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.