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The History of Pirates
by Angus Konstam

The History of Pirates is a well organized primer on pirates from ancient times to the present day.

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“S.R. Staley transports you back to a time when the flapping of canvas, the roar of ships' cannons, and the flash of cutlasses are seen through the smell of gunpowder and smoke. The Pirate of Panther Bay, the young Isabella, prowls the seas. She is dogged by a Spanish man-o-war commanded by a dashing young Spaniard who also commands her heart. A great adventure romance!”
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Cheng I Sao (also Ching Yih Saou, Ching Shih)

The Down and Dirty on Cheng I Sao

Primary Haunt South China Sea
Pirate Period 1801-1810
Ship(s)/Type(s) Chinese junk
Date of Birth/Location 1775, Canton
Death/Location 1844, Canton
Claim to Fame Leader of a confederation of pirates that included a fleet of 17,318 pirates and 226 junks when it surrendered
Useful References

Cheng I Sao, a.k.a Mrs. Cheng, married into her pirate life. Born in Canton (just north of Hong Kong in southern China), she was a prostitute until marrying Cheng I in 1801.

When Cheng I died 1807, Mrs. Cheng took over. She effectively ruled the South China seas until 1810 when she surrendered to the Governor-General of Canton.

Mrs. Cheng was not an ordinary pirate leader, and her story says a lot about how clever women could influence a male-dominated profession like pirating. Cheng I and Mrs. Cheng ruled a pirate “confederation”—no one pirate captain dominated. The head of the confederation could only lead if the other pirate captains agreed.

When Cheng I died, Mrs. Cheng realized she needed the support of other pirate captains. She struck up a romantic relationship with one of Cheng I’s most valued lieutenants, Chang Pao, and he became the commander of the Red Flag Fleet, the most powerful of the fleets in the pirate confederation (according to David Cordingly’s account).

At the height of its power, more than 50,000 pirates were governed by the confederation. This number is staggeringly high compared to the more familiar Caribbean piracy. At the height of the pirate days in the Caribbean Sea, experts believe there were no more than 5,000 or 6,000 plying the sea.

In 1809, Cordingly, notes, Mrs. Cheng’s pirate confederation included:

  • 200 oceangoing junks, armed with 20-30 cannon and up to 400 pirates;
  • 600-800 coastal boats armed with 12-25 guns and carrying about 200 pirates;
  • Dozens of small river boats with sails and oars, with 20-30 pirates each.

Pirating in the South China Sea was very different from the Caribbean and the Atlantic Coasts. China and other Southeast Asian countries were populated with numerous fishing villages and cities along major and minor rivers. These were excellent targets for pirates. The pirates supported themselves on the food, clothing, and trading goods they were plunder from these villages.

Interestingly, Chang Pao was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Chinese military and eventually died in 1822 (at 36 years old) at the rank of Colonel. Mrs. Cheng died in 1844 at the age of 69.