We frequently speak about the fact that a Pyrate crew was big on equality – one o’ the earliest forms o’ Democracy anywhere; equal pay for equal work, profit sharing, incentive bonuses, injury compensation…rum & BBQ! This attracted folk from all walks o’ life – though often those most disenfranchised, taken for granted, or openly abused in society at the time; Slaves, Servants, Indigenous Peoples, Immigrants…and, aye WOMEN.
Unfortunately, Women as Pyrates have been overly “romanticized” in film and fiction. I shudder to speak their names, but…Anne Bonney & Mary Read were two very inconsequential Pyrates – sailing with the equally inconsequential Quartermaster “Calico” Jack Rackham (whose only claim to fame, besides funny pants, is the fact that the POTC movie franchise saw fit to use his flag). Women who sailed the seas also did not dress like “Doxies” – corsets would be greatly impractical (especially outside clothing), not to mention, distracting. Women dressed the same as men; practical seafaring clothing on board – with perhaps something more flashy for shore (like shoes…).
[su_pullquote align=”right”]“…a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.”[/su_pullquote]O’ much greater note is Ching Shih (aka Cheng I Sao) – Commander o’ the largest Pyrate fleet to ever sail the seven seas! Born Shi Xianggu in Canton, China (1785) she was originally Concubine to Pyrate Captain Ching Yi whom she married in 1801. It was agreed that she would help run the business, as it were, and share in the spoils. Ching Yi died six years later and Cheng I Sao (trans. Ching’s Widow) became Pyrate Commander o’ “The Red Flag Fleet” – some 1800 ships and more than 80,000 Pyrates!
Like many Pyrate Captains, she wrote and enforced her own “code”:
- Anyone giving their own orders (ones that were not passed on from Ching Shih) or disobeying those of a superior will be beheaded on the spot.
- No one to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supply the Pyrates.
- All goods taken as booty are to be presented for group inspection. Booty to be registered by a purser and then distributed by the fleet leader. The ship’s crew that originally seized the prize receives twenty percent and the rest is placed into the public fund.
- Money to be turned over to the each crew leader, giving a small amount back to the seizer. The rest to be used to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships. Punishment for withholding booty is a severe whipping of the back (first offence). Large amounts of withheld treasure or subsequent offences carry the death penalty.
- Special rules for Female captives: Most beautiful captives become Concubines or Wives. If anyone takes a wife, he must be faithful to her (under threat of severe punishment). Captives deemed unattractive are released and any remaining to be ransomed. Pyrates that rape Female captives will be put to death. Consensual sex with captives (not taken as Concubine or Wife), punishable with beheading and the woman shall have cannonballs attached to her legs and dropped overboard.
- Violations of other parts of the code punished with flogging, clapping in irons, or quartering. Deserters, or those who leave without official permission, will have their ears chopped off and then be paraded around their crew.
It was said this code “…gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defence, and unyielding even when outnumbered.”
Ching Shih continued to command this powerful fleet until negotiating a deal with the Chinese Government in 1810 – in which she received amnesty for all Pyrates and kept all her booty.
Ching Shih retired to Canton, opened a Gambling House and lived to the age o’ 69…which quite probably also makes her the most successfully retired Pyrate in history!
As always, we leave ye with (hopefully) the desire to learn more…and a lesson from a fantastic comic strip about a frustrated Pyrate from Minnesota, Pirate Mike!