Women pirates

Over the centuries, pirates were feared, famous and feted. Among them were a number of wild, fierce and sometimes murderous, women. Here are just a few of their stories.

Anne Bonney


Women of legend

There are tales of warrior queens and pirate princesses in the folklore and legends of many cultures, stretching back through time. Before written history, the sagas and legends were recounted from memory by bards; like Homer, who used to tell the stories of Ulysses and the fall of Troy to the ancient Greeks; and just as storytellers or singers from many cultures tell the tales of the old people and the ways of the land or sea. Some still do.

It was the Greek historian Polybius who first wrote about Queen Teuta of Illyria (on the coast of the Adriatic Sea).

Teuta was one of the early pirate queens, born in the third century BC. When her husband died, she took over the country’s fleet of ships, and issued them with what were later called Letters of Marque, ordering them to seize any ships they found, and bring the booty home to their queen. Sometimes she went with them on their raids, attacking coastal towns and sinking ships.

It wasn’t until the full power of the Roman fleet was brought against her that Teuta finally gave up her piratical ways and agreed to a treaty – from that day on she tried to behave more like a queen than a pirate. But I bet it was boring.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of the Vikings: the fearsome raiders from Denmark and Norway who raided the coasts of Europe and Britain in their longships; terrifying small towns, enslaving the inhabitants, and carrying off cattle, food and whatever plunder they could find. The great stories of the Vikings are told in the sagas, which are long, complex tales of adventure, battle, heroes, gods – and Alfhild the girl pirate.

The saga was first written down in the twelfth century, and it tells the story of a beautiful princess, Alfhild, whose father tried to keep her locked away from everyone until he could find her a suitable husband. But Alfhild refused to get married. Instead, she “exchanged woman’s for man’s attire and …began the life of a warlike rover.” Alfhild had an all-female crew, and there were many other brave and warrior-like women described in the sagas.

Alfhild might even have come up in battle against one of the Vikings’ most brilliant opponents: the English general Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great.


Pirate queens

About 1530, on coast of western Ireland, the mighty chieftain “Black Oak” O’Malley welcomed a new baby daughter. She would grow up to become one of the greatest and most feared women in maritime history.

Grania ny Maille, better known as Grace O’Malley, eventually took over her father’s fleet of well-armed galleys and became the scourge of the seas, raiding merchant ships that sailed the rich trading routes between Europe, England, Scotland and Ireland. Her fleet grew so large, and her men were so feared, that she drove the English queen, Elizabeth, into a frenzy.

Elizabeth was no shrinking violet herself. Her sailors such as Francis Drake and Jack Hawkins were, just like the fleet of Queen Teuta, empowered to attack any ships – or at least, any ships from countries with which Elizabeth was on unfriendly terms. They wreaked havoc in the trading routes around Spain and Portugal, while Grace O’Malley’s ships lay in wait for English merchants closer to home, and her men took on the English army on land.

Grace and Elizabeth once met, many years later when both were getting older, but nobody knows what they said to each other. Did they recognise the same adventurous spirit in each other? Or was it perhaps greed? Or a sisterly camaraderie? I wish I’d been there.

Whatever happened, Elizabeth must have been amused, because she granted Grace a pension and allowed her to go in peace. She even gave her Letters of Marque – from now on, Grace could keep being a pirate, so long as she attacked the ships of other countries in the service of the queen.

Grace and Elizabeth died, both elderly, in the same year: 1603.

250 years after the reign of Elizabeth, another great pirate queen emerged on the other side of the world.

Cheng I Sao and her husband Cheng I were part of a confederation of pirate fleets that commanded the waters around southern China. With Cheng I in command, the combined fleet numbered over 400 junks and 70,000 crew members.

In 1807, Cheng I drowned, and Cheng I Sao took over as admiral of one of the greatest pirate fleets in the history of the world. Her domination continued until, like Queen Elizabeth of England, the Chinese government eventually came to realise they needed peace, and offered Cheng I Sao a retirement package too good to refuse.

She died, peacefully at the age of 60, in 1844.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Perhaps the most notorious women pirates are Anne Bonney and Mary Read, who sailed in the early 18th century with the famous Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham. It’s Rackham’s flag that has become one of the most famous of all pirate flags, with its grinning skull and crossed cutlasses.

Anne and Mary both came from poor families. Mary had spent some years pretending to be a boy and had served (in disguise) in the Navy and later in the Army. She found it much easier to get work and a decent feed if people thought she was male. Mary was captured by a pirate while serving on a trading ship, and was invited to join the pirate crew (they still thought she was a boy).

Anne ran away to sea when she fell in love with Jack Rackham. The two women met when Rackham’s ship took Mary’s ship in a raid, and the three friends sailed together through the Caribbean, attacking traders and stealing ships. Anne and Rackham were together, and Mary had a love affair with another pirate.

But in November 1720 they were caught. An English privateer, Captain Barnet, had been given orders to round up pirates, and Rackham was high on his list. Barnett attacked their ship, disabled it, and was amazed to find that the two women pirates were the only members of the crew to put up any sort of fight.

Rackham, Bonney and Read were tried and sentenced to death. Calico Jack went to the gallows, although Mary’s boyfriend was acquitted because she refused to testify against him.

But both of the women were saved at the last moment. As the judge announced their sentences, they cried out: they were both having babies, and the court could not hang a pregnant woman.

Mary died in prison not long after. Nobody knows what happened to Anne Bonney, pirate of the Caribbean.

Pirates of Venus
In 1806, two convicts from the settlement of New South Wales, Catherine Hagerty and Charlotte Badger, were sent to Hobart on the brig Venus. On board was cargo of grain, flour and pork, and a couple of male convicts also on their way to the new colony.

On June 16, the captain set anchor at Port Dalrymple in northern Tasmania and went ashore. The next morning when he tried to reboard his ship, it was on its way out to sea without him.

Catherine and Charlotte had talked most of the men into seizing the Venus. But it isn’t much of a pirate story, really. They sailed across the Tasman to the Bay of Islands in the far north of New Zealand, where the women and their two new-found boyfriends were dropped off. There, it seems, they lived a fairly hard life, and Catherine died of fever not long afterwards. The two men were recaptured, and Charlotte Badger was last seen living with her child in a makeshift hut in the Bay of Islands.

As for the Venus, its crew sailed on along the coast of New Zealand, creating havoc and infuriating Maori everywhere by stealing women and food. They met their end, pursued and killed by Maori in revenge for their crimes, somewhere on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Here’s more information on:
Women in the age of sail
Daily life on a pirate ship
Pirates of the Mediterranean

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