In Western media, female pirates are often relegated to mere footnotes and short paragraphs sprinkled throughout stories of their male counterparts. However, stories of male pirates pale in comparison to that of the most successful pirate of all time – Madame Zheng. While the notorious Blackbeard commanded merely four ships and 300 pirates, Zheng controlled nearly 1,800 pirate ships and an estimated 80,000 men.
During her time working in one of the many floating brothels, or flower boats, in the port city of Guangzhou, she married local pirate Captain Zheng, who gave her the name she is best remembered by. Together, the two became true outlaws, meaning that they operated without support or approval from any neighboring government. Soon after Zheng Yi’s death in 1807, Madame Zheng took control over their fleets and significantly expanded their developing empire. She quickly created an informal confederation along the coast of China through raiding garrisons, villages, and markets. European powers also saw her as a threat, as Zheng’s forces often destroyed merchant ships from the British East India Company and the Portuguese empire. Madame Zheng was so feared that commanders often sabotaged their own vessels in order to avoid battle with her.
Zheng consolidated her power through strict military discipline as well as a surprisingly progressive code of laws. Female captives were protected from sexual assault, and although subordinate pirates could take them as wives, mistreatment or infidelity towards them was punishable by death.
Desperate to stop the raids, the Qing Dynasty offered amnesty in exchange for her surrender, but she agreed but only on her own terms. The confederation was peacefully dismantled in 1820, and Madame Zheng died of old age at 69 years old.