Meet Legendary Pirate Zheng Yi Sao

Forget Blackbeard, this is most successful pirate from history

By Google Arts & Culture

Zheng Yi Sao

Think of a pirate, and you may well imagine a large, bearded man, possibly with a parrot or two on his shoulder. Despite this stereotype, female pirate Zheng Yi Sao is considered one of the most successful in history. Here’s her story.

Pacifying the South China Sea : Part 1 (1810)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Born Shi Yang in 1775 in Xinhui, Guangdong, Zheng Yi Sao came from very humble beginnings. In 1801, the young Shi Yang married Zheng Yi, a notorious local pirate. She took the name Zheng Yi Sao and this began her life at sea.

War 1851-1869 Britiain France V China. Opium ( Pirates. Smugglers ) Taipeng (1850/1860)LIFE Photo Collection

Piracy was Zheng Yi’s family business, tracing his piratical roots back to the Ming Dynasty. Zheng Yi fought in his cousin Zheng Qi's fleet, under the patronage of the Vietnamese Tây Sơn dynasty. However, in 1802, Zheng Qi was captured and executed.

Law Crim PiratesLIFE Photo Collection

With the Vietnamese patrons defeated, Zheng Yi took control of the family fleet and fled to China. After a period of unrest, in 1805 Zheng Yi was able to unite the local pirates into the Guangdong Pirate Confederation.

Zheng Yi Sao

Zheng Yi Sao, who was an effective negotiator, helped significantly with this unification and played an active part in pirate activities. It wasn't until her husband fell overboard and died in 1807 at the age of 42, that she quickly took over operations.

Law Crim PiratesLIFE Photo Collection

As well as taking on her deceased husband’s fleet, Zheng Yi Sao inherited informal command of the entire federation. She was able to unite the various leaders and had the support of a number of other commanders, including Zheng Yi’s nephew Zheng Baoyang and adopted son Zhang Bao.

Zheng Yi Sao

Frustrated with the pirates activities, the local government enlisted the help of the Portuguese navy. The joint Sino-Portuguese force blockaded the pirates in Tung Chung Bay in 1809. However, it ended in disaster when the pirates broke through the blockade and escaped.

However, times were changing, and Zheng Yi Sao had decided it was time to step down. After lengthy negotiations, Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao, together with 17,318 pirates, 226 ships, 1,315 cannons, and 2,798 assorted weapons, officially surrendered.

War 1851-1869 Britiain France V China. Opium ( Pirates. Smugglers ) Taipeng (1850/1860)LIFE Photo Collection

At the time of her surrender, Zheng Yi Sao was aged just 35 and had 24 ships and 1,433 pirates under her personal command. She went on to live a relatively peaceful life as the owner of a notorious gambling house, leaving her pirate legacy to be discovered years later.

85199 (1970-09) by John OlsonLIFE Photo Collection

Learn more about female pioneers in arts and culture.

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