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  • ("I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will..." - Charlotte Brontë, "Jane Eyre")

  • At the height of their power, infamous Caribbean pirates like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan commanded as many as 10 ships and several hundred men.

  • But their stories pale next to the most successful pirate of all time:

  • Madame Zheng commanded 1,800 vessels, made enemies of several empires, and still lived to old age.

  • Madame Zheng began her life as a commoner, working on one of the many floating brothels, or flower boats, in the port city of Guangzhou.

  • By 1801, she had attracted the attention of a local pirate captain named Zheng Yi, and the two soon married.

  • Guangzhou's fishermen had long engaged in small-scale piracy to supplement their meager incomes in the off-season.

  • But a successful peasant uprising in neighboring Vietnam at the end of the 18th century had raised the stakes.

  • The victorious Tây Sơn rebels had unified their country only to face a Chinese invasion and ongoing maritime battles with the Vietnamese rulers they had overthrown.

  • So, they commissioned Guangzhou's pirates to raid the coast and join the fight against their enemies.

  • Serving their Vietnamese patrons turned the Zhengs and other pirates from ragtag gangs aboard single vessels into professional privateer fleets,

  • with dozens of ships able to hold their own at sea.

  • In 1802, the Tây Sơn were overthrown and the pirates lost their safe harbor in Vietnam.

  • But instead of scattering, the Zhengs met the crisis by uniting the rival Cantonese pirate groups into a formidable alliance.

  • At its height, the confederation included 70,000 sailors with 800 large junks and nearly 1,000 smaller vessels.

  • Those were organized into 6 fleets marked by different-colored flags.

  • The Zhengs were unlike many other historically-known privateers such as Henry Morgan or Barbarossa, who acted on behalf of various naval powers.

  • Instead, the Zhengs were now true outlaws, operating without support or approval from any government.

  • Zheng Yi met an untimely end in 1807, but his widow didn't hesitate to secure their gains.

  • Through skillful diplomacy, Madame Zheng took charge of the confederation, convincing the captains that their best interests lay in continued collaboration.

  • Meanwhile, she appointed Zhang Bao, the young protege of her late husband, as the commander of her most powerful squadron, the Red Flag Fleet.

  • Zhang became not only her right-hand man but her lover, and soon, her new husband.

  • Madame Zheng consolidated her power through strict military discipline combined with a surprisingly progressive code of laws.

  • Female captives were theoretically protected from sexual assault.

  • And while pirates could take them as wives, mistreatment or infidelity towards them was punishable by death.

  • Under Madame Zheng's leadership, the pirates greatly increased their power, with 200 cannons and 1,300 guns in the Red Flag Fleet alone.

  • Within a few years, they destroyed 63 of Guangdong Province's 135 military vessels, forcing their commanders to hire more than 30 private junks.

  • Madame Zheng was so feared that Chinese commanders charged with apprehending her spent most of their time ashore, sometimes sabotaging their own vessels to avoid battle at sea.

  • With little to stop them, the pirates were able to mount successfuland often brutalraids on garrisons, villages, and markets throughout the coast.

  • Using her administrative talents, Madame Zheng established financial offices in cities and villages,

  • allowing her pirates to extract regular protection payments on land and sea alike.

  • This effectively created a state within a state, whose influence reached far beyond the South China Sea.

  • At the peak of her power, Madame Zheng's confederation drove 5 American schooners to safe harbor near Macao,

  • captured a Portuguese brig, and blockaded a tribute mission from Thailand, all in a single day.

  • But perhaps Madame Zheng's greatest success lay in knowing when to quit.

  • By 1810, increasing tension between the Red and Black Flag Fleets weakened the confederation from within and rendered it more vulnerable to attack from without.

  • So, when the Chinese government, desperate to stop the raids, offered amnesty in exchange for the pirates' surrender,

  • Madame Zheng and Zhang Bao agreed, but only on their own terms.

  • Their confederation was successfully and peacefully dismantled in April 1810,

  • while Zhang Bao was allowed to retain 120 junks for personal use and became an officer in the Chinese navy.

  • Now fighting pirates himself, Zhang Bao quickly rose through the ranks of military command, and Madame Zheng enjoyed all the privileges of her husband's status.

  • After Zhang Bao died in 1822, Madame Zheng returned with their 11-year-old son to Guangzhou, where she opened a gambling house and quietly lived off the proceeds.

  • She died at the age of 69, an uncommonly peaceful end to a pirate's life.

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("I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will..." - Charlotte Brontë, "Jane Eyre")

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B2 US TED-Ed zheng madame zhang bao confederation

The most successful pirate of all time - Dian Murray

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    Evangeline posted on 2022/09/01
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