The Western hemisphere certainly has no corner on the pirate market. As long as people have been heading out in boats, they've been committing robbery aboard them. It's only a matter of degrees but sometimes your humble hostess loses perspective and needs to step back and see the big picture. So today, a man who was surely part of that big picture: Cheng Chih Lung.
Cheng's origins - like so many pirates of all nations - are foggy at best. Born some time in the late 16th century, probably to a family already in the business of trade on the water, Cheng was the owner of a substantial fleet by the 1620's. He had both merchant junks (pictured above) for carrying trade goods and war junks for protecting his trade ships and raiding others'. Cheng's operation was based on what was then known as Hsiamen (Amoy Island today). Cheng distinguished himself from his fellows by being willing to trade with the Dutch and the Portuguese who were just starting their imperialistic runs in the far east.
In the early 1630's, political powers shifted in the area and trade along with it. This allowed Cheng to step in and take control of the entire coast of Fukien province - roughly from what is now Vietnam in the south up to the mouth of the Yangtse River south of Japan including the islands of Hainan and Taiwan. It was a vast area, but Cheng's expertise and his powerful fleet that saw to it no one else was able to conduct trade in Cheng's waters made him virtual seafaring Emperor.
Cheng's piratical raids on trade junks not his own led to a system of protection money, which was a fairly common occurrence in the Chinese merchant trade. Cheng's war junks would seize and board an unfamiliar ship and, to avoid having his goods and vessel confiscated, the Captain would pay a set price in coin. Life was pretty sweet for Cheng and his pirate crews and trade made everybody rich.
In 1641 the Ming Emperor in Nanking appointed Cheng an Admiral, tacitly blessing Cheng's sprawling operation. Unfortunately for Cheng, this gave him the idea that he could play politician and that's when - as has been the case for so many others throughout history - things fell apart. When the Manchu raided Nanking in 1644, Cheng invited the Ming Emperor to set up court in Fukien province. With the Emperor under his thumb, Cheng began running the show. When the Emperor no longer served his purpose, Cheng did a deal with the Manchus in Nanking. Most historians agree that Cheng was responsible for the death of the Ming Emperor that year.
The Manchu Emperor quite obviously saw Cheng for what he was and ordered him to come to court. Having served his purpose, Cheng was imprisoned upon his arrival at Nanking and shortly thereafter beheaded for piracy. His son, Koxinga, moved what was left of the family business to Taiwan and began a bloody campaign of rebuilding and revenge. But that, Brethren, is another story for another time.