Our typical image of a pirate is of one that sailed the Caribbean and ran afoul of the governments there, mostly between the 17th and 18th centuries. We’ve heard the stories about Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and (our personal favorite) Captain Morgan so many time that they’re as much legend as history. On the other side of the world, however, there was some epic—and often overlooked—pirating going on as well.
10. Lai Choi San
In 1956, Aleko Lilius wrote I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, and the book remains one of our best sources of information about Lai Choi San.
According to Lilius, he won the trust of the notorious female pirate and became one of the only Westerners ever to sail with her and her crew. He described meeting her after hearing some often-told stories about her. She was depicted as the Robin Hood of the South China Sea, known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Lilius said that he wasn’t sure how much of her story was real and how much of it was tall tales that grew up around her. He even doubted that she was real at first, before he met her. Dubbed the “Queen of the Macau pirates,” she inherited the business from her father, who had set up in Macau with protection from the government, given in exchange for his promise to protect local fishermen from other gangs of pirates.
Like her father before her, Lai Choi San was given the title of “inspector,” which also gave her the official protection of the government. That allowed her to carry out her pirating without harassment by the government, amassing a huge fortune running protection schemes among the fishermen they were already sworn to protect. Lai Choi San was also known for her kidnapping schemes, seizing men, women, and children to ransom back to their families.
Lilius wrote that she had collected “barrels of money” from her protection rackets and kidnapping schemes and that she ruled her crew with an iron fist. Supposedly, he was eventually allowed to sail with her, but historians have also raised some questions about how authentic his observations about her are. While they agree that parts of it are certainly true, how much was embellished for his audience is uncertain.