Where are the Queens of the Seas

Life five hundred years ago was vastly different from life today and it was not an easy life to live either. Day to-day chores that the modern woman takes for granted, may have taken a woman of the past, hours to complete. Surely the life of a female pirate would have been doubly hard to live, by all indications, a pirates life was hard for any man. 

Regardless of the no girl pirate code, of women being too weak and the social constraints women suffered, women were pirates and some were quite good at it. 

Thanks to the movie empire "Pirates of the Caribbean" female pirates of history are enjoying a small burst of fame and names like Anne Bonny, Mary Read, the Lioness of Brittany, Lady Killigrew and Grace O'Malley are slowly becoming more well-known as interest grows. 

Honestly it's about time to recognize female pirate roles in history of the seas. Long have they been roaming the seas and from all corners of the earth since at least the third century as criminal, entrepreneurs and marauders. The Red Lady and Ching Shih were just as successful as their male counterparts, if not more so. They were both ruthless, cunning and opportunists who ruled (and conquered) as well as any man. 

I am not justifying their questionable morals and ethics they were and are criminals. But in a world dominated by men they managed to carve out a memorable name for themselves in the world of pirating. The women who became pirates, wanted to and choose to of their own free will for any number of reasons.

Irelands Grace O'Malley

The Sea Queen of Connaught

Many little girls when told no by their father would pout, sulk and cry, very few would embarrass their elder into doing as they wanted. When this little girl asked her father to let her join in on one of the trade expeditions to Spain and was given the excuse 'her hair would get caught up in the sails', she cut it all off and re-asked to join.

This spirited and determined little Irish girl grew to become known as the Sea Queen of Connaught, Grace O'Malley. Her official title was the Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the O'Maille clan. Today she is a very important figure in both history and Irish folklore.

Numerous books and documentaries share her tale. She was a strong woman who made tough decisions and did what she thought was right, or best. Her tale, though too complex for this simple article, is an interesting read.

Pirate or no, she had an impact on history. 

The Killigrew Ladies

A family business

For some families pirating is in the blood and a deep-rooted part of their traditions they take pride in. As is the case with the Killigrew family of Falmouth, Cornwall whom are notorious for their piracy habits and grubby fingers. During the 1500's at the least two of their family members were actively pirating, Elizabeth and her daughter in law Mary. Both women born of pirate stock before marrying into it. 

Kelligrew LadyCredit: Cross and CutlassTheir home Pendennis Castle built for King Henry VIII on John Killigrews land (Elizabeths husband) and he became the first hereditary captain of the castle, which also meant he controlled shipping in the Falmouth area. Needless to say he took advantage of his position and engaged in piracy with his wife.Historian Neville Williams described Elizabeth as a "tough and unprincipled business woman who managed the castle and the burial of the treasure in her gardens. It was also said of her that she enjoyed the adventure more than her husband. 

John the son of Elizabeth and husband to Mary also participated in the family business with his wife. Both John and Mary found themselves caught up in Elizabeth's piracy. Elizabeth attacked a Spanish vessel and it roused the anger of court, Elizabeth, Mary and numerous other family members found themselves rounded up and charged with piracy. After this, John and his wife stuck with fencing stolen goods till they died. 

Jeanne-Louise de Belleville

Lioness of Brittany with the Black Fleet

Sometimes wealthy families clash and fight, feelings are hurt and people get angry. Born in 1300 to an influential and wealthy family, Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame du Montaigu came from the upper crusts of wealthy society in northern France, she wanted for nothing and lived a rather pleasant life. At least until King Philip VI approved her second husbands (Oliver III Clisson) wrongful beheading for being a traitor. News of his death traumatized her and from it came a 13 year pirating career in the English Channel. 

Selling her lands and belongings, she raised enough funds for her infamous Black Fleet. Her quest for revenge began in 1343 and ended in 1356. During that time she was known for intense hatred of French nobility, military and King Philip VI himself. She started attacking French ships and would let a few go to 'live to tell the tale', needless to say, word of her spread quickly. She earned herself the nickname of Lioness of Brittany and her Black Fleet sent shivers down ones spine when seen in the waters. 

Her black ships with red flags attacked only French vessels and she personally beheaded, with an axe, all French nobility or high valued prisoners before tossing the headless corpses overboard. So strong was her hatred and anger that even after King Philip VI had died in 1350, she continued on with her attacks with the same intensity as when he was alive. 

For reasons unknown, she retired in 1356 and lived in England with her third husband before returning to France and dying in 1359.

Female Pirates
Credit: Flikr: Avalona

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

A terrifying Duo

These two women were quite similar in personality, attitude and character, it is no surprise they made fast friends. They are considered 'hell-cats' ... woman who could not be curtailed. They were independent, possessed violent tempers and were fierce fighters. I do not doubt they were both capable of holding their own. 

They met on Anne's husbands (Calico Jack) boat and from that moment on they did all their pirating together with Anne's husband. They were somewhat successful in their endeavors. Anne Bonny and Mary Read dressed as men for more of their pirate career than not. Even when it was known they were female, they continued to dress as men. Mary actually went by the name Mark Read. Coming from the poor class, neither had the funds nor power to command from afar, and in their world during the 1700's, life was easier done as a man. 

When they were finally captured, the story goes, that only Mary, Anne and another male member of the crew fought off the invaders. Anne was calling the crew cowards and when she later crossed paths with her husband Calico Jack she is quoted as saying "Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang'd like a dog". Jack was executed, Mary and Anne plead their bellies. Mary died of fever and Anne is believed to have escaped, most probably with help from her father. 

Remembered for their volatile behaviour, their ferocious-ness in battle and for their tempers more than any deed they committed, they were two big personalities brought together with a bang. 

The Red Lady

Cunning, simple and direct.

Not all female pirates dressed as men, nor did all pirates revealed their real identity. While many women more than likely dressed as male pirates, many others did not. Pirates must land their boats every so often to fence their goods, met their personal manly needs and gather supplies for the next outing. Often the female role was as the contact in a village or town. Some were entertainers or prostitutes that would spend a night aboard the ship while it sat docked. 

From 1528 to 1534, there was a pirate parading as an entertainer. No one knew the pirates real identity, and in all fairness the pirate known as the Red Lady may not even be a female. But this assumed female Red Lady pirate would board ships as an entertainer or lady of the night, slaughter everyone aboard, toss them overboard and then stole the boat.

To manage this for six years and never have even your identity exposed is either incredibly lucky or  incredibly skilled.

Ching Shih

ching shih
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Ching Shih

Prostitute to Pirate Commander

Very few women were as successful in their pirating endeavors as Ching Shih was. Historians know nothing of her origins and she first appears in 1801 as a prostitute marrying a pirate. When the pirate died his wife, Ching Shih, rose to the commanding ranks. A feat in itself in my opinion. 

Piracy was common in Asians waters and during Chings era there was a lot of them. Historically piracy in China was heavily influenced by the rising and falling royal families. Ching Shihs biggest achievement was uniting them all into one force of an intimidating size - 1800 ships and anywhere from eighty to one hundred and fifty thousands pirates under her command. 

Her strength was solid enough to stand against the major naval super powers, China, England, Spain and more). She robbed and taxed villages and towns, her pirates enjoyed a steady flow of bounty which kind of made up for her tough rules. She had a no sex (even consensual) or rape rule that if broken resulted in both dying, one by beheading and the other tossed over board with cannons tied to their feet.

Ching Shih ran a tight ship. She ran a tight, profitable ship. 

That's kind of what pirates do.