Learning from Pirate Communities – Gender and Women’s Rights

Long before universal suffrage, Roe vs. Wade, bra-burning, the Eveleth iron mine, Hilary Clinton, or the exporting of women’s rights to places like Afghanistan, a woman named Ching Shih watched her husband die in a hail of musket fire.

It was 1807 and Zheng Yi, a pretty darn good pirate in his own right, just got put down by the Royal Navy. A power vacuum emerged. Hundreds of Chinese pirates were looking for a leader. An opportunity presented itself. And on to the scene emerged the greatest pirate in the history of pirates. She called herself Madame Cheng.

Madame Cheng was ruthless, wily and charismatic. She immediately seized the opportunity (totally embraced planned happenstance, by the way) and consolidated power within the Chinese Pirate Confederation by leveraging her positive relationship with the members of her husbands professional and social networks. Madame Cheng also took a huge risk. As she cajoled and negotiated and charmed her way to prominence in China’s pirate community, Madame Cheng took on a young lover; the adopted son of a fisherman named Cheng Pao. And here’s the kicker: she made the kid head of the Red Sea fleet, which was the biggest and most important in the Confederation.

The move was shrewed and effective. Madame Cheng had an eye for talent, as Cheng Pao had grown up in a “floating community” of Chinese junks, adhoc houseboats and strung-together waterlogged debris. He had an uncanny understanding of the sea and Cheng Pao used such abilities to carry out his wife’s master plan, which, really, was nothing short of dominating the Chinese shipping routes from the Strait of Malacca to Australia.

By 1810, Madame Cheng’s pirate fleet was larger than those of most countries navies. She commanded between 600-800 coastal vessels, hundreds of small, river junks, and tens of thousands of pirates. Recognizing her growing power, the British, Portuguese and Chinese eventually banded together to stop Madame Cheng. But they didn’t. Following thousands of deaths – pirate and seamen alike – Madame Cheng decided to belay the bloodshed. From a position of power, she negotiated a peace treaty with the colonial powers and Chinese authorities and, following the agreement, sought an early retirement with her husband, Cheng Pao. Through organization, relationship-building and recognizing top talent, Madame Cheng created a pirate fleet the likes of which no one has ever seen (or well ever again see). And for three years she ran the shipping lanes of the China Sea and Strait of Malacca for decades.

Now. Madame Cheng wasn’t the only successful lady pirate. Anne Bonny and Mary Read are probably the most famous female pirates. Actually, they arguably made the inspiration for Johnny Depp, Calico Jack Rackam, famous by association. The three sailed together from 1718-1720 in the Caribbean, after Rackam, a charismatic fellow (not unlike another Captain Jack we know and love), was elected by his crew following the former captain was declared a coward and executed. Rackam, who was engulfed in a fairly tawdry relationship with Read, brought to two women aboard during a stop in Cuba, and the women joined the crew in pillaging small sloops and coastal fishing villages all around the Caribbean.

Life was good (there was even an alleged love triangle between Bonny, Read and Rackam), until 1720 when Captain Jonathan Barnet captured Rackam’s ship. Get this. All the men, including Rackam, hid below deck as the Royal Navy ship approached. Bonny and Read, who Barnet claimed could “swear and fight as good as any man,” charged the approaching sailors, killing and wounding dozens before they were finally captured. And while Rackam was quickly hanged, his body put in a cage near Deadman’s Cay, Bonny and Read, who – I kid you not – were both pregnant at the time, were allowed to have their children before returning to trial. Read died before re-trial, but Bonny escaped with her child, never to be heard from again.

Amazing stories, sure. And what does this mean for our current communities here on Earth? Well, I have some findings to report:

Leading women today agree with John’s idea. Okay, maybe, but probably not really. Still, having met Fiona Walsh (FM Walsh & Associates) and knowing her to be pretty darn brilliant and that she has a great sense of humour, check this out. Let’s see how Madame Cheng’s piratical example lives up to the three main components of Ms. Walsh’s Women in Leadership Program:

  1. Develop a professional “BIG PLAN” and have a “Plan B”. Check! Madame Cheng’s initial plan was to, well, dominate the China Sea and Strait of Malacca for another few decades. Plan B was to retire. Well played, ma’am.
  2. Understand your professional value (your reputation, specialized skill set, existing network) and build on these three components. Check! Madame Cheng (not to mention Bonny and Read) had fierce reputations. Cheng’s skill set involved top-level leadership, industry knowledge, talent recognition, and the motivational aspect of organizational behaviour. And she leveraged her husband’s network to become leader of the Chinese Pirate Confederacy. Brilliant!
  3. Build a powerful business network that will support your advancement through the world of business. Check! Beginning with the appointment of Cheng Pao, Madame Cheng surrounded herself with a variety of new business partners (river-going junks was a new idea, not to mention a very lucrative one) as well as a range of existing power brokers from the colonial and Chinese/Japa
    nese/Singaporean/Filipino/Vietnamese business communities.

Hilary Clinton running for President shouldn’t be a big freakin‘ deal! Well, yes, it should, because a woman leading the United States (arguably the world) is an amazing and inspirational concept; however, Madame Cheng, nearly two hundred years ago, showed us that women can not only succeed in a man’s world, but can absolutely and totally change the game. She took on Britain and Portugal and various Chinese city-states. That’s like Hilary taking on the economy, Climate Change and adultery! Point is, we shouldn’t be surprised. Women are, quite clearly, better than men at most things. Even piracy. Probably politics. More often than not, it’s just a matter of timing.

Women are unmeasurably powerful. Thing is, our economic measuring/value-system has been written by men for hundreds of years and, admittedly, is a tad biased. Get this. A recent study by the United Nations Human Development Index revealed that unpaid work, such as volunteering, caring for the young, old and sick, household management, do-it-yourself housing, food-growing, and community service, accounts for $16 trillion per year. The vast majority of this work is done by women. Further, a recent University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business study estimates the annual value of a stay-at-home-mom at $138,095 and points out that these community leaders work an average of 51.8 hours of over time per week. Now all we need are some metrics that measure this kind of contribution instead of just GDP…

Should we be surprised that the greatest pirate in the history of the world was a woman? Not really. Ladies, you might just need to embrace your inner-pirate. If you take one thing away from the story of Madame Cheng, let it be the part about recognizing an opportunity for success and seizing it. And when you do, be sure to collaborate with other women and share your success. Honestly, there are a lot of us out here who are excited for you to run the world. Sorry we’ve screwed it up so badly…

Good luck, and have fun with it!

- JCH

5 thoughts on “Learning from Pirate Communities – Gender and Women’s Rights

  1. What a great post! Madame Cheng’s story is an interesting one. I will definitely be using it in my next presentation. Seizing opportunity when it comes along is the only way to create the life and success you want.

  2. John, women should not be called Ladies. Its a derogatory term that has unfortunately come back in your generation. Also, I believe bra burning never happened. I believe it’s a myth.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Judy. If you could provide me with a list of words that you deem appropriate for my generation to use when discussing women, that would be fantastic. Merci.

    Other than that, did you like the article?

  4. Fantastic article John! Informative, smart and current. I came across it by ‘happenstance’ but it was Judy’s comment that piqued my interest.

    Is it more telling that Judy missed the point of the article by critiquing irrelevant nomenclature, or that she’s singling out ‘your generation’? I’m assuming she crafted her comment to be condescending – oh the irony – how she disqualifies your article because of your age. In response I suggest you adopt lingo like denture cream, dinosaur bones and bingo night so ‘her generation’ can relate. And use a much bigger font.

  5. Thanks very much for the comment, Rob!

    Glad to hear that you ‘got’ both the jokes and the hard-hitting analysis of this piece.

    I know Judy, and, yes, at times my friend transposes ideas/beliefs from the 1970s on to today’s cultural scene, which is fine – as many have stayed the same – as long as an open mind is kept and the opinions of women today are taken into account.

    Would love to hear how you found us, Rob.

    Thanks again!

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