Queen of the Pirates

The content below is from Episode 85 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.

This week’s episode is all about Pirates! ARRRGH!


  • One Piece
    • One Piece is an anime series.
    • I know I recommend anime stuff a lot on here and I realized I’ve never fully explained what anime is…
      • It is Defined as: a style of Japanese film and television animation, typically aimed at adults as well as children.
      • They typically start out as Manga or Japanese comic books. So it is only natural that I am obsessed with the genre since I’ve been in love with American Comic books since as long as I can remember.
      • But Japanese Manga and Anime are different. They don’t just aim for the child audience and because their culture is so different they have a completely different feel to them.
        • I’ve always said that Japanese storytelling doesn’t rush things. I’m always impressed with how Japanese writers wield the element of suspense.
    • This anime, One Piece, ties in nicely with this episode’s main event AND this is one of the longest running animes of all time.
      • One Piece began on October 20th 1999 and it is still going. There are still episodes coming out now.
      • One Piece is about a poor kid who lives on an island. He is a simple guy who loves to eat meat, and wants to become king of the pirates.
One Piece Color Walk Art Book, Vol. 2: Eiichiro Oda, Eiichiro Oda:  9781421541136: Books


  • Back in Episode 73 I covered Mansa Musa: the African King who was the wealthiest person in history.
    • Today’s episode is about the most successful pirate in history, because pirates are cool. Her name was Ching Shih – Also known as Zheng Yi Sao or simply “Madame Zheng”
    • This is a true story.
  • Our story starts on a floating whore house… they were called Flower Boats … how nice
    • Yes that is a boat brothel. Where the signs read “if the boat is a rockin’ don’t come a knockin'” but in Chinese.
    • Apparently Ching Shih was very *cough* skilled at her job because she first is noted in history in the year 1801 when she made such an impression on the local captain Zheng Yi that he chose to marry her.
      • At first this sounds like a Pirate version of the Knight in Shining armor story where the fair maiden was left to a life of prostitutions until her hero arrived to take her away. But that isn’t how things played out.
      • Ching Shih (now Madame Zheng) wasn’t just a free-loafing captains wife. She got to work.
See the source image
See the source image
Flower Boat on the Pearl River
See the source image
Another flower boat
  • But let’s take a quick side step to explain the geo-political climate of the the Guangzhou area (where Madame Zheng and Captain Zheng Yi met).
    • You see Guangzhou was a bit of a hazardous place.
      • Aside from the floating sex businesses that Madame Zheng found work there was casual piracy.
      • The fisherman of Guangzhou took up arms and looted passer-by vessels in the off season. They had to feed their families… even when there were no fish.
      • So there were already amateur level pirates in the area
    • Then in the late 1700’s there was a peasant uprising in nearby Vietnam.
      • There were these 3 brothers from the village of Tây Sơn who started an uprising against the Confucian dynasty ruling over Vietnam. The Tây Sơn rebellion really shook things up in Guangzhou area.
      • You see the Tây Sơn brothers were victorious in overthrowing the government, but quickly found themselves up against an invasion from China and fending off the very government they had just beaten once.
        • In a desparate attempt for support they hired the Guangzhou fisherman pirates to raid their enemies as much as they could. They became privateers for the new Tây Sơn dynasty.
      • This new cause strengthened the Guangzhou pirates such as Captain Zheng Yi and his new wife Madame Zheng.
      • Instead of rag tag pirates, they were motivated by a greater cause than to just fill their own stomachs.
  • But in 1802 the Tây Sơn Dynasty was overthrown. It only lasted for 13 years.
    • This meant the pirate bands of Guangzhou such as the Zheng pirates could no longer seek refuge in Vietnam, as they no longer had a friendly government there.
    • And here is where the truly unique occurred. Rebellions happen, dynasty rise and fall, but very rarely do individual criminals band together.
      • Instead of scattering and going back to amateur fisherman pirates, the Zheng pirates joined up with the rest of Guangzhou pirates.
      • They then met up with rival Cantonese pirates and made a terrifyingly strong pirate alliance.
      • at the height of their power they had about 70,000 sailors, 1,000 smaller vessels, and 800 large junks.
        • A junk is a type of Chinese sailing ship with fully battened sails
      • This large pirate alliance was divided up in to 6 different fleets marked by different colored flags
    • Unlike other Privateers such as pirates in the Carribean, the Zhengs were acting with a large unified pirate force that did NOT have to answer to any government or kingdom. They made their own rules.
  • At this point the Zhengs were riding high.
    • not literally as they were pirate sailors so the highest they ever got was like a couple dozen feet off of sea-level, but you know what I mean. They were successful as hell.
    • But one day Captain Zheng died.
      • Zheng Yi died suddenly in Nguyễn Vietnam in 16 November 1807, sources varied as he died in a typhoon or in an accident, falling overboard and some even pointed at his wife, or his new heir.
  • Whether Madame Zheng was to blame for her husband’s death we will never know. That is lost to history and left to the speculators.
    • What we do know is that she kicked ass. She didn’t let all of her and her husband’s hard work go to waste. She used her diplomatic prowess and unique charm to keep the confederation together and eventually under her singular rule.
    • She simply pointed out that it was in the captains’ best interests to stick together and remain the formidable fighting force it had been instead of divide itself and be conquered.
    • Then she picked Zhang Bao (ol’ Captain Zheng’s right hand man and protege) to be the commander of the the Red Flag Fleet.
      • The red flag fleet was the strongest of all colored flag fleets.
      • It wasn’t long until Zhang Bao was doing more then commanding Madame Zheng’s strongest fleet… the two were bumping uglies on the regular and before long they even made it official and got hitched.
      • You can see why some historians believe Madame Zheng and/or Zhang Bao had somethign to do with Captain Zheng’s death. The guy died and it didn’t take long before his wife was in control of his entire estate and banging his best friend… but those could just be coincidence.
Mistress Ching is a character who appears in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. She is a blind woman who serves as the Pirate Lord of the Pacific Ocean. This character was inspired by Madame Zheng.
  • Although her rags to riches story and massive amount of power she wielded was enough to be written down in the history books, it wasn’t simply that Madame had so much power that makes her stand out. It was HOW she wielded it.
    • This seemingly pleasant little woman knew how to keep her men in line with strict military discipline. She cracked the whip and for it her men both feared and respected her.
    • Madame Zheng wrote down laws for her massive pirate empire.
      • Any captured females were to be spared of sexual assault
        • -that may seem like a no brainer to us today, but but to early 19th century pirates living outside the law that was practically unheard of-
      • However, pirates under Madame Zheng were permitted to marry captured women… just so long as they didn’t abuse them or commit unfaithful acts, lest yee be sent to Davey Jone’s Locker!
    • Although her method of ruling was uncommon for the times, it did work. Their success spoke to that.
      • The red flag fleet alone attained 200 cannons and 1,300 guns under the Madame’s rule.
      • Out of the 135 military vessels that patroled Guangdong Province, the red flag fleet sunk 63… that is nearly half the of their enemy force. These weren’t just pesky criminals, they were an enemy force to be respected and feared by military adversaries.
      • It was common for military commanders charged with apprehending Madame Zheng to stay ashore and sink their own vessels rather than face the ruthless Madame Pirate of the Red Flag Fleet.
Guangdong | Province, History, Map, Population, & Facts | Britannica
  • Madame Zheng’s Red Flag Fleet was so successful in raiding towns and markets that they started to look to racketeering as their next financial conquest.
    • The Madame had proven before that she could use politics and diplomacy to get large masses to do as she pleased. It wasn’t long until the Red Flag Fleet had offices all over the Guangdong province.
      • these offices squeezed the surrounding communities for protection money and were ALWAYS on time paying their master Madame Zheng.
    • Now the Red Flag Fleet had overwhelming control over both sea and land of the area. They had basically created their own state.
      • her fleet didn’t only stand up to the Chinese government, but within just 1 day was able to escort 5 American scooners to safety to nearby Macao, capture a Portugese brig, and blockade a naval mission from Thailand.
      • The Red Flag Fleet didn’t just patrol the south china sea. They were WORLD WIDE.
      • Madame Zheng taunted the world’s super powers with her badass fleet of battle hardened and business savvy pirates.
        • Hell, she probably ran her empire better than most world governments at the time.
    • I bet living in this little unofficial state of hers wasn ‘t all that bad you know. Yeah you’d be living in an organized crime government,
      • but I’m a bit of a Libertarian anyway so I already feel like I’m living in a state controlled by organized crime sometimes.
      • And at least there wasn’t hardly any freelance crime. Remember how they punished rape and domestic abuse?
        • A crime that is punished with death on the spot within a community is a crime that happens VERY little.
  • By 1810, Madame Zheng was still pretty well off as a pirate, but there was trouble brewing.
    • the foundation that the South China Sea Pirate Confederation was founded on was started to crumble.
    • Where the 6 fleets of different colors would once respect one another’s boundaries, now they started to grow greedy and forget what made them powerful to begin with.
    • Madame Zheng’s Red Flag Fleet started to get in to too many scuffles with the Black Flag Fleet and it worried Madame Zheng
    • But she wasn’t without options.
      • About this time the Chinese Government made an offer that they had made before. In desparation they asked Madame Zheng to surrender, but this time they offered amnesty.
    • With a smile on her face she accepted their offer… but only on her terms.
      • That very year of 1810 the entire confederation was dismantled… peacefully.
      • Zhang Bao (Madame Zheng’s now husband) got off with a fat retirement plan of 120 of his own personal Junks and went on to be an officer of the Chinese navy.
        • Being a pirate himself for so many years and now being asked to take down pirates, Zhang Bao was very good at his new job. he rose through the ranks fo the Chinese Military.
        • Madame Zheng reaped the benefits of Zhang Bao’s prestigious naval title
    • When Zhang Bao died in 1822, Madame Zheng returned to her home town of Guangzhou where she showed her son her old stomping ground on the Flower Boat… Just Joshin’ ya. She didn’t do that.. not as far as we know. that would be kind of messed up.
      • No, she opened up a boss-ass casino and sat back collecting all the profits.
      • Where most pirates die horrific and violent deaths at the hands of disasters out at sea, executions by various world governments, or at the hands of their fellow swash bucklers, Madame Zheng died a most enviable death.
      • She died peacefully as a successful business woman survived by her son.
        • she was 69…. nice


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