The Terror of South China

Hello and thanks for joining me for another Women in History Crush Wednesday! Our WCW for this week is legendary pirate Ching Shih.

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Ching Shih, also known as Zhéng Yi Sao, Zhéng Shí, and Shil Xiang Gu, was born in the Guangzhou providence of China in 1775. Very little is known about her childhood, but by the time she was in her early childhood, Shih was working as a prostitute in a floating brothel. In 1801, Shih married a small but successful pirate, Zhéng Yi. There’s controversy about whether Zhéng Yi had his men abduct Shih or if he went himself to her after meeting once, but before Shih agreed to marry him she made a deal; Shih would marry Yi only if she got an equal share of the plunder of and power over his Red Flag Fleet. Following their marriage, Shih co-commanded the fleet’s sailors, but focused most on building alliances with other pirates. Within six years, Shih tripled the size of fleet and spread a reputation of the Red Flag Fleet as being unstoppable and aggressive. In 1807, Shih lost her husband to storms at sea. Shih didn’t want to lose her position in the fleet, so soon married Yi’s first mate, Chang Pao, to ensure her hold as commander.

With Pao now upholding the fleet’s reputation, Shih took over the business and military side of administration. Shih again tripled the size of the fleet, and, now with over 18,000 ships, split into the Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green fleets flying under the Red Flag banner. Shih assigned each group of ships its own mission – some pillaged coastal cities and forced them to pay tribute, others ran a kind of toll system for passage through the South China Sea, and a few even helped run a spy network within the Qing dynasty.

Shih’s method of managing a crew of over 80,000 sailors was brutal. Before I go into some of the details, I suggest that anyone not okay with reading about gruesome punishment please skip the rest of this paragraph. She came up with her own code of behavior that covered the delegation of plunder, treatment of female captives, and “protection” of tribute-paying cities and towns, and if any rules were broken or she thought they were being broken, the offender would be beheaded and thrown into the sea. Opposing pirates, if they didn’t not form an alliance with her fleet, would be nailed to the deck and flogged. Deserters would get their ears cut off before also being nailed to the deck and flogged.

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Her domination of the South China Sea and alleged interference with the government lead to issues with the Chinese navy. The Chinese had to enlist the help of both the British and Portuguese navies after a few months, as Shih’s fleets won battle after battle. After two more years of battles, during which the navies kept losing and Shih’s fleets only grew stronger with conscriptions of defeated sailors, the Chinese government offered Shih amnesty if she would call off the fighting and retire. Displeased with the offer, Shih went directly to the governor general of Guangzhou and renegotiated. Shih demanded full amnesty, allowance to keep her loot, and legal protection as a member of the aristocracy for herself and amnesty and the loot ownership for all her sailors. The Chinese government conceded on everything for all but three hundred of Shih’s men, who were punished or executed for other crimes. So, in 1810, Shih retired from her life at sea and returned to Guangzhou, where she opened and operated a gambling house until her death in 1839. At some point, she had a son and later grandchildren, but there is little recorded about her retired life.

While I don’t aspire to become a ruthlessly powerful pirate, I think there’s something unconventionally inspiring about Shih’s career. She used her wit and business skills to build up and command a fleet of ships voluminous and powerful enough to rival three major navies, all within the span of nine years. She accomplished more in an nine-year career than most pirates were able to do over a lifetime, and then to top it all off, she retired as a wealthy aristocrat with government protections.

To learn more about Ching Shih’s fast and furious life, check out these Today I Found Out, Ancient Origins, and Atlas Obscura pages. Yo ho ho, and all that stuff.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays.

Be heard!

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La Reina de la Salsa

Hello everyone! I hope you’ve recovered enough from the political whirlwind that was the beginning of this week, because it’s time for another Women in History Crush Wednesday! This week’s WCW is the Queen of Salsa herself, Celia Cruz.

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Born Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso on October 21st, 1925, Cruz grew up in Havana, Cuba. She began singing almost as soon as she could talk, and would sing for her family, neighbors, and tourists at every chance. At her father’s advice, Cruz considered a life of teaching and enrolled in a teachers’ college, but dropped out to follow her passion. Throughout her early twenties, Cruz performed at night clubs and studied music theory at the Cuban Conservatory of Music. In 1950, she joined La Sonora Matancera orchestra as the lead singer and toured the Americas with them for fifteen years, experimenting with a few Afro-Caribbean genres and defining the genre of salsa. Cruz married Pedro Knight, the trumpet player for the group, and following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1960, the two left Cuba to live and make music and America.

In 1965, Cruz left La Sonora Matancera to pursue what became a thirty-eight-year solo career. Cruz made changes to her musical style over the years, but gained the most acclaim and was a pioneer of salsa music, which explains her nickname as the “Queen of Salsa.” Besides her actual music, Cruz was known for her energetic stage presence at live shows; to excite her audiences, Cruz would call out “Azúcar!” and encourage dancing. Cruz released over seventy albums and had parts in around ten movies and television shows, all in Spanish. Some of her most notable collaborations were with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, the Fania All Stars, Patti La Belle, Wyclef Jean, La India, and David Byrne.

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In 2002, Cruz and her husband, Knight founded the Celia Cruz Foundation. Beyond preserving her legacy by providing extensive resources about Cruz’s life, the foundation raises money for cancer research and provides scholarships for young Latino music students. On July 16th, 2003, Cruz died in Fort Lee, New Jersey after battling brain cancer. Funerals were held for her in New York City, New York, and Miami, Florida, each attended by thousands of fans. Knight continued working with the foundation until his own death in 2007. The couple is buried together outside of New York City.

“I have fulfilled my father’s wish to be a teacher as, through my music, I teach generations of people about my culture and the happiness that is found in just living life. As a performer, I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar.”

Both in life and since her death, Cruz received countless awards and recognitions. She won three Grammys and four Latin Grammys, and was nominated for more. The University of Miami, Florida International University, and Yale University recognized her with honorary degrees and doctorates. Cruz was awarded the President’s National Medal of Arts, lifetime achievement awards from the Smithsonian Institution and several recording labels, and even the title for the Guinness World Record for the “longest working career as a salsa artist.” She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as others at walks in Florida, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Venezuela.

To learn more about Celia Cruz’s vibrant life, check out these Celia Cruz Foundation, AllMusic, bio., and Interesting Things for ESL Students pages. Additionally, her entire discography can be found online.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!

Be heard!

One Last Time

Earlier tonight, President Obama gave his farewell address. I hope you were able to catch it, but if not here is the video and transcript. From a technical point of view, the speech was, in my opinion, brilliant. Impeccably timed pauses, powerful parallels, diction and word choice that gave me chills. No matter your politics, I think it is fair to say that content-wise the president’s speech was, again, wonderful. Obama recognized the accomplishments and shortcomings of his administration over the past eight years and encouraged us to collectively grow stronger and better as we move forward. He talked about the need for us to celebrate our differences while cooperating with each other – to unify all of a diverse nation. My favorite line was “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” We are stronger together than divided, and better off when actively engaged in how our country functions both domestically and on a global level. My dad preaches that the “government is run by those who show up,” and we need now more than ever for people to be passionate and vocal about the issues they find important. As we settle into 2017, I hope you can add advocating for what matters to you to your New Year’s Resolutions – there’s no time like the present. I hope, too, that you keep it going for the rest of your life; this is our civic duty, not just something you do once in a while.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back tomorrow with another Women in History Crush Wednesday post. Be heard!

Fearless Fannie

Welcome back to my blog and happy new year! I’m going to skip the usual apologies and promises to post more even though I hope to be better at posting this year and just jump right in. It’s the first WCW of 2017, so we’re going to start off strong with the incredible Fannie Lou Hamer.

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Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of twenty children in the Townsend family. Hamer began picking cotton at the age of six and dropped out of school before seventh grade to help her family full time with their plot on a sharecropping plantation. Hamer contracted polio when she was sixteen. Due to her physical challenges after catching the virus and her ability to read and write, Hamer was promoted to the position of book keeper. In her late twenties, Hamer married Perry “Pap” Hamer, one of the tractor drivers at the plantation.

The couple wanted but was unable to have kids; Hamer was told that a uterine tumor was affecting her fertility and that she needed to have it removed. During surgery and without her consent, the doctor performed a hysterectomy. Hamer was rightfully furious when she came out of the procedure, and after finding out how common the eugenic practice was, began to speak out against and raise awareness for what she coined “Mississippi appendectomies.” Now completely unable to have children, Pap and Fannie Lou adopted two daughters.

Hamer became active in the civil rights movement in 1962 when she attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting about voting rights. The meeting inspired her to take a trip to a nearby city to register to vote with about twenty other students. However, the group was immediately barred from registering – except for Hamer and one man, who were given but failed a literacy test. On the drive back, the group was unlawfully stopped and harassed by police. No one was hurt, but the extreme difficulties Hamer faced over the course of the whole event inspired her to dedicate her life to advocating for desegregation and voting rights. Once home, the plantation owner that Hamer worked for kicked her and her family off the property; they struggled with debt and finances for several years after, which drove Hamer to add economic security for all to her advocacy list. Gaining in renown and protest inspiration, she and the SNCC travelled around the southern US for several months on a speech circuit. Hamer and a group of protesters made a stop at a café in Winona, Mississippi in 1963, and made a political statement by sitting at a whites-only counter. They were immediately arrested and were subject to many brutal beatings while imprisoned; injuries to her eyes, kidneys, and leg stuck with Hamer for the rest of her life. Following her release, Hamer’s reputation grew, and she became a national speaker for civil rights.

In 1964, Hamer founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDR) to oppose the pro-segregation democrats. The party struggled to gain support until later that year when Hamer ran for Congress; she lost, but put the MFDR in the national eye. At the Democratic National Convention in the same year, Hamer made a speech challenging the Mississippi representatives and advocating for integration. Her speech was so incendiary that President Lyndon B Johnson launched an emergency press release in an attempt to interrupt her broadcast. His plan backfired, as the excitement around the speech and interruption raised American interest in Hamer’s work. After the drama of the convention, Hamer returned to Mississippi, where she worked for over a decade organizing protests, training volunteers, helping with relief work, registering voters, and instituting agricultural co-ops and Head Start programs for low income families and children. One of Hamer’s trademark protest techniques was the use of hymns and spirituals to encourage marchers and spread hope for change.

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Throughout the late 70’s, Hamer was widely recognized for her efforts. She was awarded honorary doctorates from four universities, received the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Hamer passed away on March 14th, 1977 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi due to complications from cancer and hypertension. Inscribed on her tombstone is one of her most well-known quotes “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said when asked why she continued fighting for equal rights when all the odds were stacked against her.

To learn more about the inspiring life of Fannie Lou Hamer, check out these PBS, American Public Media, History Channel, and Howard University pages. Additionally, you can find several albums of her top songs online. My personal favorite is her rendition of Wade in the Water (which unfortunately isn’t on YouTube), but she’s best known for This Little Light of Mine – both and all the rest are wonderful and I really hope you can take a second to listen.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!

Be heard!