The Pirate Women Who Made Blackbeard Look Like a Joke

A new book reveals the untold history of the ruthless female pirates who terrorized the seven seas.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
March 24, 2017, 6:48pm

If you're into pirates, you've probably heard of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. The two ruthless corsairs were part of Calico Jack Rackam's crew during the Golden Age of Piracy, a roughly 80-year span from 1650 to 1730, when an excess of skilled sailors, combined with a rise of colonial cargo and general lawlessness, led to privateers seeking loot on the seas until the navies of Western Europe and the North American colonies finally cracked down on the practice. But other female pirates and the mythology surrounding them have become footnotes in pop-culture history—buried, obscured, or otherwise forgotten.


While names like Blackbeard, Captain Hook, Henry Morgan, and even the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow have lived on in infamy, notorious buccaneers and marauders like Cheng I Sao, who commanded more than 400 ships and 50,000 men off China in the early 19th century; Grace O'Malley, the Irish pirate who terrorized the British Isles in Elizabethan times; and Sayyida al-Hurra, pirate queen of the notorious Barbary Corsairs, have been largely ignored.

A new book, Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe, seeks to change that. In 14 chapters with titles like "Medieval Maiden Warriors" and "A Cinderella Story Among the Corsairs," Duncombe details the lives of some of these pirates, from Queen Teuta, a Illyrian blue blood who marauded the Roman Empire, to Sadie the Goat, a scrappy, one-eared pickpocket turned river captain straight out of Gangs of New York. Duncombe, a lawyer, writer, and Jezebel contributor, goes into particular detail on Sao, whom she describes as "the most successful pirate of all time" and who was notable for explicitly banning the rape of female captives, a crime that was punishable by death.

I recently spoke with Duncombe about the universal appeal of piracy, why pirate women have been considered unworthy of historical documentation, and why the Cheng I Saos of the world deserve to have their own Pirates of the Caribbean.

VICE: What did the women whose stories you've told get out of living a pirate's life on the high seas?
Laura Sook Duncombe: Piracy really exemplifies freedom because it's an escape from the ordinary and what's expected of you. They're outlaws operating outside of the law and outside convention. These women particularly benefitted from that escape from convention because many of these women went from being the property of their fathers to the property of their spouses. The women of the past were not allowed to do the sort of things that women now take for granted, like work outside the home, own property, get a divorce. These women were able to literally cast off these constrictive garments—the petticoats, the corsets, the things that made it hard to move and hard to breathe—and donned trousers and shirts and sailed the seas. They didn't belong to anyone but themselves, and that's alluring to modern women. So I can only imagine how alluring it would have been for women living in more restrictive eras.

Pirate life was known to be challenging in so many ways—being on the sea for months on end, strenuous work keeping the boats sailing, terrible nutrition and hygiene—how did the women adapt?
Life was pretty rough and violent for many of these women anyway on land. We don't have many pirates who came from happy homes and storybook childhoods. Many of them were exposed to this kind of behavior early on. I don't think anybody exactly knows how these women were able to conceal their femininity for so long. I think a lot of times people see what they want to see, and as long as the women were pulling their weight and doing the job, they were good. Clearly they're not as delicate and unsuited for these positions as some people might think.

"I think women in general are frequently considered unworthy subjects of documentation because most historians are male. There's an erasure of people of color. There's an erasure of LGBT people and other minorities."

Why do you think women pirates have been considered unworthy subjects of historical documentation?
Well, I think women in general are frequently considered unworthy subjects of documentation because most historians are male. There's an erasure of people of color. There's an erasure of LGBT people and other minorities. Whoever is telling the story controls what happens. Look at the way America talks about the Vietnam War compared to the way the Vietnamese talk about the Vietnam War. It's a very different story. There's such a sacred relationship between man and the sea, and the men conquer the sea, which is considered female. For a woman to be involved in that upsets the mystical relationship between man and the ocean. I think it was just easy to leave women out and keep the fantasy. There were possibly many women who lived and died as men, and we don't even know about them. In the ranks of women pirates, we have this small number, but there were undoubtedly countless more that just never got caught.

Why was Cheng I Sao the most successful pirate of all time?
It is thought that she had a pretty rough childhood and adolescence and may have even been a prostitute. I think that a hard existence tends to make one pretty tough, and I think that she was just determined to avoid going back to where she came from. She was already part of a pretty successful pirate empire with her husband, but she absolutely went above and beyond that once he died. Her fleet was larger than many of the legitimate navies at the time. She had to be smart and able to have her crews be fiercely loyal to her. She was ferocious, and when she saw what she wanted, she just took it. People were so unused to that type of behavior coming from a woman that they were sort of hanging there with their mouths gaping open while she plundered their treasure.


How does the legend of Princess Alfhild reinforce how Viking society felt about women going to sea?
The story is told as sort of a love story, like this woman goes on this zany exploit, but then her boyfriend brings her back in line, and they sail off happily ever after into the sunset. I think that it's tragic that this woman makes this desperate gamble for freedom to avoid marrying this man that she says she has no interest in, and then he captures her and drags her back home. For this woman, who had no nautical training that we're aware of, to head off to sea just to get away, and then to be captured and brought back, it's very sad for me that her bid for freedom was not enough to get her away from this prince. When a prince wants a princess, the princess marries the prince. She doesn't get to say no, and I think that's very sad.

The Barbary Corsairs were well known as brutal pirates, but were led Sayyida al-Hurra, their pirate queen. What eventually happened to her?
There's so much misinformation that has not been particularly corrected by scholars about the barbaric nature of these Barbary Corsairs. It's hard to know what's true about them and what's not. But Sayyida al-Hurra, regardless, was an incredibly shrewd businesswoman. She'd sort of come into this governmental position, this ruling position with her husband, and then she took off running. She decided that she needed a naval operation to hit the Spanish where it hurt, because they'd driven her and her family from their home. We wouldn't know that much about her at all if not for all of the people with whom she did business, because she's written about in these Spanish and Portuguese sources as the pirate queen of the Mediterranean. Her own people did not discuss her in the same way. She eventually disappears. She was married to the king of Morocco, and we have no idea what happened to her.


In your book, you recount how the Irish pirate Grace O'Malley met with Queen Elizabeth, who'd captured her son. What was the outcome of that meeting, and did Grace keep pirating with the Queen's consent?
Grace O'Malley was incredibly smart, driven, and calculating. Toward the end of her life, she switched over to the English cause, and her son fought in the end for the English. She was always looking out for her family, and she was willing to do whatever it took to take care of her family. She wrote these letters to the Queen, and she sort of paints herself like, "I ended up as a pirate, but really it was just because I had to, but if you give me my son, I'll be loyal to you." The Queen sent her home with her son and gave her a license to pirate. Elizabeth was very fond of privateers, and she used privateers to get the money to build the British Empire that Parliament wouldn't give her. I think Elizabeth saw this incredible pirate who eluded capture for so long and has this crew that is loyal to her and decided it would be stupid to pass up that opportunity. It worked out well for everybody.

How did you determine if the legends were real or not in your research? Can you give some examples?
With Mary Read and Anne Bonny, we have transcripts from their trial. We have many sources of eyewitness testimonies that corroborate these stories. Finding documents from the time period is really a clue to me that I hit on someone who is most likely real. On the other hand, there's Haitian buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye, who is in many stories and legends. She's very popular, but there are no primary sources about her. I found a Spanish language book that said she did not exist, and putting that together with the lack of primary sources led me to believe she most likely did not exist. It's a treasure hunt. But there are some pretty strong indications when you find a primary source document, when you find a trial, when you find stories written up in the papers at the time, when you find things that came from that era that talk about these women—that is an indication that they're real.

In your opinion, which female pirate story would translate best to the big screen?
I think for every famous movie male pirate we should have female ones! I love Sayyida, though. I think it is just so triumphant to have this powerful, brilliant Muslim woman as the heroine of this story. I would love to see her be more known. And of course Cheng I Sao. Cheng I Sao was much more successful than Blackbeard. She pirated longer. Her ships were bigger, and she made more money. She kind of makes Blackbeard look like a joke. I would love to see Cheng I Sao depicted. She kind of is actually in Pirates of the Caribbean. In the third one, there's a character Mistress Cheng, but she has very little to say and do. She's on the pirate council, which is modeled on a real thing, the Brethren of the Coast. I think she should have her own movie.

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Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe will be published by Chicago Review Press on April 1.