Who do you think of when you hear of the greatest pirates of all time? Sir Francis Drake, the Barbarossa brothers, Blackbeard, maybe Jack Sparrow? All men, of course. You’ve probably never heard of Zheng Yi Sao, a single Chinese woman who led an entire confederation of pirate crews and terrorized the South China Sea for years. It took three international armies multiple tries to finally bring her to surrender. And when she did surrender, she went out on her own terms.
Her name before marriage was Shi Yang, but let’s refer to her as the pirates did, as Zheng Yi Sao. Zheng Yi Sao was born into poverty before becoming a prostitute and later the madam of a brothel in Guangdong. She married the pirate Zheng Yi when she was in her mid-twenties. Some sources say she was captured by him first. Either way, her marriage with Zheng Yi gave her access to his domain…a pirate fleet that he’d inherited from his cousin.
At the time of their marriage, the pirate crews in the South China Seas were in conflict over ocean territories and where they could operate. Zheng Yi Sao helped stop the conflict and make a confederation of pirates. When her husband died a few years later, she took unofficial control of the confederation. The recognized leader was a young man named Zhang Bao, Zheng Yi’s right-hand man, with whom Zheng Yi Sao likely shared a romantic relationship. Together, they ruled their crews.
Zheng Yi Sao is also famous for her pirates’ code of conduct. This code stated that all bounty needed to be shared equally, and more significantly, that women were not to be harmed. Some sources claim that the rules of conduct were instituted by Zhang Bao and not Zheng Yi Sao.
Although Zhang Bao’s name might very well have been attached to the code, I personally think that Zheng Yi Sao definitely had a hand in formulating them. After all, Zhang Bao sought her counsel in all matters, and while the conventions of the time would not have allowed her to take official charge, everyone knew who was boss.
The Portuguese, British, and Qing China armies tried their best to get rid of her fleet multiple times from 1807 to 1810. But with powerful commanders and an entire confederation under her, Zheng Yi Sao was difficult to defeat. But all things come to an end (I hesitate to say good things; she was a ruthless pirate killer, after all). The confederation started losing its strength, with commanders defecting to the Qing Navy and other more legitimate institutions. After being hunted on the high seas, Zheng Yi Sao finally agreed to surrender.
Ironically, this is actually my favorite part of the story. Her surrender is what sets her apart as one of the greatest pirates in history. Have you ever heard of a legendary pirate willingly surrendering to a higher authority? Some, like Blackbeard, faced death as the more prideful way out. But Zheng Yi Sao was smart. Even in surrender, she knew she had more than enough leverage to secure some kind of future for herself and her crew.
In the year 1810, Zheng Yi Sao met with Qing China army officials to negotiate the terms of her surrender. All of her crew was pardoned, and she managed to get 20 to 30 ships and a crew to enter the salt trade. After retirement, it is believed that she may have lived out the rest of her years as the proprietor of a gambling den.
Despite being forced to surrender, this tale of nautical criminals ends happily, rather than with hangings or sunken ships. Zheng Yi Sao was fearsome during her pirating days, but when it all caught up with her, she was never truly “defeated”. She gained pardons for her men so they were never punished as criminals, secured her future means of income, and lived the rest of her days out in relative peace. Undoubtedly, she was one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived. Not even Blackbeard was this invincible.
If you want to learn more about Zheng Yi Sao and her high-seas adventures, check out Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker.
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