Arrr…Thar be wenches on the high seas!

by | September 19, 2009
filed under Feminism

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day everyone!

In honour of this auspicious occasion, I thought I’d learn a little historical background on some fascinating women pirates from the 17th to 19th centuries. Here’s what I found about 4 women who often disguised their gender or used it to their advantage while commanding and fighting alongside legions of men on the high seas.

Grace O’Malley

Grace O’Malley was born in Ireland in 1530, the daughter of a clan who controlled area by a fleet of ships. Grace chose to cut her hair short and wear men’s clothing and was nicknamed Granuaile, which means “bald.” Although she went to sea on her clan’s ships, she also married at age 16 and had 3 children. However, her husband was unable to properly manage the clan, and Grace was determined to turn things around by taking control of the fleet of ships.

Grace commanded more than two-hundred men in trading and raids against Irish towns that accepted English rule. While she was at sea her husband was killed, possibly by a rival clan, and Grace faced enforced poverty as her in-laws denied her her husband’s possessions. Instead, Grace returned to sea.

Grace was renowned for acts of bravery and cunning. She fought off Turkish pirates the day after giving birth to her third son in 1567. She also repelled many attempts at capture by the English before their Connaught Governor was ordered to put her out of business and through repeated raids and impounding her ships, left her destitute.

Grace O'Malley meets Queen Elizabeth I

But Grace refused to accept her punishment, instead appealing to Queen Elizabeth I to ask for the release of her son and a living so she would not have to pirate. In exchange she vowed to protect the waters from the Queen’s enemies.

After she sailed to England to have an audience with the Queen, Elizabeth granted Grace’s request. Grace returned to Ireland, where she remained chieftain of her clan and died at age seventy-three.

Mary Read and Ann Bonny

Mary Read’s widowed mother raised her as a boy to collect money from her father’s parents. Mary fought as an infantryman in the Flemish army, where she fell in love with another soldier and (after revealing herself to be a woman) married him. However, when he died soon after, Mary decided to take on her male disguise and go to sea in the West Indies.

Mary Read and Ann Bonny

Mary Read and Ann Bonny

Mary’s ship was captured by the pirate Calico Jack, whose crew she joined. She was said to “swear and shoot as well as any man.” While there she met another woman in disguise, Ann Bonny. They became friends and when their ship was boarded in 1720, fought together against the authorities while their male comrades surrendered.

Ching Shih

Ching Shih was a Chinese prostitute before she married Cheng I, a commander of the Red Flag Fleet,  in 1801. When her husband died six years later, Ching Shih took command of the fleet, which now numbered over 70,000 sailors.

Ching Shih in battle

Ching Shih in battle

She imposed ruthless discipline among her men and aggressive battle tactics against her opponents. Raping female captives was a capital offense, as was stealing from allied villages.

The Chinese navy was unable to take down the fleet, losing sixty-three ships in engagements with Ching Shih. Eventually the Chinese government opted to offer amnesty to all pirates. Ching Shih accepted, negotiating pardons for most of her men and retaining her fortune. When Ching Shih died at age 60 she had been running a brothel and gambling den in Guangzhou.

Thanks to TruTV’s profile on Grace O’Malley and Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove for the cool information!

Now get ye back t’celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day afore I make ye walk the plank!

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