Home » Episodes » Episode 78 – Guangdong, China & Lima, Peru (Ching Shih & Juliane Koepcke)

We’ve got two bad bitches this week on Horrible History. First, Rachel heads to Guangdong, China to share the story of Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate leader who was active in the South China Sea from 1801 to 1810. Then, Emily heads to Lima, Peru to share the horrifying tale of Juliane Koepcke, the 17-year-old woman who was the sole survivor of the LANSA Flight 508 plane crash, then survived 11 days alone in the Amazon rainforest. Hopefully, you’re horrified.

Story 1 – Ching Shih

Today I’m going to tell you the tale of Ching Shih: A Baaaaadddd bitch and history’s ACTUAL deadliest pirate.

Ching Shih was born around 1771, and history isn’t even sure about her birth name, Ching Shih or Zheng (Chang) Shih means “Zheng’s Widow, but we’re jumping  ahead. Though now, Guangdong is the 3rd richest province in China, in the late 1700s it was riddled with poverty. When Ching Shih turned 13 and hit puberty, she was forced into sex-work in order to help provide for her family. And she worked on floating brothels, or flower boats, since remember, we are in a port city here.

Apparently, these flower boats were pretty popular, because the rocking of the boat enhanced the patron’s sexual pleasure… the motion of the ocean and all that shit. Which is fine, except let’s remember, Ching Shih is 13 at the time. But, because some things in history never change, her young age didn’t keep people from noticing her beauty. She was also poised and hospitable, and as she grew older, she was one of the more popular sex workers on the floating brothels, with her clientele including military commanders, rich merchants, and courtiers from the palace.

Really all we know about Ching Shih’s early life is that she was beautiful and a sex worker. But in 1801, her story took a turn. Zheng Yi (Chang E), a pirate commander of the Red Flag Fleet, sailed to the port in which Ching Shih was working and was instantly captivated by her. He proposed instantly, as if he’s a prince in a Disney movie… but more violent.

Ching Shih was all, “okay, I’ll marry you… if you give me 50% of your loot and partial control over the Red Flag Fleet.” This woman was not just a pretty face – she was cunning. Zheng Yi (Chang E), who allegedly at this point was just thinking with his dick, agreed, and the pair got married, and her name became Zheng Yi Sao (Chang E Sow), or Zheng’s wife – but we will still call her Ching Shih for the purpose of this story to avoid more confusion.

There are some historians who think that Zheng Yi had his men kidnap Ching Shih and then forced her into marriage, but I’m inclined to believe the first theory, because Ching Shih benefited quite a bit from marrying this pirate.

When Zheng Yi and Ching Shih got married, The Red Flag Fleet was comprised of 200 ships. Over the next few months, under the joint command of the newlyweds, that number grew to 1800 ships. Ching Shih was not just Zheng Yi’s arm candy either – she was making reforms.

For example, she created the regulation that anyone who didn’t follow orders or gave unauthorized orders would be executed immediately, without opportunity for explanation. She also proclaimed that all pirates had to show goods they stole for inventory. They could keep 20% for themselves, but the rest went into a community pot. And, if someone underreported or stole from the community pot, a part of their body would be chopped off. I didn’t see many more details for this, just that the part of the body was supposed to be representative of how much they were hiding.

But Ching Shih didn’t just create violent reforms. The pirates on her ships were both male and female, and she made sure female captives were treated with respect. Any captives who were weak, pregnant, or deemed unattractive were freed quickly – which, rude – but the ones who were deemed attractive could be held for ransom. The crew could also marry these women, but only with their consent. Any instances of rape or infidelity were hanged immediately.

Marriage was a big deal, it seems, because even if a couple had consensual sex, but they were unmarried, both partners would be killed. Or, in a couple of cases, the man would be castrated and the woman would be banished from the fleet.

And, Ching Shih sanctioned economic reforms to keep the crew happy. She expressed gratitude for them and treated them like people, so a lot of pirate groups that were operating independently merged themselves under the Red Flag Fleet – that’s how it got so big so quickly.

Unfortunately for Ching Shih and Zheng Yi (Chang E), the two of them were unable to conceive a child, who would have essentially been the heir to the fleet. So they decided to adopt – and this was interesting to me – they adopted a young man named Cheung Po, who I also heard called Chang Pao) from a nearby village.  Cheung Po became second in command. The crew respected this decision, but much like us, they were a little confused about why the couple adopted a grown man instead of a small child.

But here’s the tea: Zheng Yi (Chang E) had taken Cheung Po under his wing when Cheung Po was about 15, and more than likely, he was having sex with this boy. Homosexual relationships were pretty common among pirate ships. The adoption was just a formality, as Cheung Po showed a lot of pirate-potential. However, when Zheng Yi married Ching Shih, she too took an interest in Cheung Po as more than just a good pirate, if you know what I mean.

Ching Shih and Zheng Yi happily pirated together for about 6 years. They were organized, and able to acquire other ships. Ching Shih was the mastermind behind the fleet, ensuring that the captain of each boat was somehow related to Zheng Yi to ensure loyalty.

 But, in 1807, Zheng Yi died during a storm off the coast of Vietnam. Typically, this would be cause for the retirement of his widow, but Ching Shih had other plans. She established herself as admiral of the combined fleets and installed Cheung Po as the commander, though let’s be real Ching Shih was still running the show. Of course, the loss of Zheng Yi (Chang E) stirred up the power dynamic, leading some of the captains of ships within the Red Flag Fleet to begin discussing a coup. However, Ching Shih was able to gain support from factions who were loyal to Zheng Yi (Chang E). She captured the traitors and had them executed publicly to deter anyone else from trying to take power. She also created another rule, in which any lawbreaker, regardless of their rank, could be disciplined by being hacked to death. So, I wouldn’t have wanted to cross her either.

Within two weeks of losing her husband, Ching Shih made a pretty shocking announcement. She was engaged…. To her adopted son, Cheung Po. She’s all, “Listen pirates, this is better for everyone. We’re all in this together.”

Ching Shih led the Red Flag Fleet to continue to capture new coastal villages. She had complete control of the South China Sea. She and her army knew about every ship’s movement. If any ship wanted to venture across the South China Sea, they were taxed. If they refused, said ships would be attacked and plundered immediately. She also took over all the salt-trade routes of the South China Sea.  Entire towns worked for them and supplied them with everything they needed for their pirating shenanigans.

But do you know who was not down with those shenanigans? The Chinese Dynasty. The Jiaqing Emperor (Gia-ching), the leader of the Qing Dynasty (Ching Dynasty) at the time, was all, “A WOMAN?!?!? Controlling land AND sea?!?!?! We can’t have this!!!”

He sent Mandarin navy vessels to confront the Red Flag Fleet in the South China Sea. Spoiler alert: Things did not go according to plan. Like, it was embarrassing for these navy vessels. So Ching Shih announced that any of the naval crew could surrender and join her fleet without punishment. And that’s what they did, meaning the Qing (Ching) dynasty instantly lost a huge chunk of their navy, and the sea was still being controlled by a woman. The horror.

So the emperor was all, “okay, okay, let’s try this again. Anyone who leaves Ching Shih’s fleet and comes back to land will receive amnesty.”

Around the same time, the Red Flag Fleet was attacked by the Portuguese Navy. Now, the Fleet had already embarrassed the Portuguese navy two times previously, but this time, they came prepared. They had better ships and better weapons, so they started to win, which was extra awful for the Red Flag Fleet because the Portuguese navy attacked them on their own terf.

Ching Shih realized that her fleet was not going to come back against the Portuguese navy, and she didn’t want to keep losing her people. She returned to main land and accepted the emperor’s amnesty, and Ching Shih, as well as her entire crew, were forced to surrender. Luckily, this was a legit offer from the emperor, and the pirates were able to keep their loot. Some of them were even given bureaucratic jobs within the Qing (Ching) Dynasty. Cheung Po, Ching Shih’s Son/Husband, became the captain of Qing’s Guangdong (Ching’s Gwangdon) navy.

In 1813, Ching Shih gave birth to a son, Cheung Yu Lin, and later she gave birth to a daughter, whose name has been lost to history. But tragedy befell Ching Shih again in 1822, when Cheung Po died at sea. Ching Shih and her children moved to Macau (Ma-cow), and she opened a gambling house. She still had quite a bit of wealth from her pirating days. She also stayed involved in the salt-trading industry, and, toward the end of her life, Ching Shih opened a brothel in Macau (Ma-cow), which is such a poetic ending based on the way her story began.

Ching Shih died in her sleep at 69-years-old. She could rest in peace knowing that a 13-year-old forced into sex work developed into the commander of the largest pirate fleet in history. Suck on that, Blackbeard.

Story 2 – Juliane Koepcke

I’ve got a crazy story for you.

This story is an incredible story of survival. And it starts with our heroine, Juliane Koepcke. She probably had no idea what was in store for her when boarded LANSA Flight 508 on Christmas Eve in 1971.

The 17-year-old was traveling with her

\mother from Lima, Peru to the eastern city of Pucallpa.  At her final destination was Panguana, a biological research station in the belly of the Amazon, where for three years she had lived, on and off, with her mother, Maria, and her father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, both zoologists. They had been from Germany but had moved to Peru to study wildlife.

Maria, Juliane and Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke

She had received her high school diploma the day before the flight and planned to study zoology like her parents.

The flight was meant to be an hour long. Seated in 19F, it was a smooth ride until the clouds grew darker and turbulence got worse.

Suddenly, the plane was in the midst of a massive thunderstorm. The plane shook and overhead storage bins popped open, showering passengers and crew with luggage and Christmas presents.

Maria Koepcke said aloud, ‘Hopefully, this goes all right.” But Juliane could sense her nervousness.

From a window seat in a back row, the teenager watched a bolt of lightning strike the plane’s right wing. Then everything sped up. She remembers the aircraft nose-diving and her mother saying, evenly, “Now it’s all over.” She remembers people weeping and screaming. And she remembers the thundering silence that followed. The aircraft had broken apart, separating her from everyone else onboard. “The next thing Juliane knew she was no longer inside the cabin. As she said later, “I was outside, in the open air. I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me.”

Still strapped to her seat, Juliane was free-falling. As she plunged, the three-seat bench into which she was belted spun toward the jungle canopy. Luckily, she only realized this terror for a few moments before losing consciousness.

She fell 10,000 feet down into the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, likely landing in dense foliage, cushioning the impact. 

When she awoke the next morning, she was miraculously still live and relatively unscathed – I mean, scathed, for sure, but considering the circumstances… it was incredible that she only had a broken collarbone, a sprained knee and gashes on her right shoulder and left calf, one eye swollen shut and her field of vision in the other narrowed to a slit. Most unbearable among the discomforts was the disappearance of her eyeglasses — she was nearsighted — and one of her open-back sandals.

She said that she pretty much just lay there, like an infant in the fetal position for the rest of the day and a whole night, until the next morning.

When she did get up she was completely soaked, covered with mud and dirt, so it must have been pouring rain for a while.

She listened to the calls of birds, the croaks of frogs and the buzzing of insects and realized she was in the jungle – which was familiar to her because she grew up helping her parents at their facility Panguana. So, she set out to find her mother but was she was unsuccessful.

Now, keep in mind that Juliane is in the Amazon Jungle. This is no joke when it comes to danger. She encountered eight-foot speckled alligators, poisonous snakes and spiders, stingless bees that clumped to her face, ever-present swarms of mosquitoes, riverbed stingrays that, when stepped on, instinctively lashed out with their barbed, venomous tails.

For many of us (me), it might seem like the answer was to sit down and just let the jungle take me. I’m done, I’m just going to die here. BUT, Juliane was born in Lima, where her parents worked at the national history museum. Earthquakes were common.

She once said that she “grew up knowing that nothing is really safe, not even the solid ground I walked on.” Which I suppose is a normal thing to believe when you live in the jungle. But, that also helped her keep a really cool head and stay calm and just try to figure out how to survive.

In the midst of her searching and trying to find help, Juliane came across a small well. And despite feeling somehow exhausted and hopeless, she remembered some survival advice that was given to her by her father: if you see water, follow it downstream. That’s where civilization is. “A small stream will flow into a bigger one and then into a bigger one and an even bigger one, and finally you’ll run into help.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Juliane’s father was teaching her some shit that most parents don’t get around to teaching. I mean, my parents had a hard enough time trying to get me to brush my damn teeth before bed, so I’m not sure they were really focused on teaching me how to survive in the wilderness. BUT, Juliane’s did and so she began her journey down the stream.

Sometimes she walked, sometimes she swam. On the fourth day of her trek, she came across three fellow passengers. Still strapped in were a woman and two men who had landed headfirst, with such force that they were buried three feet into the ground, legs jutting grotesquely upward. They were all dead, of course, but because one of them was a woman. Juliane wanted to make sure it wasn’t her mother.

She said that she grabbed a stick and turned one of her feet carefully so she could see the toenails. They were polished, and so she knew it wasn’t her mother because her mother never painted her toenails.

Amongst the passengers was a bag of sweets. It would serve as her only food source for the rest of her days in the forest.

It was around this time that Koepcke heard and saw rescue planes and helicopters above, yet her attempts to draw their attention were unsuccessful.

The plane crash prompted the biggest search in Peru’s history, but due to the density of the forest, aircraft couldn’t spot wreckage from the crash, let alone a single person. After some time she couldn’t hear them and knew that she was truly on her own to find help.

So, for several more days she trudged along – her wounds festering, suffering through the humidity and heat… keep in mind, the jungle temperatures in December are around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and SUPER humid. Our hair wouldn’t stand a chance.

On the eleventh day in the forest, Koepcke came across a hut and decided to rest in it, where she recalls thinking she’d probably die alone in the jungle. Then she heard voices. And not imaginary voices. They belonged to three Peruvian missionaries who lived in the hut.

Juliane said that the first man she saw seemed like an angel. But they didn’t feel the same. They were slightly frightened by her, and at first thought she could be a water spirit they believed in called Yemanjábut which is a hybrid of a water dolphin and a blonde, white-skinned woman.

But once Juliane spoke to them in Spanish and explained what had happened to her, they allowed her to stay overnight. They fed her cassava and poured gasoline into her open wounds to flush out the maggots that protruded “like asparagus tips,” she said. The next morning the workers took her to a village, from which she was flown to safety.

After she was treated for her injuries, Koepcke was reunited with her father. “The day after my rescue, I saw my father. He could barely talk and in the first moment, we just held each other. He had come to terms with the fact that both his wife and child had died. After being reunited with Juliane, for a few days, he frantically searched for news of Maria, but on the 12th of January, they found her body. Sadly, it turns out that her mother had also survived the initial fall, but was very badly injured and died from her injuries.

She also helped authorities locate the plane and over the course of a few days, they were able to find and identify the dead bodies from the crash.

Of the 91 people aboard, Juliane Koepcke was the sole survivor.

Because she was heavily questioned by the air force and the police, in addition to being thrown into the media spotlight, the mourning and grief didn’t register until later. Everything she had been through, her injuries, the loss of her mother. Juliane Koepcke developed a deep fear of flying and for years had recurring nightmares.

During the intervening years, Juliane moved to Germany, earned a Ph.D. in biology and became an eminent zoologist. In 1989, she married Erich Diller, an entomologist and an authority on parasitic wasps. Despite an understandable unease about air travel, she has been continually drawn back to Panguana, the remote conservation outpost established by her parents in 1968. “The jungle caught me and saved me,” said Dr. Diller, who hasn’t spoken publicly about the accident in many years. “It was not its fault that I landed there.”

In 1981, she spent 18 months in residence at the station while researching her graduate thesis on diurnal butterflies and her doctoral dissertation on bats.

In 1998, she returned to the site of the crash for the documentary Wings of Hope about her incredible story. On her flight with director Werner Herzog, she once again sat in seat 19F. Koepcke found the experience to be therapeutic.

It was the first time she was able to focus on the incident from a distance and in a way, gain a sense of closure that she still hadn’t gotten. The experience also prompted her to write a memoir on her remarkable tale of survival called When I Fell From the Sky.

Then, in 2000, nineteen years later, after the death of her father, Dr. Juliane Diller took over as director of Panguana and primary organizer of international expeditions to the refuge. She now says that… On her lonely 11-day hike back to civilization, she made herself a promise. She vowed that if she stayed alive, she would devote her life to a meaningful cause that served nature and humanity.

And she has – she still manages her parents’ research facility and nature preserve. The preserve is home to more than 500 species of trees (16 of them palms), 160 types of reptiles and amphibians, 100 different kinds of fish, seven varieties of monkey and 380 bird species.

Under Dr. Diller’s stewardship, Panguana has increased its outreach to neighboring Indigenous communities by providing jobs, bankrolling a new schoolhouse and raising awareness about the short- and long-term effects of human activity on the rainforest’s biodiversity and climate change.

Fifty years after her crash she says…  “Just to have helped people and to have done something for nature means it was good that I was allowed to survive. And for that I am so grateful.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: