Episode 11: Queens of the high seas

Meet pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao, who tormented the South China Sea with her fleet of 70,000 raiders in the early 19th century.

Zheng Yi Sao may have been the most successful pirate of all time. In the early 1800s, her fleet of some 70,000 pirates marauded the South China Sea.
Illustration by SARA GÓMEZ WOOLLEY

Yo-ho, a pirate’s life for she! Legends of Blackbeard and movie buccaneers like Captain Jack Sparrow give us the impression that piracy was a man’s world. But historians and the Nat Geo book Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas are righting the ship. Join the fleet of Zheng Yi Sao, a woman from southern China who at her peak commanded some 70,000 pirates during the early 19th century.

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TRANSCRIPT

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Did you ever play a video game that sucked you in and took over your life? I mean, if you have, you can relate. But if you haven’t, it’s similar to that feeling of reading an amazing book and staying up late to read just one more chapter—and then before you know it, it’s three in the morning. Playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! was like that for me. 

VIDEO GAME CHARACTER: En garde!

BRIGGS: So the game takes place in the Caribbean during the 1500s and 1600s. You start out as an entry-level pirate, and you work your way up the food chain by plundering Spanish treasure ships and fighting some of history’s most famous pirates, like “Calico Jack” Rackham, Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard. So you take their ships, you steal their treasure, and you build a fearsome reputation. I was obsessed. It was adventure on the high seas in the form of many, many hours spent in front of the computer.

LEIGH LEWIS (AUTHOR): There’s just something about them. The whole—it’s like the opposite of what real life is, especially for kids. 

BRIGGS: This is Leigh Lewis. She wrote a kids’ book for Nat Geo about pirates. More on that in a minute.

LEWIS: You know, there’s no parents. There’s no rules. It’s a life at sea instead of a life on land. There’s no school. They get to do what they want.

BRIGGS: Kids figure out pretty quick that a pirate is supposed to look like Blackbeard or Long John Silver or Captain Jack Sparrow—you know, a greasy dude with a long beard, maybe a peg leg. That’s how Leigh pictured pirates too until a few years ago. She came across an article about one she’d never heard of before: Ching Shih, who led a group of up to 70,000 Chinese pirates. The article made the case that Ching Shih was the most successful pirate of all time. And what really blew Leigh’s mind is that Ching Shih was a woman. 

LEWIS: And I just was dumbfounded by the idea that there could be the most successful pirate who ever lived, Ching Shih, and that I had never heard of her.

BRIGGS: So, not long after, Leigh was at the swimming pool with her daughters. They were playing this game called walk-the-plank. Leigh grew up playing it too. She says one kid steps on the diving board, and the rest yell commands in pirate-speak. 

LEWIS: And the way that we played it with my brother and sister could be, you know, “Do a flip and a half!” which none of us had any idea how to do. But if you were commanded to walk the plank and do a flip and a half, you were doing a flip and a half.

BRIGGS: Or at least landing on your back trying.  

LEWIS: That’s exactly right. That’s all the better.  

BRIGGS: But as she watched her kids flipping and yelling as pirates, Leigh couldn’t stop thinking about the real Chinese pirate, Ching Shih.

LEWIS: And afterwards I called them over and I said, Hey, can you tell me what pirates you know? And they could name Blackbeard, and I think one of them knew Captain Kidd. And that was it. And I just thought, Well, that’s really something—that it’s multiple generations here that just don’t have any idea.

BRIGGS: So Leigh decided she had to know more about this female pirate. And as she dug, she realized Ching Shih wasn’t alone. 

LEWIS: I was absolutely surprised and delighted at every turn by how many female pirates we actually know of and to think about how many we don’t know of. Why don’t we know them? What is it that would make this gap in the history books? 

BRIGGS: When I talked to Leigh over Zoom, I noticed something on the wall behind her. There were a couple of posters from her new book. It’s called Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas. One poster has an illustration of six women. They’re lined up, and some of them are holding weapons and shields. They kinda look like a rock band—think like L7 or the Donnas.

(To Lewis) But I have to ask, are those posters behind you—are those yours?

LEWIS: They are! National Geographic sent them to me for fun. They just showed up in my mail one day. 

BRIGGS: Those six women are all real-life pirates profiled in Leigh’s book. You probably haven’t heard of them … yet. They aren’t household names, like Blackbeard. But there were female pirates all over the world going back thousands of years. There’s Artemisia of Caria, who led a naval attack against the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago. Sayyida al Hurra, a Muslim woman born in the kingdom of Granada in the 1400s. She was forced to flee the country during the Reconquista and took revenge on the Spanish by attacking their ships in the Mediterranean. And in the Caribbean—at about the same time as Blackbeard—Anne Bonny plundered ships, sometimes disguised as a man. 

LEWIS: And it’s just kind of a spread of them with a little poem that I wrote that kind of sums it up. 

BRIGGS: Oh, that is so cool. 

LEWIS: Yeah, it’s great. “Of marauding men at sea, many books have told the tale. But of all the pirates in all the world, the most fearsome were female.”

BRIGGS: Avast, me hearties. It’s time to walk the plank with the biggest, baddest pirate of all time, who just happens to be a girl.  

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: Movies and myths might make you think piracy was only a man’s game, but we’re here to right the ship. We’ll learn about the real-life Ching Shih—maybe the most successful pirate of all time. She led tens of thousands of pirates, managed to keep them happy, and then pulled the biggest power move of all: going out on top. 

More after the break.

Ching Shih’s story begins in southern China, a little more than 200 years ago. In English, there are different versions of her name, depending on how you romanize Chinese. She’s also called Zheng Yi Sao, which is what historians prefer to call her. 

(To Dian Murray) Do you remember the first time you started to learn about her? Like, what was your first impression? 

DIAN MURRAY (HISTORIAN): I was really surprised. I mean, I didn’t go into this with any feminist ideas or anything. 

BRIGGS: This is Dian Murray. She’s a professor emerita of history at Notre Dame. Dian first started researching Chinese pirates back in the 1970s. The U.S. opened up diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. And Dian was in the first wave of scholars allowed access to China’s imperial archives. When she started researching, Dian knew nothing about this female pirate. 

MURRAY: The more I read, the more I just became utterly fascinated with this woman who seemed to excel and to stand out. So I was very surprised. I had not expected it at all.

BRIGGS: To understand how Zheng Yi Sao ended up on top of the pirate world, you have to know a little bit about Chinese piracy. When she came on the scene around the year 1800, piracy was going through a big change. Before that, piracy in China was basically a side hustle for fishermen. Dian calls them part-time pirates.  

MURRAY: The fishing season was part-time. It was good in the winter and pretty lousy in the summer. And so when the monsoons would come and the fishing would not be so good, the piracy would commence. And that’s how piracy operated—you know, a nuisance but not a threat. 

BRIGGS: A typical pirate crew might have a couple dozen men on one ship. But at the end of the 1700s, China’s pirates got a lot more powerful. They allied with a rebel group who overthrew the government of Vietnam. And in return, the pirates got financing and experience in battle. By 1800, there were thousands of pirates, divided into squadrons and fleets.

MURRAY: They fought each other, and they were, you know, killing each other off, and there were pirate battles, and on and on. And finally one of them got smart and said, You know, this is really stupid. Why don’t we cooperate? Why don’t we collaborate?

BRIGGS: Dian’s work suggested that the pirates had formed some kind of confederation. But for years, she couldn’t find any hard evidence. By the 1980s, she finally made it to Beijing. She was digging through boxes of old imperial records when she found what she was looking for. 

MURRAY: This was in the archives in the Forbidden City, where the emperor used to sign the documents that I was reading. As I sat there, there was this one particular governor-general whose works I had already read. His memos had been published, and I wasn’t interested in him. But I called up all the documents, and I reached into the box, and there was this crumpled-up piece of tissue paper-like stuff. And [I] opened it, and that was the actual pirate contract.

BRIGGS: Wow.

MURRAY: That was a moment where I just couldn’t believe it.

BRIGGS: In this contract, written in 1805, the pirates agreed to work together. And they outlined some ground rules that are frankly pretty boring, like the policy for registering boats or how to call a meeting with the boss. Piracy wasn’t part-time anymore. It was a professional enterprise. And this is when Zheng Yi Sao comes into the picture.  

RONALD PO (HISTORIAN): But first of all, we know very little about Zheng Yi Sao’s childhood and her background.

BRIGGS: This is Ronald Po. He grew up in Hong Kong—prime pirate territory, back in the day. He’s a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who specializes in Chinese maritime history. 

Zheng Yi Sao was born in around 1775 in the coastal city of Guangzhou, which Europeans also called Canton. At the time, the city was so crowded that it spilled over into the water, where people lived in floating villages. Pretty much anything you could do on land, you could do there—including visiting a brothel. 

PO: The only record we have is that her original name was Shih Yang and she was to be found on one of Canton’s many floating brothels, employed as a sex worker, and who had already developed a reputation as a savvy businesswoman. 

BRIGGS: One of her clients was the leader of the pirate confederation. His name was Zheng Yi. Eventually, he married this woman from Canton. In fact, Zheng Yi Sao just means “Zheng Yi’s wife.” Ronald says it’s not clear how they ended up together. A popular version of the story is that he asked her to be his wife. But then there’s this one. 

PO: There’s another version of the story, which is also equally fascinating—which goes that Zheng Yi Sao was the one who sought Zheng Yi out specifically and persuaded him to marry her. So in these stories—I mean in this version of the story—Zheng Yi Sao was portrayed as a highly astute planner and political operator who recognized and exploited of her own benefit.

BRIGGS: So Zheng Yi Sao went from working in a floating brothel to co-running a pirate fleet. And just a few years after she arrived, things changed pretty dramatically. 

PO: Zheng Yi Sao really came to the summit of power after her husband died—in quite a pirate-y way, by the way. So after this husband died in 1807 and then because—Zheng Yi Sao came to lead the confederations. 

BRIGGS: So you mentioned that Zheng Yi died in a pirate-y way. So how did he die?  

PO: Yeah. Well, he was either killed by a storm or by a cannonball. We’re not sure. We’re not sure. But he certainly had the wind blow out of his sails. 

BRIGGS: With no more Zheng Yi, there was a power vacuum. And Zheng Yi Sao saw an opportunity. She knew she couldn’t take power alone, so she tried something that might sound a little unorthodox. Zheng Yi had kidnapped a fisherman’s son, and he and his wife adopted him as their own son. By the time Zheng Yi died, their son was a powerful pirate leader in his own right. So Zheng Yi Sao began a relationship with him, and later they even got married. And as a career strategy, it worked.

MURRAY: There were these various alliances that tied these various people together, and she was able to—you know, to come out on top. And so she must have had very good negotiating skills. She must have had a lot of ability to command respect. 

BRIGGS: I mean, she sounds much more like a CEO than, you know, the romantic idea of a pirate. The thing I’m just thinking is like, you think of pirates as being a very physical thing with, you know, violence and fighting and having to use physical threats, and that doesn’t sound like her at all.

MURRAY: I think her skills—I think to some extent, they certainly were what we would call administrative, organizational. You know, I’m not saying she was all love and kumbaya, but I think she certainly had a lot of skills that were not all murder and cutthroat activity.

BRIGGS: Zheng Yi Sao was now in control of a monster fleet: a couple of thousand ships and as many as 70,000 pirates. When you think about it, it’s hard to put in perspective just how big that is. I mean, think of it this way: At his peak, the great Blackbeard is said to have commanded a few ships and several hundred pirates. Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet was more than a hundred times bigger.

Coming up: how to keep 70,000 pirates on your side. We’ll explain how Zheng Yi Sao ran the fleet and how the pirates turned some of their enemies into shark food.

More after the break.

When Zheng Yi Sao took control, the pirate confederation was powerful but precarious. The system was mostly based on personal relationships. If other pirates turned on her, it could all fall apart. So she put her administrative skills to work. 

PO: But Zheng Yi Sao realized that it is important—imperative—to actually make it more formal and organized. In so doing, she established a set of law codes, which were extremely severe. For example, if you disobey the command of your supervisor, then that would lead you to immediate beheading.

BRIGGS: Ooh.

PO: Or—yeah, it was quite scary, isn’t it?

BRIGGS: There were even rules about how to treat prisoners. When the pirates captured women, the code said anyone who raped a captive would be put to death.

But it wasn’t all about fear. Zheng Yi Sao also created incentives to keep the pirates happy. Whenever they unloaded their stolen treasure, there was a system for dividing it up fairly. 

PO: Twenty percent of the captured goods were then allotted to those involved in seizing those—like, booty—while the remainders went into communal treasuries. So it’s very much like [an] organized welfare system in Scandinavia. Everything is, like, under control. 

BRIGGS: In those days, the pirates had a lot of booty to pay out. They created a steady revenue stream by forcing other ships to pay an expensive fee not to be attacked. They even issued official passports to the ships that paid up. Fishermen wanted a piece of that. In groups of hundreds at a time, they gave up fishing and joined the pirate fleet. 

(To Po) I’m curious about, were there other women on these ships? Were there other women who not necessarily were running the show, but who were working on those pirate boats as well? It feels weird that there would only be one.

PO: Yeah. There are lots of womens in the pirate clans led by Zheng Yi Sao. And you’re right, I mean, not all of them were fighting on the forefront, but some of them were actually backing up the entire confederations. For example, they cook, they do the laundry. I mean, they do this—they act as a supporting role. 

BRIGGS: Many of the male pirates even brought their wives and kids along on the ships. And they lived in extremely close quarters. Sometimes an entire family would squeeze into an area of four feet by four feet. But those women weren’t always stuck in supporting roles.   

PO: But I have to also emphasize that there are also some women soldiers that Zheng Yi Sao led. She herself had a group of warriors, female warriors, very faithful to Zheng Yi Sao and always—I mean like stand by Zheng Yi Sao’s side and who fought in the battles together with Zheng Yi Sao. So there were also various types of women that we can identify on board.

BRIGGS: By this point, the pirates had grown so powerful that the Chinese Navy didn’t have the money or the manpower to stop the pirate attacks. One of Zheng Yi Sao’s favorite tactics was to sneak up on an unsuspecting ship.

(To Po) Like, if I’m just an innocent sailor—I’m on my boat. I see a pirate fleet on the horizon. It’s coming right for me. Like, what happens next? 

PO: Well, if you were spotted by pirate ships, I mean—so, of course you better run as soon as possible, right?

BRIGGS: And if you couldn’t outrun the pirates, you’d better surrender. Otherwise they’d show no mercy. Dian says they might start a battle by throwing grappling hooks onto the innocent ship and climbing aboard.

MURRAY: And the fighting was primarily hand-to-hand. They had some cannon, and they had some guns, but they weren’t particularly good at using them.

BRIGGS: The pirates also made improvised stink bombs out of gunpowder. Once they’d caught the ship’s crew, they’d tie them up and beat them. But by far the worst torture was saved for the Chinese Navy. 

MURRAY: If they had government officials or military officials, they loved to behead them. And sometimes they would take the hearts out and eat them because they thought that would give them a lot of military prowess, and so that was always a thing.

BRIGGS: The pirates would also turn navy sailors into shark food by nailing their feet to the deck, hacking them to pieces, and throwing them in the water. About three years after Zheng Yi Sao took over, the Chinese government was getting desperate to shut down the pirate confederation. Nothing was working. 

PO: So the Qing government decided to use some other strategies. Instead of fighting them in the sea, well, they decided to approach a couple of squadrons individually and offer them a comfortable retirement. So it’s likely to divide and conquer it.

BRIGGS: The government basically offered to pay the pirates to not be pirates. The pirates had also started fighting each other again, and the confederation was in danger of falling apart. So retirement seemed like a good deal. Zheng Yi Sao and her second husband-slash-adopted son decided to leave on a high note. 

MURRAY: When the chips were down, they ultimately decided to surrender and serve the government.

BRIGGS: But even in retirement, Zheng Yi Sao had the upper hand. She drove a ruthless bargain and only agreed to a deal once the government met her demands.    

PO: Both sides reach a deal in which only Zheng Yi Sao was allowed to retain a fleet under her command of between 20 and 30 ships. And Cheung Po Tsai and Zheng Yi Sao were also allowed to keep much of the booty they collected. So they walk away with the ships and the money.

BRIGGS: After that, the records don’t have much to say about Zheng Yi Sao. But we do know that her life as a pirate was only the beginning. We know her second husband, Cheung Po Tsai, rose through the military ranks. We know they had a son together. And we know that Zheng Yi Sao died peacefully at the age of 69. Apparently she was a businesswoman until the end. 

MURRAY: And she moved back to Canton and continued to live out her life on the proceeds of her gambling dens and bordellos, they say. So … 

BRIGGS: So—wait, wait, wait. She’s a pirate. She becomes a respectable wife of a government official, and then she runs a gambling den?

MURRAY: Yeah, that seems to be it. 

BRIGGS: That is a colorful life!

These days, Zheng Yi Sao isn’t as famous in the West as Blackbeard, although she did inspire a character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But in southern China the legends of her pirate fleet are alive and well. 

PO: So I guess—I mean, everyone in Hong Kong knows or at least have heard about the Cheung Po Tsai cave.

BRIGGS: On an island off Hong Kong, there’s a small cave on a rocky bluff overlooking the water. As the story goes, Zheng Yi Sao’s second husband had his own pile of money, and he didn’t want to give it up to the pirates’ central fund. So he hid his treasure inside the cave. Well, there’s no actual evidence that that really happened. But it’s a popular tourist spot to explore anyway. Ronald went there when he was a kid.

PO: And it was a school trip that we were guided by a teacher. But actually, we were—like, Cheung Po Tsai cave was not on the plan.

BRIGGS: The teacher said it was dangerous. The path to the cave was too slippery. But come on—you can’t take kids to a pirate cave and then tell them not to go in. 

PO: So, but we—I mean a group of some of my friends, it was a group of 10 or something—we decided to go there by ourselves as an adventure, something like that. So it was not officially on the agenda of the school trip, but we made it happen.  

BRIGGS: Ronald says the main thing he remembers about the cave is that it’s small. Even when he was a kid, it was tough to maneuver inside. 

PO: You need to squeeze your body a little bit. I mean, twist your body a little bit in order to get through those inner chambers.

BRIGGS: Did it seem like a good place to hide booty, like when you went into it?

PO: Well, to be honest, no, not really. I’m afraid it’s not a very pleasant tourist spot, I would say.

BRIGGS: But Ronald says people still care about the stories about Cheung Po Tsai. He shows up as a main character in TV shows and plays as a Robin Hood figure fighting corrupt leaders.

And even though the stories usually focus on her husband, Zheng Yi Sao is there too. Author Leigh Lewis says it’s not uncommon for women to get written out of history. By telling the stories of Zheng Yi Sao and other women pirates, she wants to fill in holes in what we’ve been taught.

LEWIS: Even in piracy, something that we’ve mostly—almost all of us have seen as an all-male domain—that women existed and excelled. And then specifically, I guess I hope that at least some kids out there—when they picture a pirate, instead of Blackbeard they picture a Chinese woman in the south China seas, Ching Shih. 

BRIGGS: It’s just like the poem in Leigh’s book: “Of marauding men at sea, many books have told the tale. But of all the pirates in all the world, the most fearsome were female.”

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

We have a lot for you to explore about pirates. Check out Leigh Lewis’s new kids’ book. It’s called Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas. Subscribers can also read a cool story about another pirate queen. In the 1500s, Grace O’Malley battled the English off her home on Ireland’s coast. Now she’s seen as a national hero, and the Irish government is memorializing her with a tourist trail.

We also have stories that cut through some myths you might think you know about pirates. Read about the real-life discovery of Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge; how pirate fleets ran on democracy; and what science has to say about a pirate’s diet. Hopefully you like hardtack, dried beef, and a whole lot of beer.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.

CREDITS

This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter. 

Our producers are Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson. 

Our senior producers include Brian Gutierrez. 

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. 

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. 

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. 

Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer and Robin Palmer. 

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music. 

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

The Walt Disney Company, which produced Pirates of the Caribbean, is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners. 

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. 

David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief. 

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Yarr! See you next time.

SHOW NOTES

Want more?

Check out Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas, the new book from National Geographic Kids.  

Subscribers can follow the trail of pirate queen Grace O’Malley—also known as “Bald Grace”—who became a living legend in 16th-century Ireland. 

An animated video breaks down the life of Zheng Yi Sao, perhaps the most successful pirate of all time. 

Also explore:

There are plenty of pirate myths, but National Geographic has the true stories of discovering Blackbeard’s ship, the reason pirates practiced democracy, and what science has to say about the food pirates ate (hint: it was usually terrible).      

Go deeper with the books Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810 by Dian Murray and The Blue Frontier: Maritime Vision and Power in the Qing Empire by Ronald Po.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.

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