The greatest pirate of them all

Ching Shih costume

Madame Ching will cut your head off now.

We’ve been publishing our new pirate costumes in chronological order. First we had Grace O’Malley, who ruled the seas in Elizabethan times. Then we had Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who lived during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th century.

And now our pirate trilogy is complete with Ching Shih (1775-1844), the latest and greatest of them all.

Ching Shih was more than a pirate captain; she was a pirate admiral, commanding a vast fleet that was really almost a floating civilization. In the early 19th century her Red Flag Fleet ruled the South China Sea, striking terror into the hearts of citizens and consternation into the hearts of government officials.

The Qing Dynasty tried and failed to defeat Ching Shih, and finally resorted to bribery. In exchange for giving up their thieving ways, Ching Shih and her pirates were granted full pardons and allowed to keep their loot. It was an unusually happy ending.

In addition to being a ruthless pirate, an organizational genius, and an incredibly savvy political player, Ching Shih was also a young mother with toddlers underfoot. It’s mind-boggling to contemplate what this woman’s life was like. She’s definitely on my list of people to visit once we have a working time machine.

There are no contemporary images of Ching Shih, but there is an amazing painted scroll depicting the Chinese campaign against the Red Flag Fleet. The 18-meter scroll is now in the collection of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, and it’s the background of our main illustration on the costume page.