Ahoy there, ye well-learned bunch of scallywags! Apologies for the lateness of this here article, but my personal life hit some bumps last month. Today I’ll be talking about the roughest and toughest group of sea dogs ever to find themselves trapped on the waves of the seas of Ixalan. Ye be knowing full well I be talking about The Brazen Coalition! Formerly, this group of ragtag survivors inhabited the unvisited continent on the plane of Ixalan referred to as Torrezon. Torrezon used to be inhabited by people until they had a bit of a vampire problem. The ancestors of the poor fools who fled to the ocean to escape the Legion of Dusk are the fine felonious fiends that cruise the waves today. From the mean streets of The High and Dry to the golden gates of Orazca when you ask any pirate worth their sea salt who the scariest captain riding the waves is only one name is announced. The good Admiral Beckett Brass. But here’s a case of the real-world equivalent being twice as scary as fiction.
Okay, I have a confession, I was caught off-guard when they revealed that Admiral Brass was a woman. I wasn’t aware of the fact that women had played such a large role in piracy. I was aware of the legend of Anne Bonny and Calico Jack (future inspiration for one Jack Sparrow.) but that was about it. Little did I know I was about to encounter in my reading one of the fiercest and most successful pirates in history.
Name: Shi Xianggu
Aliases: Ching Shih, Madame Ching
Territory: China Sea
Years active: Early and mid 1800’s
I feel I need to open with a sort of disclaimer when talking about this woman. She’s a perfect example of why the colors selected for pirates was Grixis. History has a way of romanticizing things and pirates are no different. We’re about to delve into a world of larceny and violence and well, I will not be explicit in the descriptions of the actions we will be discussing a ruthless criminal overlord’s rise to power. Actions are rated ARRRR for pirate.
The woman who would become an undisputed pirate queen began life as a prostitute in Canton, now Guangzhou, southern China. Born in 1775 little is known of her life before an infamous day in 1801 when a pirate named Zheng Yi, captain of a fleet called The Red Flag Pirates took a liking to her. The pirate lore says he sent his men to raid the floating brothel one night and bring him his favorite prostitute. The men did as he asked and they were married. A far less flashy account of events states that he simply asked her to marry him and she agreed, only requesting equal share of the loot. Whichever you choose to believe, Zheng Yi and and Ching Shih began running the Red Flag Fleet together.
These two had found the recipe for lucrative larceny. Under their united rule the Red Flag Fleet grew from 200 ships to almost 1,800 ships. The fleet was even color coded, the lead fleet was red, then black, white, blue, yellow, and green. But then, in 1807, Zheng Yi died. Zheng Yi’s death might have caused most people to step down. Not Ching Shih. She seized upon the opportunity. With the support of her stepson Chang Pao she seized total control of the largest pirate fleet ever assembled.
Ching Shih artist’s depiction circa 1820.
Ching Shih was a strict and regimented pirate lord who focused on business and military strategy. She even went to great lengths to form an “ad hoc” government under which her pirates were bound to and protected by laws and taxes. Any plunder that was seized had to first be presented to the fleet and registered before it could be distributed. Whichever ship captured the loot was entitled to retain 20% of its value, while the remaining 80% was placed into the fleet’s collective fund.
Ching Shih set forth very strict rules regarding the treatment of captured prisoners – female prisoners in particular. Female captives who were considered to be “ugly” were released, unharmed. A pirate who wished to take a beautiful female captive as their wife was free to do so, but they were bound to be faithful and to care for her. Unfaithfulness and rape were both offenses for which a pirate would be executed. Harsh capital punishment was common for pirates of the Red Flag Fleet who did not stick to the code. Deserters would be hunted down and their ears cut off when captured. Other punishments included flogging, quartering, and clapping in irons.
Ching became such a terror that she levied taxes on coastal villages from Machau to Canton and she became known as the Terror of South China. The Chinese, Portuguese and even the British lost ships to her. She became such a problem that the Chinese government offered amnesty to all pirates in an attempt to end her reign. Being the intelligent woman she was she took it and retired back in her hometown where she ran a gambling den and brothel until her death at the age of 69.
Writing this article taught me a lot about how we romanticize certain roles of the past. The pirate, the king, the conqueror. History has a way of rose-tinting certain roles and in our next chapter we’ll be looking at one of the most romanticized roles in history. The knight and along with it, a discussion on the two most diametrically opposed colors in Magic, the Gathering.
All images retrieved and provided by Antony, Robert (2003). Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The world of pirates and seafarers in Late Imperial South China. Berkeley: University of California Press.