It can seem, sometimes, that the world of pirates was an entirely male one, and that women had little (or no) role to play in it other than as forgotten wives, hired entertainment, or captured goods. The interested, however, will see upon closer inspection that there were many female iconoclasts who not only turned to piracy, but thrived within that life.
Who was the greatest female buccaneer?
One such woman was Zheng Yi Sao; once a prostitute in Canton, China, she found herself taken on board a pirate ship to marry a pirate of some esteem. Seeing that she had few options, she gathered her wits and agreed, under the condition that he half his wealth and power with her. You see, she didn’t want to be just a loot-hungry pirate’s wife; she wanted to be a pirate herself.
Zheng Yi Sao succeeded remarkably well, too. By 1807, when her husband died, she had amassed a fleet of 1500 ships and convinced her deceased husband’s first mate to support her! By 1808 she had some 17000 men under her command and was pretty much the de facto ruler of the waters from China to Korea to Malaysia.
A hard-headed benevolent pirate?
She ruled the Red Flag Fleet with conviction and certainty; the rules were simple. No looting towns that had paid tribute to her, no stealing from the treasury, no raping female prisoners, if you buy a female captive you must marry her and you must be faithful. Her punishments were just as simple, too. Any crew members who broke these rules would be decapitated and tossed overboard.
Zheng Yi Sao’s Career as the Greatest Buccaneer
As her career wore on she angered the Emperor of China so much that he enlisted the British and Portuguese navy to ensure her defeat. It was a defeat he could not secure and, as such, he had to offer her terms in 1810. As was her way, Zheng Yi Sao secured the very best deal she could for herself; a pardon for her and her men, a pension, and the full rights to her entire fortune. At the age of 35 she retired, married her first mate and took up ownership of a gambling den and brothel.
Now that’s what you call a successful life as a female buccaneer!