Ching Shih and the Red Flag Fleet : Were women equal in the world of piracy during the 19th century?


The year is 1809. Richard Glasspoole, officer of East Indian company ship The Marquis of Elyhas found himself and seven British sailors captured by one of the most notorious and powerful pirates to sail Chinese waters. This pirate takes the form of the young female, Ching Shih.

Ching Shih was one example of women with a prominent career within piracy. Although there is little record of her early life with many historians and publications unable to say where she originated, some believe that she was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1775. Together with her husband Zheng Yi they ran the Red Flag Fleet, made up of 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates; allowing her to claim the title of one of the most successful female pirates of all time.

With Ching Shih ruling the waves during the early 19th century it’s easily argued that women had a much better chance of being seen as equal by her male counterparts. As John Appleby explored in ‘Women and English Piracy 1540-1720 partners and victims of crime’ stating “There was no legal prohibition against women working at sea; nor in terms of physical or mental capability was seafaring beyond their capacity”. This shows a much more accepting view towards women compared to the world around them where women’s futures were limited to becoming housewives or mothers, it can be seen why many women saw freedom within a life of piracy, with Ching Shih herself starting out as a prostitute.

However, women like Ching Shih did not gain their status as most men would. Marriage could be seen to hold the same level of desirability to consolidate power as it did to women across the world, as women of the New World saw marriage as the main path in life this could still be said for the women of piracy. Ching Shih herself gained her power through her marriage to Zheng Yi and after his death in 1807 she felt a partnership with her adopted son Chang Pao was the only way to keep her power over the Red Flag Fleet. This cannot be said for the women who were not at the top of the hierarchy, as Claire Jowitt shows in ‘Early Modern Women: an interdisciplinary journal’; “The nameless and numberless non-English women abused and ill-treated by pirates by a long range of expeditions to the New World and The Indies.” This describes the common view of the majority of women’s roles among many pirates.

It is unknown how many women suffered physically and emotionally in the hands of these men. However, we can conclude that only the lucky few that were under the wing of commanders and captains were able to find some equality among the sailors themselves; the majority are merely a parallel of the already prejudiced view of the New World.



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