top of page

A Murderess Affair Ep. 1: Cheng I Sao

Listen to the first episode available on iTunes or Podbean!


Okay. Is this working? 

I hope this isn't too close because I don't want you to hear all my mouth noises, because I know that's very annoying. But, here we go. Alright!

My name is Gabrielle and welcome to a podcast. Specifically, this podcast, which is A Murderess Affair. Yes, it's misspelled on purpose I promise.  So, I've been a fan of true crime for my entire life, probably way before I should've been, to be honest. I think even in like elementary school I was reading one of Anne Rule's books. I don't remember which one so I know it doesn't give much credence to that story but I promise you it happened. 

And, I've recently begun to get back in to this obsession by listening to a podcast that has quickly become one of my favorite of all time, and it is called My Favorite Murder. If you have somehow stumbled upon this podcast and you have no idea what My Favorite Murder is, then you should definitely go listen to it because it is amazing. 

Okay, right. So, back to the point. The point is that after being a huge fan of My Favorite Murder, and another podcast that talks about different women in history called The History Chicks, I thought it would be really cool to kind of combine these ideas in to one singular show. 

So this is a podcast where I talked about, you guessed it, the different female serial killers, murderers, and scoundrels throughout history from all over the world. So, right now, it's just me-Gabrielle-bringing you these stories and histories. I'd love to hear any suggestions from you guys. Obviously, I'm really new at this and I'm just going off cases that I personally think are very interesting and that I think other people would also find interesting.


If you have any idea on the top of your head about different women I should do definitely let me know on Twitter @frumiousreads. Or through some other way like smoke signals or interpretive dance or something. 

But yeah, with that introductional block out of the way, let's go ahead and get started. 

The murderess of the day is one of the most infamous pirates in history, known only as Cheng I Sao. And, I know I'm probably butchering this pronunciation, I really looked it up and tried to get it like phonetically correct, but Google was absolutely no help and basically pronounced it the exact same way that I read it. So yeah, I tried. 

Anyway. Here's the story. 

Cheng I Sao married her husband when she was 26. She either was a prostitute at a brothel or she was running the brothel when they met. There's some stories out there that said they met at the brothel and he had his men raid and destroy it in order to take her away. But then, there's also a story that this was an arranged marriage where she agreed to marry him if she was able to have some measure of power while in his fleet. Either way, they ended up getting married and she was on her way to creating one of the most formidable pirate empires in history. 

So at the time of this marriage, her husband, Cheng I, was one of several contenders for power on the coast of China. Just a little history for you guys, Chinese pirates had been serving the King of Vietnam as privateers. But, within a very few months, Cheng I and his wife found themselves at the forefront. 

Cheng I Sao helped her husband create from the pirate refugees of a Vietnamese extermination campaign a formidable confederation that would dominate the coast. So, while Cheng I Sao's husband was the unifier and the person who would go and get allies, she was the organizer. 

Together they had this huge achievement that unified these small little gangs of pirates in to a giant confederation that by 1804 included 400 ships and 70,000 men, women, and children. 

One of these children was actually the future pirate king Chang Po Tsai, and he had been born a fisherman's son in the-oh, God, there's so many names here- in the Jiangmin city in 1783. At the age of 15 he was kidnapped and put in to service of Cheng's fleet. 

So he was already kind of talented in being on on boats and working in the water and his natural talent helped him in his new career. He caught Cheng I's eye, and some rumors have it that the pirate ruler took the young man as a lover. He also took him on as his protege and at some point he and Cheng I Sao adopted the young man to make him their legal heir. 

So Cheng I Sao is basically the co-ruler at this point with her husband Cheng. They now have a protege, and they're unifying all these other pirates, they're making this gigantic armada and actually outnumbering the fleets of government ships that the Chinese empire had at the time. 

And then, Cheng I Sao's husband died. 

Some people say he died at sea in a typhoon, some say that it was an accident falling overboard, and some people even point their fingers at Cheng I Sao or at the new heir, saying that they had murdered him together. 

After her husband's death, Cheng I Sao had to act really fast before the empire she had started to build began to fall apart. 

The first step was to solidify a partnership with her official heir, Chang Po Tsai and soon she started dating him despite the fact that legally she was the younger man's mother.

Cheng I Sao's leadership techniques were very simple but super effective. She moved to create and intensify the personal relationships that would help legitimize her rule in the eyes of her followers and at the same time help her to exercise her authority.  

So basically she went through and talked to all her husband's supporters and kind of proved like, "look, I was the mastermind behind this, and this, and this, and this is the reason why you should support me while I'm still in power so we don't have to change our entire way of life."

She knew she needed to stop the opposition to her rule before people who had followed her husband got it in to their heads to try and take over now that he was dead. She was able to get support from all of her husband's most powerful allies. 

So her second act to kind of establish herself as a leader was to balance the different factions of pirate gangs that she and her husband had gathered around them. She played off the loyalty that those factions had to her husband and kind of made herself indispensable. Like, really made herself a leader that they could rely on to get things done. 

And ultimately she was able to retain allegiance of all these different factions. And, I say factions, but I mean like these are thousands of people that she was able to obtain the allegiance of and keep even after her husbands death. 

So she was able to persuade everyone that their best interest lay in collaboration. But what really secured her position at the top of the pirate hierarchy was the creation of a new leader to replace her husband as commander of the most powerful faction. 

So each of these factions had different names and they went by colors. There was the Red Flag, Black Flag, Yellow Flag, Blue Flag, and Green Flag. 

And they were called Squadrons instead of factions, but I keep saying the word faction so we're just going to roll with that. 

She was able to maintain her leadership over the Red Flag which was the largest one in all of those groups. So after establishing her power and her place at the top of the hierarchy, she basically controlled the Southern Coast of China. 

She actually would hold off fleets of the government and demand tributes from locals. But, even though she demanded tributes that tribute also came with a guarantee of protection. So if any other pirate who was not part of her fleet tried to loot or harass a town who had paid tribute, or ships from those towns who had paid tribute, those pirates were buried and beheaded at sea. 

And that was kind of typical of the code that Cheng I Sao imposed on her fleet. She had very harsh discipline. 

Any pirate who tried to disobey an order was put to death. Rape in general was not allowed, and if it was consensual then both parties were put to death. Usually the man was put to death by beheading, and the women were put to death by drowning.

Also, those pirates who went ashore without permission or who stole treasure were also killed.

Treasure usually went in to a communal pot and was divided in shares based on rank. Strangely enough, deserters were not killed, but they had their ears removed before being paraded before their former comrades to show them the penalty for such a crime. And then, of course, anyone who saw them in town kind of knew their story based on the fact that they had no ears.

So this fleet was so big that these towns were actually considered to be their subjects. This justice also applied to the fleet's subjects. So when two towns tried to band together to send an army against the fleet, Cheng I Sao's fleet responded by wiping out the armies and the people who had stayed behind in the town, especially killing all the adult males they found there.

And what's interesting is that Westerners on more than one occasion were held captive by these pirates- and according to one observer, "violators of these laws were chastised with incredible efficiency."

So, obviously, they were serious about these rules, y'all.

Besides enforcing her code, Cheng I Sao exercised further control over the pirates by conducting business transactions. Each undertaking had to be cleared with her, and only after receiving her permission could an operation be carried out.

At the end of any mission, the treasure had to be surrendered for group inspection, and entered in to the ship's ledgers by the pursuers or the accountant.

Cheng I Sao alone decided who to reward and who to punish. When she spoke, everyone obeyed and jumped to her orders.

And then, at the same time, Cheng I Sao tried to further her control over the pirates by manipulating their religious beliefs. So for this, she really relied on her adopted son/boyfriend Chang Po Tsai.

Like other boat dwellers of the South China sea, the pirates of the six factions would never set sail or partake in a mission unless the omens were good. Basically, she and Chang Po Tsai kind of made it almost like every time that they succeeded in either raiding a town or in battle, that it was because of the orders that they had obeyed.

So they were being given these good omens, because they were following orders under their leadership and that's why these omens were good.

It's really interesting when you think about it because she was so adept at controlling the people under her that she was able to make them believe that she had like religious importance. And that made them even more, both in awe and afraid to disobey her. It's really interesting.

So in addition to that political and religious authority she had, she also demonstrated more power, as if she didn't have enough already, by taking responsibility in the creation of financial and military organs necessary for pirates daily survival.

So, not only at this point was she like "I'm in charge of everything."

And everyone else was like, "Yeah, okay, you are."

She realized that maintaining these several tens of thousands of individuals, required more than just the possibility of getting treasure at sea. She had them gain a regular source of income by expanding their domination to the salt trade.

So at this time they had a couple different island fortresses, and they began to make a series of coordinated attacks that succeeded in capturing fleet after fleet until only 4 of the government's 270 officially built ships remained outside their control.

And by doing this they were able to really just take control of all the supply lines by forcing all of those captures to continue to haul salt on the pirates terms. So if anyone wanted salt and were within those trade lines they had to negotiate with the pirates.

In turn, the pirates were getting paid, for basically creating this income. Or this supply and demand. And after being overtaken again and again, salt merchants began to start negotiating with the pirate leaders.

And they ultimately would surrender tons of money to guarantee the safe passage of their ships. So rather than constantly trying to sail and not get captured, they chose to negotiate for their passage, and actually ended up paying even more.

It got to the point where eventually they had developed this practice enough so that any salt leaving within their trade lines had to be first bought from them, and they needed to get safe conduct certificates at a standard rate of 50 Spanish dollars per 100 pounds of salt.

So as they continue to grow in size and strength, they were soon able to demand similar payments on a regular basis from the merchant and fishing ships in the region as well. Then not only did they start forcing the salt traders to pay for this safe travel certificate, but different fishing boats and merchant boats coming in and out of those supply routes had to also have a certificate like this.

In return for paying them these sums and getting that certificate, the owners of the ships received documents that exempted them from attack. And then in the end they were even able to extend their system to land.

So as their activities expanded, Cheng I Sao found herself with a financial operation that needed coordination from both land and sea. So what she did, as its head, is she oversaw the establishment of financial offices in villages and harbors along the coast. She basically made a banking system just for her fleets of pirates.

In the major port cities, she and her agents even went so far as to establish tax offices to collect her fees. And then they had one real headquarters of the confederation where agents of the pirates sold traders and fisherman documents, protecting them from attack while at the same time supplying their pirate employers with weapons and ammunition.

So now that her trade has expanded from sea on to land the pirates ended up taking a lot of precaution to ally themselves with the onshore society to establish a supply network that extended throughout the entire province.

And then, the pirates also collaborated with the secret societies and local bandits to gather intelligence and local information. Some of the pirates strongest allies were actually the very officials that were charged with their suppression.

The pirates agents, and people they trusted on the land, had infiltrated certain governments as well. So basically, they controlled the seas, the trade, and the government when it concerned themselves.

And by extended their sea operations to the lands, her pirate armada built a practically indestructible empire. Like, they were the ones who were in charge of most of their economic estate on the coast.

So Cheng I Sao was basically Batman, but as a female pirate and against everyday thugs. She was able to deploy her forces up and down the coast, plan her offensives well in advance, and her plans would almost always succeed.

So by 1804 her pirate armada had terrorized the Cantonese navy to the extent that admirals, in the navy, spent most of their time on shore. And of course, their excuse, when asked, was that they were waiting for favorable winds to carry in their favor so they could go and confront these pirates. Obviously.

By the end of the decade, the situation had gotten so bad that military personnel was too afraid to go in to sea at all. And they were sabotaging their own vessels in order to have an excuse for why they couldn't go out on to sea and confront Cheng I Sao.

Of course, as per usual with all these things, and the need for drama, tensions between pirate leaders in Cheng I Sao's armada threatened the confederation from within. Even though she has this whole power system set up, she's got basically everyone on land and sea under her control, different pirate leaders wanting more power led to tensions being created.

At this point, Cheng I Sao realized that she had gathered so much wealth and power that she didn't even need to continue as a pirate in order to maintain that. At this time, the Chinese dynasty was willing to compromise by allowing them to surrender without having any charges brought against them.

And this was a route that they were considering because of the worry that everything Cheng I Sao had set up with her fleet was going to collapse due to infighting. In the beginning it was going really well, but then negotiations deadlocked and for several weeks the situation hung in limbo with nothing from either side.

Cheng I Sao decided to take the initiative. She's like "you know what, you guys aren't getting anything done, I'm gonna do this for you." And she went unaccompanied and unarmed like the gangster she is to the governor general against advise of her subordinates in April 1810. So she basically sailed up in her own little boat to confront the head of the government they had sent to negotiate the surrender.

Obstacles soon begin to emerge for Cheng I Sao. She insisted her adopted son Chang Po Tsai should be allowed to keep 80 ships for himself, as well as an additional 40 for employment in the salt trade. And basically at this point she holds all the cards.

The government is basically begging them to surrender at this point. They have no control of their own coasts, all of the other countries are both laughing at them and furious because any ship has to buy these protection certificates so they aren't completely overrun by this pirate navy.

At the same time, the Chinese navy is so afraid of going in the water that they are self-sabotaging their own ships. So Cheng I Sao basically has all of the power. When the negotiations come to a stalemate, she basically threatens to just return to her former activities unless they yield to her demands.

So two days later, the governor general agreed to meet the pirates. They met and the negotiations proceeded smoothly and the procedures for the final surrender was set down. So not only was Cheng I Sao able to negotiate a surrender on her terms with the government.

They were given rewards for surrendering, which were distributed liberally to all the pirates, and Chang Po Tsai was allowed to retain a ton of vessels under his command. She had actually negotiated so that he and all the other pirate leaders were offered places in the bureaucracy and military commissions.

Cheng I Sao and Chang Po Tsai settled down in to respectable retirement with the proceeds of their life of crime. The government didn't even take the proceeds they had earned. So all the treasure, and everything that they had earned from their life of piracy, was able to stay with them.

And they got paid on top of that for surrendering.

In 1813 Cheng I Sao actually had her first child, which was a son.

In 1822 Cheng I Sao's second husband died at sea.

So Cheng I Sao moved her family back to her home town of Guangzhou. There, she opened a gambling house and brothel. She lived to see her son grow up and died surrounded by her family in 1844.

Fun fact! Cheng I Sao was actually the inspiration behind the character of Ching in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

So that was the life and legacy of Cheng I Sao.

Now, I'm not saying that she was a good person, at all. But I am saying that if I had a choice to be the pirate queen back in the 1800s? I think I would definitely do it. I would probably die within my first year at sea, but I would definitely do it.

So that concludes my first episode of A Murderess Affair. I would love to know what you guys think of this episode, and seriously if you guys have any tips then let me know. I love feedback.

You can get ahold of me @frumiousreads on basically every social media handle. And, if you're interested in following more about this podcast then you can find out more on

I hope you guys enjoy this episode, I would love to know what you think. It's been really fun looking up these different women in history, so I can't wait to come back and let you guys know what the next Murderess Affair will be on.

But, that's all I have today, so thank you so much for listening/reading! I'm gonna go now, so talk to you soon. Goodbye!

39 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page