The new Doctor Who Easter special not only gives us the chance to immerse ourselves in the history of the series (with the return of classic villains the Sea Devils), but also in a forgotten part of our own history. Traveling the seas of 19th century China, the Doctor will discover the involvement of sea devils in the world of piracy and treasure hunting.
In true Doctor Who fashion, the episode will temper its alien menace 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 favorite historical thieves. But who exactly is Madame Ching? And what is this treasure she is looking for?
The Sea Devils may not have been involved, but the true story of these maritime adventures is well worth reading.
What did piracy look like in the 19th century?
The 17th and 18th centuries are known as “the golden age of piracy”; a time when Blackbeard ruled and the skull and crossbones flag flew high. Many of the images we think of when we hear the word “pirate”, from the crow’s nest to the “wooden leg”, come from this period.
For years, these bandit fleets had ruled the oceans and caused many problems for the majority of maritime governments. So, at the beginning of the 19th century, they decided to take more action. In 1816, the British and Dutch navies destroyed the ships and ports of the Barbary pirates on the Algerian coast, then continued to patrol the seas of Southeast Asia and China. Their efforts, and the banning of racing, meant that by the 1850s there were very few pirates left and, thanks to the introduction of the steamship, their powers were no longer the same.
Who was Madame Ching?
Madame Ching, or Ching Shih, was quite simply the most successful pirate who ever lived. Her name translates to “the widow of Cheng”, thanks to the legacy of her pirate husband, but the power and support she has accumulated in her time far exceeds that of any man.
Born in Guangzhou in 1775, Madame Ching rose from a life of poverty to commanding over 300 pirate ships and 20,000 pirates. Before her retirement, she even forged alliances with other pirate leaders and created a naval force of over 1500 ships.
Not much is known of Ching’s early life until she caught the attention of the fearsome pirate Cheng I. The couple married and Ching used her position to solidify her place and form strong coalitions with many other Cantonese fleets. After her husband’s death in 1807, she assumed full control. Along with his adopted son, Chang Paou, Ching’s forces became known worldwide as the Red Flag Fleet, which captured many coastal villages and ruled the South China Sea.
Under his leadership, pirates obeyed a very strict code that made theft and disobeying orders punishable by death. She also freed all captive women with the sole exception of a pirate and a slave mutually wishing to marry. These rules ensured a strong alliance which began to break down 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 then Emperor. She came back to earth with an incredible legacy of power and… who knows? Maybe she met an alien on the way…
Who is Ji-Hun?
Another figure from the past also appears in the episode, and (oddly) from a different period – the 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 an actual historical figure. Screenwriters Chris Chibnall and Ella Road may have based it on a number of different people, but for storytelling purposes, they conflated them into one character. It remains to be seen how he connects to the Sea Devils, Madame Ching and Flor de la Mar…
What is Flor de la Mar?
The Flor de la Mar or “Flower of the Sea” was a Portuguese carrack (a three- or four-masted trading vessel) that sailed in the early 16th century. Considered the largest and finest carrack of its time, the ship was built 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 at that time was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. In a spirit of conquest, the fleet made Malacca part of the Portuguese Empire and took many treasures from them. The Flor de la Mar was then chosen to bring these riches, and apparently the entire personal fortune of a Portuguese governor, back to Lisbon. However, unfortunately, while sailing off Sumatra, the ship got caught in a storm and broke in two. The famous carrack sank and with it, the greatest treasure that the Portuguese Navy has ever collected.
Many have searched for the ship over the years, but it has never been found. It’s unknown if Madame Ching really looked for it, but as far as we know, the wreck of the Flor de la Mar and its treasure are still lost. In the new episode, it’s up to the Doctor to find out where he really is and what potential dangers have been unleashed.
Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday April 17 at 7:10 p.m. All 13 Doctor Who series can be watched now on Prime Video – sign up for a free Prime Video trial.
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