Chang Pao. Within weeks of her husband’s death, the two were lovers. Years later, they would become husband and wife.

While it would have been reasonable to assume that the demise of the mastermind behind the creation, consolidation and expansion of the pirate confederation might have caused the confederation to falter or even collapse, in reality very little changed at all. The growth and expansion of pirate activity continued apace. New recruits flocked to the pirates’ banners, some out of desperation or coercion while others joined in pursuit of wealth, rank and glory. Cheng I Sao proved to be an extremely capable leader, binding all the fleets together even as external and internal forces contrived to drive them apart. She was instrumental in planning military-like campaigns and perfecting the profit-making schemes of the confederation. For his part, Chang Pao also proved himself a talented leader, executing plans and leading massive fleets with skill, charisma and bravado.

Chang pao
Chinese engraving depicting Chang Pao

By 1809, the pirate armada had exploded to at least 1,800 junks and 70,000 men in just four years. 200 of these vessels were of the ocean-going variety, capable of carrying 300-400 men and 20-30 cannon. The flagship of the Red Flag Fleet mounted no less than 38 cannon on a single deck, two of which fired the powerful 24-pound shot. This vessel and others like it were strong enough to go toe-to-toe with even the European ships that operated in the region, though it must be said that these were armed merchantmen rather than dedicated warships. Still, these European ships were extremely sturdy, well armed and crewed by well-trained, experienced sailors. For the first time, Chinese vessels were capable of challenging European naval prowess in Asia.


Pirates Ascendant

By 1809, the scourge of piracy was so terrible that Chinese government officials could no longer ignore the crisis. The provincial government mustered what vessels they could and enacted a campaign to rid the seas of the pirate plague. Unfortunately, virtually every naval encounter ended in the pirates’ favour and the provincial fleet was rapidly depleted of sea-worthy vessels. The heaviest blow came when the government fleet guarding the entrance to the Pearl River was destroyed. Suddenly, under Cheng I Sao’s leadership, pirates swarmed all over the delta. According to contemporary accounts, cannon-fire could be heard every day in Canton as the pirates drew every closer to the city. Red Flag Fleet

With Canton now under direct threat, out of desperation Chinese officials turned to perhaps the only people who had the strength to defeat the pirates: the Europeans.

The Portuguese and British had in the past offered their assistance in combating the pirate threat to the Chinese. After all, the pirates were a threat to European trade in the South China Sea as much as they were to Chinese shipping.  However, the Chinese refused to accept the help of these Western ‘barbarians’. They did not need it.

Now it was abundantly clear that the Chinese could not contain the pirates on their own. As a result, they begrudgingly turn to the Portuguese at Macao for help. The Portuguese, for their part, were only too happy to oblige. In September 1809, they dispatched a two-ship squadron after Chang Pao’s fleet, which was terrorising the Inner Passage of the Pearl River. The Portuguese claimed the resulting engagement as a decisive victory, as the two Portuguese ships destroyed several junks and damaged many others. In reality, however, the encounter was inconclusive as the Portuguese were forced to withdraw when one of the ships was badly damaged by pirate cannon-fire.

Over the following month, the Portuguese, aided by the Chinese, continued to clash with the pirates, who eventually withdrew from the Pearl River Delta. Though they almost always lost more ships than their European adversaries, the pirates appear to have largely held their own against the Portuguese. At one point, the pirate fleet was boxed in at Lantao by a Sino-Portuguese force but, to the embarrassment of their opponents, managed to escape, losing only a few junks in the process.

Now the pirates had proven themselves not only more powerful than the provincial fleets but also a match for the Europeans.

However, if this was the peak of the confederation’s power, it was also the turning point that would lead to its eventual collapse.

With their every effort to contain and destroy the pirates having ended in abject failure, the Chinese turned once more to the practice of ‘pardon and pacification’. Only this time, they were so desperate that they were prepared to allow even fleet leaders, who had been excluded from previous offers of amnesty, to surrender. Notices were displayed in every port urging the pirates to “return to allegiance”. On several occasions, they even dispatched emissaries to appeal to them in person.

The first major pirate leader to accept the terms of surrender was Kuo P’o-tai, commander of the Black Flag Fleet. He had long pondered the uncertainty of a pirate fate and the increasing involvement of the Europeans had convinced him that the time was right to quit while he was ahead. In January 1810, the Black Flag Fleet surrendered to the Governor-General of Canton. In total, some 113 junks, 500 cannon and over 6,000 men, women and children surrendered to the authorities. Kuo P’o-tai was rewarded with a naval rank and thereafter joined the Chinese expeditions against his former comrades.

News of the Black Flag Fleet’s return to allegiance spread rapidly throughout the confederation. The first domino had fallen. Within three weeks, over 9,000 pirates had surrendered to the Chinese government, including 300 from Cheng I Sao’s own Red Flag Fleet.

Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao, however, refused to follow suit and instead launched a major campaign into the Pearl River Delta, defeating a Sino-Portuguese fleet and entering the river with 200-300 junks. For weeks the Red Flag Fleet ravaged the river lands, seemingly in defiance of the example set by Kuo P’o-tai. However, the seeds had been sown. Many within the Red Flag Fleet were pondering their own futures. Eventually, even Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao began to consider the idea of surrender, but they resolved only to do so on their own terms.

Miguel José de Arriaga Brum da Silveira

Negotiations for the surrender of the Red Flag Fleet continued for months. Chinese officials were unwilling to allow Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao to retain even the smallest number of ships, while the couple demanded that they be allowed to keep 80 junks so that they may join anti-pirate operations in western Guangdong. Notably, Miguel José de Arriaga Brum da Silveira, commander of the Portuguese ships against the pirates at the Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth proved an important mediator between two parties that had almost no trust in the other. Nonetheless, despite Arriaga’s best efforts, the talks broke down on two occasions, with the pirates resuming their activities in the interim. This served as a timely reminder to the Governor-General that, if he wanted to be rid of the pirates, he would have to compromise. For his part, the Emperor in far-off Peking was adamantly opposed to such a settlement.

The deadlock was finally broken by Cheng I Sao herself. Over the objections of her followers, Cheng I Sao presented herself, unarmed, to the Governor-General at Canton at the head of a delegation of 17 women and children. In the following negotiations, she proved herself once again to be a tough bargainer. Her terms were simple: she and Chang Pao were to be allowed to retain a significant portion of their formidable wealth and also were to be permitted to keep a company of junks for use in the salt trade. After having all proposals rebuffed, eventually, the Governor-General finally yielded to her demands.

On 20 April 1810, the Red Flag Fleet surrendered. 17,318 pirates aboard 226 junks, carrying 1,315 cannon, were presented to the authorities.

The golden age of Chinese piracy was officially over.

Chang Pao was given a naval rank and allowed to retain a private fleet of 30 junks and was paid a large sum of money with which to establish his followers onshore. In addition, the Governor-General officially dissolved the legal relationship, that of mother and adopted son, between Chang Pao and Cheng I Sao and the two were given permission to marry.

In the end, the only real punishment meted out to the pirates of the Red Flag Fleet was confined to 350 of the ‘worst’ offenders; 60 were banished for two years, 151 were sent into perpetual exile and 126 were executed.

In the months after the surrender, the remaining fleets were dealt with one by one. The Blue and Green Flag Fleets was utterly defeated, battles in which Chang Pao was heavily involved. The Yellow Flag Fleet was the last to fall, surrendering to the authorities in June 1810. After this, the newly reinforced Chinese navy mopped up the remnants of significant pirate activity in the region.

Portuguese naval battle
Portuguese depiction of a naval battle against Chinese pirates in the Pearl River Delta

In a remarkable turnaround, the pirate confederation had gone from the peak of its powers in 1809 to its complete dissolution and eradication in 1810. Who deserves the credit for this is still the subject of considerable debate. The Portuguese, for their part, claim that it was their might alone that finally brought the pirates to heel. The Chinese officials preferred to believe that their efforts to deprive the pirates of supplies had been so effective that they were eventually forced to surrender in order to avoid starvation. In truth, these two factors combined were indeed a significant influence on the defeat of the confederation, though neither were as decisive as the various proponents like to claim. There is also an often forgotten factor in the discussion, the pirates themselves. It is a common enough occurrence that success against a common enemy can breed the forces that pull apart a previously united cause. Such was the case for the confederation, which, at the height of victory in 1809, fractured and turned inward against itself.


Life of a Retired Pirate

Chang Pao transitioned with impressive alacrity into the official ranks of the Chinese military, eventually rising to the rank equivalent to that of a Colonel by the age of 34, an unprecedented feat within Chinese military bureaucracy. He and Cheng I Sao became the parents of a son in 1813. In 1822, Chang Pao died at the age of 36, apparently of natural causes, bringing an end to the spectacular rise of an illiterate fisherman’s son.

As for the dragon lady herself, Cheng I Sao returned to Guangzhou in 1824, along with her 11-year old son. Still an exceptionally wealthy woman, she settled near Canton and raised her son with tales of his parents’ adventures on the high seas. Following her son’s untimely death at 27 in 1840, Cheng I Sao returned to Canton where she lived out the remainder of her life peacefully “so far as was consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.”

She died peacefully in 1844 at the age of 69. Can Blackbeard and co say the same?



  • Murray, Dian H. Pirates Of The South China Coast: 1790-1810. Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • Cordingly, David., ed. Pirates: Terror On The High Seas From The Caribbean To The South China Sea. Turner Pub., 1996.
  • Course, Arthur G. Pirates Of The Eastern Seas. Muller, 1966.
  • Pennell, C. R., ed. Bandits At Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York University Press, 2001.
  • Konstam, Angus. Pirates: The Complete History. Osprey Publishing, 2009.

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