Who was Madame Ching? The real history behind Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils
Doctor Who's new Easter special is based on some real history and a lot of artistic license.
The new Doctor Who Easter special not only brings us the chance to immerse ourselves into the history of the show (with the return of classic villains the Sea Devils), but into a forgotten part of our own history as well. Travelling back to the seas of 19th century China, the Doctor will set out to discover just how the Sea Devils were involved in the world of piracy and treasure hunting.
In true Doctor Who fashion, the episode will be tempering its alien threat with a healthy dose of real historical facts and figures. From pirate queens to lost ships, this story is steeped in the lore of our favourite historical thieves. But who exactly is Madame Ching? And what is this treasure she searches for?
The Sea Devils might not have been involved, but the true history of these maritime adventures is well worth a read.
What was piracy like in the 19th century?
The 17th and 18th centuries were known as “the golden age of piracy”; a time when Blackbeard reigned, and the skull and crossbones flag was flown high. Many of the images we think of when we hear the word "pirate", from the crow’s nest all the way down to the "peg leg", come from this period.
For years these fleets of bandits had ruled the oceans and caused many problems for the majority of sea-faring governments. So by the start of the 19th century they decided to take more action. In 1816 the British and Dutch navies destroyed the ships and harbours of the Barbary pirates on the coast of Algeria, and then continued on to patrol the Southeast Asian and China seas. Their efforts, and the outlaw of privateering, meant that by the 1850s there were very few pirates left, and thanks to the introduction of the steam ship their powers were never the same.
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Who was Madame Ching?
Madame Ching, or Ching Shih, was quite simply the most successful pirate who ever lived. Her name translates as "Cheng’s Widow", thanks to the legacy of her pirate husband, yet the power and support she amassed in her time far outstrips any man’s.
Born in Guangzhou in 1775, Madame Ching rose from a life of poverty to the command of over 300 pirate ships and 20,000 pirates. Before her retirement she even went on to forge alliances with other pirate leaders and created a naval force of over 1500 ships.
Not much is known of Ching’s early life until the moment she attracted the attention of fearsome pirate Cheng I. The pair married and Ching used her position to solidify her place and form strong coalitions with many other Cantonese fleets. After her husband died in 1807, she took full control. With her adopted son, Chang Paou, Ching’s forces became known all over the world as the Red Flag Fleet, which captured many coastal villages and had total rule over the South China Sea.
Under her leadership, the pirates obeyed a very strict code which made stealing from each other and disobeying orders punishable by death. She also freed all female captives with the only exception being if a pirate and slave mutually wished to marry. These rules ensured a strong alliance which started to break in 1810 due to pressure from the Mandarin navy.
Unlike many pirates however, Ching’s life did not end on a ship – instead, she retired with a full pardon from the emperor of the time. She returned to land with an incredible legacy of power and... who knows? Maybe she met an alien along the way...
Who is Ji-Hun?
Another figure from the past also appears in the episode, and (curiously) from a different time period – 16th-century warrior and sailor Ji-Hun, played by Arthur Lee in Legend of the Sea Devils.
However, unlike Madame Ching, Ji-Hun does not appear to be based on a real-life historical figure. It may be that screenwriters Chris Chibnall and Ella Road based him on a number of different people, but for storytelling purposes conflated them into a single character. How he connects to the Sea Devils, Madame Ching and the Flor de la Mar remains to be seen...
What was the Flor de la Mar?
The Flor de la Mar or "Flower of the Sea" was a Portuguese carrack (a three or four masted trade ship) that sailed in the early 16th century. Thought to be the largest and most beautiful carrack of its day, the vessel was constructed in 1502 and on its maiden voyage was sent to India for wealth and spices.
In 1511, the ship was sent as part of the Portuguese expedition to Malacca, which was one of the richest cities in the world at the time. With conquest in mind, the fleet made Malacca a part of the Portuguese empire and took many treasures from them. The Flor de la Mar was then chosen to carry these riches, and reportedly the entire personal fortune of a Portuguese governor, back to Lisbon. Yet unfortunately, while sailing off the coast of Sumatra the ship was caught in a storm and broke in two. The famous carrack sank and with it, the greatest treasure the Portuguese navy had ever assembled.
Many have searched for the ship over the years, but it has never been found. It’s unknown whether Madame Ching was truly ever looking for it but as far as we know the wreck of the Flor de la Mar and its treasure is still lost. In the new episode, it's up to the Doctor to discover where it actually lies and what potential dangers have been unleashed.
Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 17th April at 7.10pm. All 13 series of Doctor Who are available to watch now on Prime Video – sign up for a Prime Video free trial.