Digging to Roam

Five Pirate Women You Never Knew Existed – Arr Matey We Be Seafarin’ Ladies

Today the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the anti-abortion bill in Texas (Wendy Davis), the overthrow of the Same Sex Marriage Ban in California (Hillingsworth v. Perry), and the overthrow of the Defense of Marriage Act (United States v. Windsor). With three major rulings lead by women insisting on equality, what better day to read about women who refused to let men have all the fun pirating the high seas?

I recently was told that in Spanish a "pirate" is a cheater, which I guess is a bit accurate. These women cheated the system and pirated on the high seas during the Golden Age of Piracy between the 1650s and the 1730s. Pirates are very popular in contemporary media (think Pirates of the Caribbean) but few female pirates are showcased. With very limited freedom of movement some women turned to sailing to find their freedom. Check out these five seafarin' ladies you probably never heard of.


1. Mary Read

Read defeating a man in a duel. Illustration from
The Pirates Own Book 1842 p. 389
In Jamaica in late 1720 eighteen crew members of Calico Jack Rackman were going to the gallows. Anne Bonny and Mary Read were among those convicted, but they were "Quick with Child" so they were given respite (6).
Mary Read was dressed by her mom to look like her half-brother who had just died so she could continue to be financially supported by her recently deceased (at sea) husband's family. She started on ships when she was around 15. She married a soldier that she fell in love with and was widowed by him. She became a pirate because she was working on Dutch ship after her husband died and the ship was captured by pirates. She was so tough that she saved her newest lover's life by fighting and winning a duel with the man who wanted to kill him (Pennell 2001).

2. Anne Bonny

"The earliest illustration of Anne Bonny from Captain Johnson's History of the Most Notorious Pyrates"
courtesy of sea-thieves.com
Anne Bonny had a similar start as Mary Read, she was also an illegitimate child and was dressed as a boy. She was rough and tough, once beating up a man who tried to rape her. Even though her father was rich, she married a seafaring young man. After running away to the Caribbean with him she joined the pirates that Mary Read was a part of. Where Calico Jack Rackman himself came to be her lover. As a true pirate, Mary was one of the only ones who tried to fight the British sailors who captured their ship. Calling Calico Jack Rackman a coward for backing down (Pennell 2001).


3. Charlotte de Berry

Charlotte de Berry was born in England in 1646 and she, like Anne Bonny, fell in love with a sailor and ran away with him. She dressed as a man to fight on his ship. An officer onthis ship once discovering her sex did not tell anyone but tried to get her husband killed, but Charlotte was skillful and helped keep that from happening until her husband was accused of mutiny and flogged. After she dressed as a woman, killed the officer and worked on the docks. No longer protected by the disguise of a man, she was kidnapped and forced to marry a merchant captain. Unlike the false accusation of her previous husband and mutiny, she actually mutinied this ship and decapitated the captains head. Charlotte de Berry died when she ship after being attacked by pirates (Druett 2001).

3. Lady Mary Killigrew

Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew in 1638 by Sir Anthony van Dyck
Lady Mary Killigrew was a daughter of a pirate and her husband was friends with pirates. She was very wealthy and forced the staff people at her home to become sailors. Capturing a German ship she coaxed the captain off the boat and while he was drinking int he bars they stole his ship. They sailed to Ireland and since this was really more of a whim than her actually being a sailor, she was captured and sentenced to death. Thanks to her money she was saved; the jury was bribed and she was acquitted (Druett 2001).

5. Cheng I Sao


Depiction of Cheng I Sao
common image
Cheng I Sao, also known as Ching Sih was born in 1775 and died in 1844. She was always involved in illicit activities, first making money by being a prostitute. In 1801 she married a pirate commander and joined him. After adopting one son, her husband died after 6 years of marriage. Cheng I Sao overtook the pirate fleet that had over 400 ships. She enforced and created laws by which all sailors had to abide by. With such a large fleet of ships her pirates did all sorts of pirating. After the Chinese government became threatened by the growing pirate problem, she was granted pardon. She continued to make money by owning a gambling and brothel house (Pennell 2001 and Dugaw 1996)

Know of other women who kicked ass on the high seas that you think should have been included? Comment about them!

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