In the early 19th century, ships traversing the China Sea faced a most unusual band of pirates: unusual because of the size of the fleet, its impeccable organisation, strictly enforced rules, and the nature of its leader. For ten years, the woman known to us as Widow of Zheng was the power to be feared, not just by any passing ship but by her pirates, the Red Flag Fleet.
It all began in 1801 when the pirate leader Zheng Yi fell in love with a girl he captured from a brothel. She agreed to marry him, but only if he would make her his business partner. It was wise move on his part—she proved to be an organising genius, and by 1804 the couple had formed a coalition of pirates into a fearsome fleet, eventually reaching 1800 ships and around 60,000 pirates (this included supply ships).
When Zheng Yi died in a typhoon in 1807, his widow, Zheng Shi, took over as the new leader, keeping his second in command and adopted son, Chang Pao, as her own second and her lover. The fleet and her fame grew, and Zheng Shi not only took loot and collected ransoms from any ships the fleet captured, she also controlled a long line of coastal villages, collecting taxes.
She set up strict rules for her fleet. Any loot had to be presented to the common fund. The collecting ship was given 20% and the rest went into the pool to be shared amongst the rest of the fleet. Anyone failing to share would have their head cut off. Anyone disobeying her orders would have their head cut off.
She had special rules about female captives. A rapist had his head cut off. Pirates could take their pick of pretty captives, but would have to marry the woman they chose and then be kind to her and faithful, or have their heads cut off. (Ugly women were to be set free.)
First time deserters lost their ears. If they deserted again, they had their heads cut off.
The Chinese Government found it impossible to stop this fearsome woman and her pirates, even with help from the Portugese and the British. In the end, the Chinese offered an amnesty. Zheng Shi sent Chang Pao to negotiate the best deal he could, and when negotiations broke down she took over herself. Her fleet won not just the amnesty, but the right to keep their loot. Most of the pirates walked free, and Zheng Shi received a cash bonus. Chang Pao was commissioned as an officer in the Chinese navy, and set out to become the scourge of the pirates who had formerly been the Red Flag Fleet’s rivals.
Zheng Shi married Chang Pao, opened a gambling house (and some say a brothel), and settle down to have Chang Pao’s son and remained a wealthy and highly respected business woman until her death at the age of 69.
Not that I’m advocating piracy as a career move, but I quite like the fact that arguably the most successful pirate in the history of the world was a woman.