Several people have asked me if female pirates actually sailed the seas, or was I perhaps a genius for thinking it up. The answer to the first part of that question is an emphatic YES! The answer to the second part of that question is an emphatic NO! No measure of genius has ever invaded this cranium. Members of the gentler sex, however, were not merely pirates, but at least two of them could be considered Pirate Queens.
Grace O’Malley was one of the great women. She apparently went to sea on her father’s ships as a teen. Legend has it that when he told her that she couldn’t sail with him because her long hair would catch in the rigging, the precocious young lass chopped it off. Due to that act, she was given the nickname Granuaile (granya-wail), which meant cropped hair. After her first husband died, she convinced many of his clansmen to join her and returned to her father’s lands. Based there, she commanded hundreds of men and ships from the middle 1500’s until around 1591. She gained respect and the reputation of a fierce warrior by leading her men both at sea, and plundering attacks on land. And she led from the front. During her reign, she controlled the land and sea along the entire eastern Irish coast. She had become so prominent and powerful that Queen Elizabeth I invited her to a meeting in which the queen intended to demand that she stop her pirating ways. Grace so charmed Elizabeth, however, that she left the meeting with the queen’s full permission to continue. From pictures and descriptions of her, I believe she could have been Kate’s great-great-great-whatever grandmother; long red hair and slender of body she was. If only Kate were real.
Ching Shih. Another Pirate Queen. Taken captive by the Chinese pirate Zheng Yi in 1801 at the age of 26 while working as a prostitute, she later married him. When Zheng Yi was killed in 1806, Ching Shih took command of his six fleets. She commanded around 1000 ships and as many as 17,000 men at the height of her career. She became the most powerful individual in the South Pacific, as powerful as the Chinese government. China feared attacking her on its own, so it negotiated the help of Great Brittan and Portugal. With the strength of those two nations behind him, China’s emperor sent an envoy to her to request a peace settlement. It’s said that she felt that she could beat the combined navies, but accepted the peace accord. She retired from piracy at age 35 and opened a gambling house. Ching Shih died at age 69.
Anne Bonney and Mary Read are probably the most noted women pirates.
Anne. She was born in County Cork, Ireland in the late 1600’s, the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer and his housemaid. They left Ireland for a plantation near Charleston South Carolina when she was young. She eloped and married a man of little promise, James Bonney. At New Providence in the Bahamas, Anne met and fell in love with the pirate Captain (Calico) Jack Rackham. She donned men’s clothing and joined him aboard his ship. She became pregnant by Jack and temporarily left the ship for Cuba to deliver the baby.
Mary. She was born in Plymouth England around 1690. It’s said that after her father deserted her and her mother, Mary was dressed as a boy to fool her paternal grandmother into contributing to her upkeep. She spent most of her youth dressed as a boy. She enlisted in a foot regiment and later a horse regiment in Flanders, where she served with distinction. She fell in love with one of the men in her regiment and revealed herself to him. They married and opened the Three Horses Inn in Holland. Her husband died at a young age, and she once again began dressing as a man. She signed on as a crewman on a Dutch merchant ship headed for the Caribbean where she wound up on Calico Jack’s ship. Anne Bonney discovered that she was actually a woman and they became close friends.
Anne and Mary’s pirating lives ended in 1720. Anchored off Point Negril, Jamaica, the men were generally drunk in celebration of recent victories when the British man-of-war Albion surprised them. They were boarded, and it’s said that the men fled below, leaving Anne and Mary to fight off the boarding British marines. The two women fought ferociously, but were overcome. Calico Jack was tried and hanged. Anne and Mary were both tried and convicted of piracy but saved themselves from the gallows with the statement, “M’lord, we plead with our bellies.” They were both pregnant. What finally happened to the two women isn’t clear, but it’s believed that Anne’s wealthy father may have bought her release. Mary most likely died in prison.
There have been many more women who have dressed as men and gone pirating, both known and unknown. Far too many to address here. All four of the ladies who I’ve mentioned were well respected by the men they fought alongside. They were all said to be ferocious fighters. Aye, let’s tip a bit of rum for the gentler sex.