Pirates always excite the imagination, at least the ones on tall ships in the Golden Age. Stevenson’s and Barrie’s fantasies played their part in the popularisation and Johnny Depp has a lot to answer for. Now there’s even International Pirate’s Day.
The wicked, bare-breasted, cutlass-wielding woman pirate is an alluring addition to the sensationalised mix. Not that lionising pirates is new: the 1724 publication A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by one Capt Charles Johnson is as lurid a piece of celebrity gossip as you will find anywhere. Although it is often cited as evidence (being one of few new-contemporary accounts of female piracy in the Caribbean) it reads to me like Hello! Magazine, with about the same level of veracity. He didn’t even have to photoshop his pictures.
Of all women pirates, Mary Read and Ann Bonney are probably the most famous. They lived and fought together around Jamaica in 1720. The legend suggests they lasted for months but in fact their time at sea together was a few short weeks in 1720. . (The raunchy picture is an early one, but I have not confirmed its source.)
Ann Bonney was Capt 'Calico' Jack Rackham’s mistress and had borne at least one child when she took ship with him from Cuba in 1719.
She was already known as a good swordswoman, having earned her living, at least in part, from fighting during her first marriage. Anne was probably taught to fight by her father: he’d been a respectable solicitor in Cork till he ran off with the maid and daughter Ann, fetching up in the Carolinas. Ann inherited his wildness and ran away the first chance she got.
Somewhere at sea Rackham, in his fast privateer the Ranger, picked up a bunch of Irish on the run whose crew included one Mary Read. At first Read passed as a soldier, having fought in Flanders. Eventually her sex was revealed and she hitched up with one of the men on board
(The picture of Ranger is from ‘The Pirate Ship 1660-1730’ by Angus Konstam.)
Not long after, the governor in Jamaica sent out Captain Barnet to chase pirates who were preying on the honest shipping of the various colonial trading companies. (I’m not going to be tempted to a disquisition on the sins of those trading companies, though they were many.) He captured Ranger off the western end of Jamaica and took her in custody along with all her crew.
Read and Bonney fought to the end. Several witnesses testified to it at their trial that November. Rackham himself, and all his men, had taken refuge in the ship’s hold, leaving the women to clash steel on deck. When Rackham was dragged up from below, Bonney spat on him for a coward. The last time she saw him, in jail in St Jago de la Vega (as Spanish Town was then known) she said ‘if you’d fought like a man … you wouldn’t be hung like a dog now.’
Both women completed the pirate myth by not being hung, although they were convicted. They claimed to be pregnant, which deferred execution and then they disappeared from the books without the sentence being carried out.
Of course their story has been pored over and enjoyed. Both had exciting enough backstories, even before their career harassing ships off Hispaniola. Were they lovers? What became of them? I’ve written their passionate story myself (to come out in my collection Stronger than Longing), but I’d have to confess the evidence for a sexual relationship between them is thin to non-existent. They did fight together and go to jail together and then disappear. That’s a good enough foundation for fantasy.
There were other women who commanded and fought at sea for plunder. One of the most effective, and a consummate survivor, was Granuaile (Grace) O’Malley, the Ulsterwoman who fought from Spain to Scotland, sailed up the Thames to be greeted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 and eventually died in ten years later, in the same year as the English queen. We cannot count O’Malley as a freedom fighter: it seems she fought everyone to protect her winnings, and her son was made Viscount Mayo by the English in 1627.
Jo Stanley did a great survey of women pirates in Bold in her Breeches which I’d recommend to anyone whether a serious student or wanting an excellent introduction to the topic. There’s a good follow-up piece by her here. As she says, we have to ask who counts as a pirate? This seeming innocuous question uncovers the usual mish-mash of ways women are discounted by not being a ‘real one’; all those familiar sayings which serve to keep us away from the action by the range of ‘yes, but...’ protectionism techniques deployed at the boundaries of that territory where the boys get all the toys.
The ancient Greek Artemesia, Queen of Halicarnassus, captained a fighting ship at the Battle of Salamis in 480BC but was not a pirate in the sense of law-breaking and plunder. Allfhild, the fifteenth century Dane, was also a privileged warrior, working at sea. Cheng Shih ran a sea-going mercenary armada of some 400 ships in the South China Sea in the early nineteenth century, having started as a prostitute who married into a powerful family. This is a common picture of her but I have again been unable to trace a source.)
There were many women, of high status and low, on pirate ships operating under sail, despite the tales of their exclusion and taboo status. From China to the Spanish Main, there were prostitutes, cooks and launderers, sailors, fighters, strategists and captains. Maybe they had no choice but to be afloat, perhaps they were working in the family business or had simply run away from worse lives on land. But they were no less ‘pirates’ than the cabin-boys and ambitious nephews bunking alongside them.
All of this leads me to say I dislike much of the romanticisation of pirates. It is a hard, cruel life, being a marauder at sea, for men as well as women. Modern piracy is a highly organised and violent business. The map is the International Chamber of Commerce record from 2015: there is in fact less piracy now than there was in 2012, because the Indian Ocean and Red Sea are better protected, often by for-hire mercenaries brandishing near-military fire-power.
In the last 10-15 years, piracy has affected all sorts of vessels, from small cruising yachts to very large container ships, and has cost many lives and dollars. It has benefited relatively small cartels of violent men. (I have never heard of a modern successful female pirate leader with the possible exception of the Filipino Susan Frani who was jailed in Manila in 1993.)
The history books, though, are filled with the legends. I am not immune to the fantasy either, but I am pleased that, so far at least, no twenty-first century pirates seem to be attacking large tall ships in the Southern Ocean.