Ŋíntàe [ŋin24 tae52] was the first pirate empress of the Mauraŋ coast.
Ŋíntàe was born around 2841 in a small village in the Mâɔ valley. When she was just five, however, it was hit by plague, and her parents fled to the capital, Maume. They were the last of their jɔ; the rest died from the disease. A remote relative ran a small fruit-selling stall, and allowed them to stay with her as they had brought some produce. When it ran out, however, the family was kicked out.
They built a hovel in the Canal Quarter, a slum built in a streff swamp. The swamp had started out half a foot below sea level; settlement involved clearing the streff from an empty spot, selling the pith or its milky extract, and moving soil to create a patch above water for a hut, leaving watery alleyways between the houses. The houses started as a simple wooden frame with dried streff stalks arranged overhead as thatch. As a family increased in prosperity it would add walls and even a second storey.
Ŋíntàe’s parents did odd jobs, or scavenged; she and her sister were put to work at an early age begging, sorting through garbage, cooking, or taking care of a scrawny pair of gallenes.
It was a miserable existence, and her father couldn’t take it for long— he wasted away and died when she was ten. Her mother found work cleaning houses in the Merchants’ Quarter.
Ŋíntàe thus grew up on the streets— or rather the canals. At first the other girls mocked her for being Łimatú (i.e. Linaic), because of her upcountry accent, and tlɛ́rɔ̌ŋ “bare-ass”, a word for refugees too poor or unsophisticated to wear clothes. She soon mastered the low, clipped nasal Mau of the slums, and solved the other problem by the expedient of beating up one of her chief tormenters and stealing her loincloth.
She was soon the leader of the local children’s gang, set up in imitation of the adult gangs that dominated the Canal Quarter.
The open families of Maume
The change from girl (rɛ̀) to maiden (dǎr) was not as ritualized in the city, but it was equally crucial; it meant that Ŋíntàe could participate in adult life— in particular, she could now join an adult gang.
The gangs (jǔŋ) were partly legitimate businesses, partly criminal organizations. What criminals do is of course a function of what’s illegal, as well as what’s tolerated. There were no illegal intoxicating substances and no ban on prostitution; and the Mau state had generally been able to prevent large-scale banditry.
On the other hand, the residents of the quarter were technically illegal squatters, and most were migrants or refugees, far from the organized jɔ (families) of their original regions. That gave them needs and vulnerabilities that the jǔŋ met and exploited. They took a share out of almost all business, down to the level of beggars and scavengers; but they also provided loans, kept the peace, administered justice, gave feasts, and supported temples.
They engaged in a certain amount of thievery, smuggling, and murder; the implicit bargain with the authorities was they would keep violence under control (especially in rich neighborhoods), and perform certain services under the table. They also provided the one type of prostitution that was illegal: women servicing foreign male sailors.
In structure the gangs imitated the family; indeed, the leader was called a háɔ, the same term as the matriarch of a family, and joining a gang was called marrying it (jɔhù). A gang was of course much larger than a family and could be joined by unrelated women; it was thus called a kɛ̀jɔ or open family, the standard euphemism for jǔŋ.
Ŋíntàe ‘married’ into the Míŋkrâe (Radiant Blue) gang, and proudly received the insignia of her initiation: a tattoo on her upper arm, a blue skirt, and a knife. She was assigned to a kɛ̌ŋ or ‘elder sister’, a girl named Prín. She was considered to have left her birth family; she lived with Prín, Prín’s husband, and one of her childhood friends, Łìs, who had also joined the Radiant Blues.
Not long after she carelessly wandered into another gang’s territory— an area close to her house that she had long been accustomed to travel. But it was Dâɔbú (Glorious Red) territory, and she no longer had the freedom of a child. As she was still only twelve, she wasn’t killed or wounded; but she was beaten up, her skirt was cut to pieces, and she had to slink back home naked.
That wasn’t the worst of it; she was considered to have ‘shamed the blue’. Her punishment was to serve in her kɛ̌ŋ’s house as a slave for a month. The menial work wasn’t so bad; the worst humiliation was being subservient to Łìs, a girl she had always dominated as a child.
Life as a Radiant Blue
This was only a minor setback; Ŋíntàe soon achieved notice for her boldness and fighting ability. The gangs had little use for the bow; they preferred knives and swords. Ŋíntàe was deadly with either, though a long scar on her face was a reminder of a bad moment in a battle with a Glorious Red. She had gone on to win the fight, and made a necklace of her enemy’s hand bones— so that when anyone noticed her scar she could point to the hand which had made it.
Mauraŋ was a declining state, hit by plague, the loss of the Silk Islands (Hònpó), and a financial crisis; the crisis meant that the army couldn’t be paid. This created opportunities for the gangs— and competition, as ex-soldiers formed new gangs. The immediate result was a period of gang warfare.
Over the next few years Ŋíntàe grew into a tough, athletic young woman; few would call her beautiful, but she was striking. Like other injǔŋ (gang members), she wore notseh leather armor, and added to her tattoos to mark promotions and success in combat. She remained in Prín’s unit but became its effective chief; by the time she was seventeen it had over a dozen fighters living in three adjoining houses.
At fifteen, Ŋíntàe received her sexual initiation— from Prín. (This was also worth a tattoo.) The gangs had male injǔŋ, but for the most part men were used as servants or as sexual playthings; fighters needed to trust their comrades with their lives, and one way of building the strong relationships needed was sex. It was an added benefit if the top fighters didn’t take time off for childbearing. (On the other hand, if a fighter was injured, she might use her recuperation time for just that.)
This isn’t to say that Ŋíntàe ignored men. Her first time with a man was with Prín’s husband, and she had shorter or longer affairs with quite a few men. She had the right to a husband, like Prín had, but she preferred shorter liaisons, and in fact was known for kicking a man out of her house and her life entirely when she was tired of him. (The usual custom was simply to ignore old lovers.)
At twenty, she was one of the half-dozen lieutenants of the Radiant Blue’s háɔ, Brɛ́, and in charge of the war against the hated Glorious Reds.
By this time— the 2860s— the central authority of Mauraŋ had virtually collapsed; queen Túmâs had fled upriver to one of her estates— too many people in Maume were after her. The rich fortified their homes and hired ex-army or gangsters as guards; the middle class areas were a free for all.
The war with the Glorious Reds was going badly, and Ŋíntàe soon discovered why: they had allied with the Kâohír (Sign of Wealth) gang. This was serious; rather than jostling for territory as usual, the Reds might eliminate their old rivals.
Brɛ́ suggested an alliance with the Ânlɔ (Free Women), a pirate force, and sent Ŋíntàe to negotiate. But Ŋíntàe always had an eye for the larger picture; she talked with the Ânlɔ and simultaneously with three other gangs. None of them, of course, would be interested in allying with the loser in a two-on-one war; her proposal was to take charge of the entire eastern end of the city, and she talked to each gang as if the others were already on her side.
She was persuasive; the alliance came together, and its first act was an assault on the headquarters of the Glorious Reds. Ŋíntàe took particular pleasure in finding and killing the particular injǔŋ who had beaten her up years before.
Rather than attacking the Kâohír, Ŋíntàe had the allies surround their territory, brought the heads of the Glorious Red leaders to their gates, and invited them to fight or surrender. They surrendered; their top leaders were executed, and their fighters, menfolk, and territories divided up among the allies.
With another few months of alternate fighting and negotiation, the alliance controlled almost a third of the city. Its nominal leaders were Brɛ́ and the Ânlɔ chieftain, Prɔ̂rhɛs; but Ŋíntàe had been the chief negotiator and strategist.
The Free Women
Ŋíntàe fell in love with the Free Women, in several senses. On a personal level, she formed a relationship with Čiŋpé, Prɔ̂rhɛs’s chief lieutenant. Years later, if sad drunk, she liked to say that Čiŋpé was the only woman she’d ever loved.
Her strategic eye was equally engaged. There was no organizational difference between gangsters and pirates; indeed the same word (injǔŋ) was used for both. The pirates simply specialized in sea operations: smuggling, attacks on shipping, occasional raids to capture loot or slaves. The authorities sometimes combatted them, sometimes quietly hired them— they too might want goods transferred quietly and quickly, or enemy ships attacked.
For Ŋíntàe, their level of fighting and their scale of operations was a revelation. She had barely stepped out of the Canal Quarter; they knew the entire Mauraŋ coast and beyond. They had safe bases in hidden coves, as well as contacts in all the major ports of the Bé from Pahni to Klɔusa.
Ŋíntàe took to travelling with Činpé, seeing the pirates’ operations for herself and getting a taste of the wider world. Some of the Radiant Blues felt that she had left them behind for the Ânlɔ.
In 2866 Túmâs, the queen of Mauraŋ, sold much of her treasures and estates; that gave her the means to buy back her armies and attempt to regain control of the country.
The army won some easy victories against both upriver bandits and a few nobles who resisted the restoration. The real test, however, would be to recover control of Maume. The city’s elders were divided; many resented Túmâs for her profligacy and repressive taxation, or simply preferred to have Maume go its own way. Thus, though the war was largely between Túmâs’s army and the three gang alliances that controlled most of the city, the latter were supported by a good portion of the city authorities.
Nonetheless it was a disaster for the gangs, and the eastern sector, that run by Ŋíntàe’s alliance, was the hardest hit. Something like half the injǔŋ died in the fighting, including Brɛ́, Ŋíntàe’s childhood friend Łìs, and her lover Čiŋpé. The people of the city were devastated as well— many neighborhoods, including the Canal Quarter, were burned to the ground.
Ŋíntàe only escaped because she was with the Ânlɔ, who fought their way to their ships and took to the sea.
The Council of Captains
Túmâs had spent her money only on an army. This was probably wise as her army was barely strong enough to hold Maume; but it left the coast vulnerable to the pirates. The Ânlɔ harried her forces from the sea; meanwhile Ŋíntàe contacted other bands of pirates, suggesting that they pool their forces.
At first this was a hard sell— the pirates were proud women who liked to work on their own. But Ŋíntàe persuasively outlined the profits to be made from cooperation, and promised that the alliance would never become a dictatorship. Indeed, she proposed a “Council of Captains” (Ŋántlójan) that would govern the alliance, each ship having one vote.
Her job became much easier in 2869, when Túmâs’s funds ran out. Her army mutinied, and the country devolved into greater chaos than before. Túmâs disappeared, said to be executed by her own guardswomen.
Looting was profitable for awhile, but Ŋíntàe saw beyond this. Mere banditry would always face opposition; already Hàɔráŋ and Belesao were sending their ships in convoys past the Mau coast, and aggressively engaging the pirates if they found them. People craved protection and stability and were willing to pay to get it; why shouldn’t the pirates provide it?
The transition was tricky; as the pirates learned from some spectacular failures in Maume, a protection racket only works if you can actually provide protection. Some of their clients were attacked by other gangs, when the Council’s forces were mostly away. Their prestige in Maume was at a low ebb.
Ŋíntàe learned the lesson, and simply applied it in other towns on the coast, especially Łimaní, the city at the mouth of the Łima in western Mauraŋ. The Council would come en masse to a town or neighborhood, make some local allies among the local gangs and beat down the rest. They would ostentatiously execute local exploiters and sociopaths, support the local temples, and make deals with merchants and other authorities. It took more time than raiding and looting, but it led to fewer casualties and ultimately to a higher income, as only a small area could be looted and not for long, while a large area could be taxed, indefinitely.
Prɔ̂rhɛs died in 2877; Ŋíntàe now became officially what she had been for years de facto, leader of the Council of Captains.
The Council extended its control over Łimaní, neighborhood by neighborhood. This involved some heavy fighting, as a number of the local gangs didn’t want to be restrained by a pirate alliance any more than by a queendom. There was also a force of Mau nobles advancing on the city in the name of a supposed daughter of Túmâs. Ŋíntàe defeated both enemies and spend more than two yaers consolidating her power in Łimaní.
She occupied the previous royal residence in the center of town. Many started to call her tràŋ ‘queen’, or jǔŋtràŋ ‘pirate queen’, and she did nothing to discourage this. She also took an official husband and bore a daughter, Łáo.
The Council now controlled much of the Mau coast; it was a strategic decision not to penetrate far inland where the essentially urban/maritime expertise of the pirates and street gangs became a disadvantage.
Ŋíntàe’s next move, in 2885, was characteristically bold. She assembled an enormous flotilla, nearly every ship at her disposal, and sent them east to attack the Silk Islands (Hònpó), which had been seized a few years before by Hàɔráŋ. (For this action the pirates flew the flag of Mauraŋ— largely to forestall the Hàɔ from gaining other allies; Belesao in particular was a stickler for legal niceties and recognized that the islands were Mau territory.)
The Hàɔ garrisons on both islands were overrun, and the pirates steeled themselves for the inevitable counterattack. Half the fleet was sent to attack the Hàɔ coast— an invitation to the Hàɔ to divide their own forces in order to protect their territory.
The Hàɔ didn’t entirely take this bait, but they bit the next hook: Ŋíntàe had apparently concentrated her forces on the South Island. The Hàɔ landed and assaulted the main fortress, which resisted fiercely—until one night when half the Hàɔ fleet was burned on the beaches, and the pirates were found to have evacuated the fort, leaving it and most of the silk workshops in flames. They couldn’t lose this key economic resource, so the Hàɔ were forced to save the workshops.
Ŋíntàe’s fleet was intact, defending the North Island and continuing to harry the coast. The Hàɔ suggested a cease-fire, and Ŋíntàe agreed. She had achieved what she wanted: half the silk trade— the most lucrative resource on the continent— was worth settling for, and allowing the Hàɔ the rest was a great face-saver for them.
The pirate empire
The next year the Council moved back in force into Maume. There was resistance, but the resources of the silk trade put the pirates into a far higher league than any local gangs.
Ŋíntàe moved into the queen’s old palace, and allowed the Council to suggest that she name herself jintràŋ, or empress.
(One may ask, empress of what? Usually no one bothered to say; if they recognized the title at all, outsiders called her empress of Mauraŋ. A few rare diplomatic documents, however, refer to her as Ânlɔ je jintràŋ, Empress of the Free Women.)
The pirate state she founded both was and was not like ordinary Bé queendoms. Other Bé often dismissed it as a lawless criminal enterprise; others, sometimes in a mere contrarian spirit, praised it as better and more honestly run than the Mau queendom it supplanted.
Ŋíntàe was not, and never pretended to be, a cultivated aristocrat. She dressed like a queen and enjoyed the luxuries of her position— fine meals, royal entertainments, silk clothes, gold ornaments— but lacked an aristocratic or even bourgeois education, and outsiders viewed her court as an obscene parody: illiterate barbarians draped in the robes of their betters, knowing nothing of scholarship and paying attention to art only out of a brute understanding that it was valuable.
But she was intelligent and shrewd, and kept discipline among her troops better than the queens had in the corrupt later years; her level of taxation was lower than Túmâs’s and the peace in her territory was more secure.
Despite her title, substantial power rested with the Council of Captains, which still gave a vote to every ship in the pirate fleet, and allotted others to allied gangs, nobles, and bourgeois. It was larger, more powerful, and more boisterous than the Béjan of Belesao; outsiders remarked with amazement that any ship captain could and did ask questions of the Empress, and that she took very seriously the job of maintaining the Council’s satisfaction.
The pirates were not democrats, but they can be called populists; their policies generally benefitted the poor and the urban bourgeoisie at the expense of upriver aristocrats. Though conservative Bé bewailed the pirates’ “anarchy”, the squatters of the Canal Quarter and similar areas had never been so secure, and the pirates distributed a good deal of their largesse to popular temples, in public festivals, or as emergency aid.
Assault on Pahni
Any Mau ships were required either to join the Council or pay hefty fees for their independence. Foreign ships were assessed docking feeds, or transit fees if they tried to skirt pirate territory. The largest ships, however— Nyanese, Lé, and Mɔłɔ vessels— had little to fear from the pirates.
The port of Pahni in the far west was a particular temptation. It was the first port reached by ships from the south, thus a great source of profits. It was run by Hàɔráŋ, but the distance was so great that it was poorly defended, and half dominated by local, Hàɔ, and Mau pirates anyway. Why not bring it into the Council?
Ŋíntàe saw no reason not to, and in 2891 her forces occupied the town. But this was more than the great powers were prepared to tolerate. A year later Hàɔráŋ and Belesao sent large fleets to recover Pahni and to attack Maume.
Belesao was the giant of the Bé; even its ships dwarfed those of the pirates. Pahni fell quickly, and Ŋíntàe was hard pressed to defend Maume— though she drew out the battle long enough to make it clear to the invaders that they would not have an easy victory. When they offered a cease-fire in return for a large indemnity paid to the Hàɔ, she accepted with relief.
This left the pirates largely where they had been a year before, but the empress now faced a storm of criticism in the Council. Her word had been near-absolute so long as she was successful, but with this setback her judgment was called into question, and many old grudges were aired and new ones invented. There was serious discussion of dismissing her, as the Council could theoretically do.
Ŋíntàe admitted her mistake, but she pointed out that the Council had approved the mission, so that it bore the fault as much as she did; and that replacing her would be a bad precedent and would signal weakness to their enemies, leaving Maume perhaps to be annexed by Hàɔráŋ.
In the end she prevailed, but her reputation was tarnished. The Council insisted on being consulted before any major decisions, and insisted on taking control over the silk trade. (She couldn’t be accused of corruption— she had distributed the income precisely as agreed with the Council—but the captains wanted to express their displeasure in some way. Their own management was much less efficient and soon became entirely corrupt.)
She was Empress for another dozen years. There were no major crises, and she regained some of the trust lost in the Pahni debacle; but the Council remained contentious to the end. The pirate realm ran smoothly and brought in a steady income, but a new generation arose which had not experienced the chaos of Túmâs’s reign, and didn’t see why they shouldn’t raise taxes, or attack at least Hàɔ ships, or extend their territory upriver. This faction could only cause trouble during Ŋíntàe’s lifetime, but they would soon be in a position to act on their ideas.
During her final illness, the Council first secretly and then openly debated the succession. The gangs, modelled on families, were generally hereditary— though weak heirs could be forced out by relatives or rivals— and Ŋíntàe had made it clear that she expected her daughter Łáo to succeed her. Łáo was now a young woman, to all appearances bright and sober-minded; her mother had trained her by using her as her secretary. But the last few peaceful years had given her no real military experience.
Nonetheless it soon became clear that there could be no consensus on another candidate, and on her mother’s death in 2903 Łáo became the second Empress of the Free Women.