Ahoy ye scallywags! Everrrrrybody’s favorite random holiday is here: International Talk Like a Pirate Day. In honor of this beauteous holiday, the Geekettes would like to share with you the stories of some of their favorite cutlass-wielding, timber-shivering female pirates.
Ching Shih – In Qing Dynasty China, in the early 19th century, at a time when most women were subject to strict rules of propriety, confined to their boudoirs, and physically limited by bound feet, there lived a woman so powerful the Chinese navy could not defeat her. Ching Shih was once a prostitute in Guangzhou but she was captured pirates and ended up married to the powerful commander of the Red Flag pirate fleet.
When her husband died, Widow Ching stepped up to take his place. However, knowing that her authority as a woman, especially an unmarried one, might be in question, she took her late husband’s right-hand man (and adopted son) as her consort and later her husband. Although many of her accomplishments are attributed instead to her second husband, it is clear who truly held the power. Ching Shih enforced a strict pirate code across her ships, which outlawed such crimes as rape and marital unfaithfulness, as well as the usual rules against stealing and divvying up booty.
Ching Shih commanded several hundred, if not a thousand ships (records vary). The Chinese navy never defeated her, even with foreign aid from the British and Dutch. She was known in British records as “the terror of South China.” In the end, the Chinese government was forced to grant her amnesty, allowing her to retire with all her loot to live out the rest of her days running a gambling house until the ripe old age of 69.
Ching Shih has been featured in the novel The Wake of Lorelei Lee, the eighth book of the Bloody Jack series (of which I have written about before), and had an appearance in At World’s End, the third Pirates of the Caribbean film as one of the nine pirate lords, as well as living on in many other pop culture allusions and references.
Lady Killigrew – There were actually two female pirates by the name of Killigrew within the same fifty year period, Lady Mary and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth. Many texts have confused the two for years, so untangling their exploits is nigh impossible. Mary’s husband was a former pirate, whom Queen Elizabeth I tasked with supressing piracy against England. Mary took advantage of the circumstances and engaged in piratical acts along with her husband, often appropriating cargo and selling it to finance their lifestyle. She made the mistake of capturing a ship whose owner was close to the Queen and was arrested. Elizabeth was also arrested for a similar crime; one of them was sentenced to death but pardoned by the Queen, while the other may have been acquitted through jury tampering.
Jacquotte Delahaye – When Jacquotte’s father was murdered, she was the only one left to care for her autistic brother. Desperate, she turned to piracy when she was barely a teenager. The French and Haitian girl with fiery hair must have done well; the story goes that she faked her death when the authorities began closing in on her. She continued disguised as a male pirate for several years. When she finally resurfaced, she earned the nickname Back from the Dead Red. It is believed she sailed alongside Anne Dieu-Le-Veut.
Anne-Dieu-Le-Veut – Along with Jacquotte, Anne was one of the few female pirates that actually operated during the Golden Age of Piracy. Hailing from France, Anne was deported to Tortuga for unknown crimes. She married into piracy, finding the work to her liking. Her first buccaneer husband was killed in a bar fight. Legend says she challenged his murderer, Laurens de Graaf, to an avenging duel; her attitude impressed him and they married. Other sources say he agreed to marry her after she threatened to shoot him in response to an insult. Regardless, she shared command with Laurens aboard the ship, and took over as Captain when he died. Unlike Anne Bonny or Mary Read, she did not adopt a masculine disguise.
Grace O’Malley – Known as “The Sea Queen of Connacht,” Grace O’Malley was an infamous Irish pirate of the 16th century. She has since been mythologized as Granuaile. The daughter of a sea merchant (who also happened to be the chief of Clan O’Malley), Grace spent much of her childhood on the ocean and inherited her father’s shipping and trading business as an adult. Legend says that her father initially told her that the sea was no place for a woman. In response she dressed as a boy and chopped off all her hair to prove to him that she was prepared handle what was conventionally a man’s role.
Her father had enacted a tax on fishermen and traders who used his waters. Grace continued this tradition, though she expanded the area and took her due by force when she thought it was necessary, until it was less taxation and more piracy.
According to legend, immediately after giving birth to her son Tibbot at sea, her ship was attacked and she jumped right into the fray. Even in her old age, she held her own, capturing a warship of the Spanish armada at age fifty. She also achieved a personal audience with Queen Elizabeth of England to discuss the English governor of her area, Richard Bingham, who had taken her sons and half-brother captive. This meeting of the Pirate Queen and the Queen of England was an exemplar of female power at a time in history that was generally not kind to women.
Although her meeting with the Queen initially seemed to be successful, Elizabeth soon went back on their agreement and Grace took to aiding the Irish in the Nine Years’ War against the British and most likely died in battle.
Grace O’Malley lives on as both a symbol of Ireland and of international feminism for her strength and independence. She has become the subject of many a folk song, and has been featured in works of literature such as Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and The Summer King, the second installment of The Chronicles of Faerie by O.R. Melling.