Zheng Yi Sao

Depiction of Zheng Yi Sao in action (right) from c.1836. Original in the public domain.

Born: 1775

Shi Yang was born c.1775, as part of the Tanka people, who live on boats in southeast China. She likely worked in the sex industry, either as a prostitute or madame, until she married the pirate Zheng Yi in 1801. Shi Yang took on the name Zheng Yi Sao, and began one of the most successful piratical careers in history. In February, 1802, Zheng Yi's brother, also a pirate, was killed, and Zheng Yi moved to consolidate his fleet into his own. Sao was instrumental in this effort, proving to excel in organization, but it still took until 1805 for them to form a confederation of the pirate groups. Two years later, Zheng Yi was lost overboard in a gale, and Sao took command of both her husband's fleet, and the entire confederation. Under her direction, the confederation became much more active, and they even destroyed a Chinese provincial fleet. When one of the fleets in the confederation was destroyed in 1809, Sao organized a retributive campaign that lasted for six weeks, and resulted in the razing of numerous towns and villages, and the deaths of some 12,000 people. She even had her own Trafalgar Day victory, wiping out a reformed provincial fleet on 21 October. Sao was caught in Tung Chung Bay, two weeks later, and blockaded in by a joint Sino-Portuguese fleet. Despite the numerical advantage and the use of fire ships, the blockading squadron was unable to take the pirates, and they eventually escaped. However, Sao began to see the writing on the wall. With the British and Portuguese joining the Chinese in hunting them, as well as some splintering of the confederation, Sao sought to surrender to the Chinese authorities, but on her terms. She wanted to retain a small fleet, in order to enter into the salt trade. This was initially refused, but a deal was made in April, 1810. The infamous pirate was somewhat sedated in her retirement, but still ran a rather notorious gambling house near Guangdong until her death in 1844.