Sayyida al-Hurra: Noble ‘Sovereign Lady’ Who Terrorized the Mediterranean As A Pirate

Sayyida al-Hurra: Noble ‘Sovereign Lady’ Who Terrorized the Mediterranean As A Pirate

Sayyida al-Hurra was a notorious female pirate who lived between the 15 th and 16 th centuries. She was active in the western part of Mediterranean, and frequently targeted the ships of Portuguese and Spanish traders. In addition to being a pirate, Sayyida al-Hurra was the governor of Tetouan, and eventually married the Sultan of Morocco . Although she was hated by her European enemies, her fall from power was not caused by external forces, but from internal ones, as she was overthrown by her son-in-law.

Sayyida al-Hurra – Sovereign Lady

Most of the information regarding Sayyida al-Hurra comes from Christian, in particular Portuguese and Spanish, records. It is from these sources that we find the name Sayyida al-Hurra, which in fact is a title that translates to mean ‘Sovereign Lady’. Few of those writing about her were aware of this and assumed that this was her actual name. As a result, her real name has been lost to history, though it is assumed that it was Aisha.

In any case, Sayyida al-Hurra was born around 1485 in the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula . Her father was Moulay Ali ibn Rashid, a tribal chief, while her mother was Zohra Fernandez, a Christian who converted to Islam. The family belonged to a noble clan known as the Rashids, who trace their ancestry all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad via Idris I, who founded the Idrisid Dynasty in Morocco during the late 8 th century.

Portrait of Sayyida al-Hurra of Tetouan. (Victorcouto / )

In 1492, Granada fell to the forces of the Reconquista and many Muslims fled south into North Africa. Among them were Sayyida al-Hurra and her family, who eventually settled in Chefchaouen or Chaouen. As the child of a nobleman, Sayyida al-Hurra was provided with an excellent education, being tutored in such subjects as mathematics, theology, and languages. Later on, Sayyida al-Hurra married Abu Hassan al-Mandari, who was 30 years older than her. Some sources say that she married him when she was 16, while others state that she was 25 years old when the marriage took place.

Like Sayyida al-Hurra and her family, al-Mandari was also a refugee who had fled from Spain. He was the head of another noble clan and his marriage to Sayyida al-Hurra had been arranged many years before. al-Mandari had settled in the city of Tetouan and had become its governor. Sayyida al-Hurra was treated as an equal by her husband and helped him in the administration of the city. When al-Mandari died, sometime between 1515 and 1519, Sayyida al Hurra became the sole governor of Tetouan.

Sayyida al-Hurra Becomes a Pirate

At some point of time, Sayyida al-Hurra became a pirate. Some have speculated that Sayyida al-Hurra never forgot the fall of Granada , and vowed to avenge this loss, as well as to retake Andalusia from the Christians. Although she was not able to take the Spanish and Portuguese head-on, she was able to wreak havoc on their sea trade via piracy, which was exactly what she did.

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Painting depicting Sayyida al-Hurra’s family moments after the fall of Granada. (Macucal / )

Therefore, she formed an alliance with the infamous pirate Oruç Reis , who was known as Barbarossa in the West. While Barbarossa terrorized the eastern part of the Mediterranean, Sayyida al-Hurra was active in the west and frequently targeted Portuguese and Spanish merchant ships . These ships would be raided and their crews taken captive . The Portuguese and Spanish were then forced to negotiate with Sayyida al-Hurra for their release and large sums of money were paid to her.

Sayyida al-Hurra Gains Wealth and Power

The wealth accumulated by Sayyida al-Hurra, as well as the power she wielded, made her a force to be reckoned with in North Africa . This was realized by Ahmed al-Wattasi, the Sultan of Morocco, who proposed to marry her so as to form an alliance. Sayyida al-Hurra agreed to this, on the condition that the sultan travel to Tetouan to marry her. This was unprecedented, as it was always the woman who had to travel to her future husband’s city for the marriage. The sultan agreed to this, and after the marriage, the two lived in their own separate capitals, evidence that the marriage was purely for political purposes .

Portrait of Ahmed al-Wattasi, the Sultan of Morocco, whom Sayyida al-Hurra married to form an alliance. (Victorcouto / )

Sayyida al-Hura’s fortunes did not last forever. In 1542, the Moroccans were in open war with Portugal. Taking advantage of the chaos, Ahmed al-Hassan al-Mandari, Sayyida al-Hura’s son-in-law (as well as a relative of her first husband), formed alliances with the enemies of Ahmed al-Wattasi and succeeded in overthrowing his mother-in-law. Sayyida al-Hura disappears from history after that, but it is thought that she returned to Chefchaouen and died there 20 years later.
Sayyida al-Hurra is still remembered in Morocco today, and in 2016, there were plans to produce a historical drama based on her life.

Sayyida al-Hurra: Noble ‘Sovereign Lady’ Who Terrorized the Mediterranean As A Pirate - History

Welcome back to my blog series about the lady pirates of history and legend. If you’re just now tuning in, check out my previous blogs on Alfhild the Viking Princess, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Grace O’Malley, and Jeanne de Belleville. If you’re all caught up and ready to learn more, sit back and let me tell you about my girl, Sayyida al-Hurra.

The name we know her by isn’t the one her parents gave her. It’s actually a title that translates to “noble lady who is free and independent the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” [1] So even though her real name was lost to history, the one she is remembered by is basically the equivalent of a mic drop.

Sayyida was born around 1485 to the wealthy, powerful Banu Rashid family.[2] That may sound like a cushy beginning, but context is key. For nearly 800 years prior to her birth, Christian kingdoms had been striving to seize the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control in a series of campaigns known as the Reconquista.[3] Granada, the Banu Rashid family’s homeland, was the last Muslim-controlled kingdom left standing in the end.[4] It fell to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. Sayyida’s family fled to northern Africa, and she was raised in exile in the city of Chaouen.[5]

An impressive, well-educated young woman who spoke three languages—Arabic, Castilian Spanish, and Portuguese[6]—Sayyida was married at the age of 16 to a man 30 years her senior, Abu al-Hasan al-Mandri, who ruled the city of Tétouan.[7] That may not sound ideal, but it was actually a favorable match for Sayyida. Her husband respected and relied on her advice, valuing her skill with languages, her knowledge of economics, and her trading connections.[8] And he was not simply looking to use her talents for his own benefit. Tétouan had been destroyed by Castilians in 1400.[9] Sayyida’s husband hoped to restore it to its former glory. Together, he and Sayyida sought permission to rebuild and resettle the city from Abu al-Abbas-Amhad ibn Muhammad of the Wattasid dynasty, who was the sultan of Morocco. With the sultan’s consent, they turned Tétouan into a city of marvels, with a Great Mosque and mazelike streets constructed to confuse invaders.[10]

Upon her husband’s death in 1515, Sayyida became the sole ruler of Tétouan. At first, she was merely recognized as a prefect, but she later became its governor. That is when she was given the title of “al-Hurra,” or “free and independent woman.”[11] This title denoted a woman who was the sovereign of a state.[12] Some sources indicate that she was the last Islamic woman to receive it.

During her reign, Sayyida found a way to both promote the prosperity of Tétouan and settle some old scores. She had not forgotten that the Spanish had driven her family from their homeland.[13] With this in mind, she reached out to the famed Barbary corsair, Barbarossa, for advice on piracy.[14] Not only did he indulge her interest, but he was ultimately so impressed by her that they formed a pact—she would rule the western half of the Mediterranean, while Barbarossa would control the east.[15] In their respective territories, they raided, looted, and harassed Spanish and Portuguese ships.[16]

Sayyida became the “undisputed leader of the pirates in the western Mediterranean”[17] and was acknowledged as a powerful naval rival by the Spanish and the Portuguese.[18] She was the one they contacted to negotiate the release of hostages or to seek trade.[19] She organized successful raids, such as a lucrative raid on Gibraltar in 1540, and funneled the proceeds back into Tétouan, which thrived under her rule.[20] During that time, she also served as a protector.[21] Morocco did not have a navy, so Sayyida’s pirates defended the coast. Furthermore, she used her power to help Andalusian refugees find safety in Morocco. She ruled over the Mediterranean for twenty years.

You might say that she was so fierce that she was the Beyoncé of pirates.

In 1541, her hand was sought by the sultan of Morocco, the very man she and her first husband had come to as supplicants so many years ago.[22] He wooed her from his capital in Fez, and while she ultimately agreed to marry him, she refused to leave Tétouan to do so. Instead, he made the trek to Tétouan to marry her, marking the first and only time in Moroccan history that a sultan has ever married outside of the capital.[23] After their marriage, Sayyida remained in and continued to govern Tétouan.[24]

In 1542, after thirty years as the ruler of Tétouan, Sayyida was deposed by what is reported in some sources as a stepson, and in others, a son-in-law.[25] What became of her after that, no one seems to know. One source suggests that she managed to make her way back to Chaouen and live for twenty more years in peace.[26] That’s the version story I prefer to believe. After all, if anyone earned a nice cushy retirement, it was Sayyida al-Hurra.

That’s it for today’s pirate adventure. For further reading about Sayyida al-Hurra, check out this article. For more pirate ladies in general, keep an eye on this blog or my Twitter account. And if you enjoy stories about daring lady adventurers, check out “Gretel” when it’s released on May 1, 2018. A reimagining of “Hansel and Gretel,” it follows a former pirate who braves a demon-filled forest to save her missing daughter from a trio of child-eating witches.

[1] Engel, KeriLynn. “Sayyida Al Hurra, Islamic Pirate Queen – Amazing Women in History.” Amazing Women In History. N.p., 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “Engel.”)

[2] Duncombe, Laura Sook. Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2017. Print. p. 60. (Hereinafter “Duncombe.”).

[3] “Reconquista | Iberian History.” Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., 2018. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at:

[6] “Sayyida Al Hurra C. 1493-After 1542” Sister-hood magazine. Fuuse, 2017. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “Sayyida Al Hurra c. 1493-After 1542”).

[7] “Lady Pirates: Queen of the Barbary Corsairs.” Pauline’s Pirates & Privateers. N.p., 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “Queen of the Barbary Corsairs”) Duncombe at 60. “Kickass Women in History: Sayyida Al Hurra.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “Kickass Women in History”).

[8] Carstairs, Irene. “Damn, Girl-Sayyida Al-Hurra.” N.p., 2018. Web. 19 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “Carstairs”).

[13] “Sayyida Al Hurra – Adventures of the Pirate Queen of the Islamic West.” N.p., 2018. Web. 18 Mar. 2018. Available at: (Hereinafter “The Way of the Pirates”) Duncombe at 61.

[17] Mernissi, Fatima, and Mary Jo Lakeland. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

The Dope-Ass History Of Lady Pirates

While Halloween costume fads come and go based on what makes the news and the box office each year, the pirate remains a perennial favorite, especially after the blockbuster success of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. In fact, among over-35s who’ll rock the party this year, the pirate costume is the most popular after the witch, says the National Retail Federation.

I bet you Rosie O’Donnell’s got a mean left hook. | Nick Elgar/Getty

With its frills and sashes, the androgynous getup is pleasingly non-gender specific. (As we’ll see, this is actually kind of historically accurate.) This year, if you plan to dress as a lady pirate, we’ve got some options for you, along with a wicked dose of feminist pirate history. Yar! Avast, matey! And away we go…

Sayyida al-Hurra

The governor of the Moroccan city of Tétouan on the northern tip of Africa, Sayyida al-Hurra (c. 1492–1552) is often included in lists of lady pirates, but historians aren’t sure if that’s accurate. Her name means “noble lady,” and has referred to many other prominent women in the Muslim world.

What we do know is that Moroccans back then were viciously fighting off the Portuguese, who had strangled their ancient trade routes and sacked and occupied their cities. That resistance included the use of Andalusian privateers, who raided Portuguese shipping lanes in the Western Mediterranean. Al-Hurra may well have approved of these tactics.

Sayyida al-Hurra rocks a cape and sword in a modern portrait. | Victorcouto/PD

Tétouan was the only port in Morocco outside of Portuguese control, possibly because al-Hurra made Ottoman Turkish corsairs, or pirates, welcome there. All this probably explains why she’s been called a Pirate Queen. In any case, as a noblewoman, it’s a safe bet the girl could dress.

To channel al-Hurra this All Hallow’s Eve, we suggest long, flowing robes, a jeweled headband and, of course, a sword.

Anne Bonny & Mary Read

Most of our sartorial ideas about pirates come from the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1650 to 1725 in the Americas. It was the time of Blackbeard and “Calico” Jack Rackam (fashionably depicted by Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean”) who created the skull and crossbones flag, the Jolly Roger.

Charles Johnson writes of two female pirates from this time. Historians aren’t sure his accounts are accurate, but their lives—whether totally factual or embellished—make for some thrilling storytelling.

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland in 1700 and moved to Charleston, South Carolina as a young girl. A definite libertine, Anne became enchanted with a pirate named James Bonny, enraging her father, who wanted her to marry a nice medical student. (Typical!) Anne and John eloped to Nassau in the Bahamas, a haven for some 1,500 pirates. Then John tired of the piratical life. A bored Anne haunted local bars, where she met the flamboyant Calico Jack Rackam. She eloped again, and embarked upon a life of piracy, disguised as a man.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read depicted in über-functional “seafaring slops,” circa 1724. | Hulton Archive/Getty

Eventually Anne, whom Johnson delicately described as “not altogether so reserved in Point of Chastity,” became enchanted with a young sailor on Jack’s crew and declared her love for him. To her surprise, the sailor revealed himself to be a woman!

The woman was Mary Read. When a super-jealous Jack threatened to slit her throat, she revealed her secret. Jack agreed to hide the truth of their gender from the crew.

This 1725 Dutch engraving depicts Anne and Mary as bare-breasted Amazons. | PD-US

Mary eventually fell in love with a Dutch sailor. When an argument broke out between him and a veteran pirate, a duel was called. Her lover not being much of a fighter, Mary knew he would lose, so she picked a fight with the old pirate herself. With her naval training and natural ferocity, she was able to kill the buccaneer and save her man. She decided to drop her disguise, since she’d proven herself in combat. Anne did, as well, and the two fought openly as women from that day forth.

Fed up with Calico Jack’s piracy, the governor of Jamaica sent a privateer to capture them in 1720. When the attack came, many of the pirates were passed out drunk on the deck, celebrating after looting a ship. Always “forward and Couragious,” Anne immediately skewered two privateers as they attempted to board. Infuriated to see Jack and other men scampering belowdecks to hide, she exclaimed,

“Dogs! If instead of these weaklings I only had some women with me…come up and fight like Men.”

A scornful Anne visits Rackam in prison before his execution. | Hulton Archive/Getty

Anne and Mary alone fought the privateers, but they were outnumbered. The whole crew was captured and stood trial.

Calico Jack was hanged the day after the trial. Visiting him beforehand, Anne told him, “If he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog.”

Mary died of fever in prison while lawyers reviewed her case.

Anne was spared because she was pregnant. She gave birth in prison, and historians don’t know what happened to her after that.

If you’re dressing up as Anne or Mary, you have options! Go for the androgynous look of their early, disguised days, or the more relaxed look of their “out” period. And there’s a third option: the sexy, swashbuckling style in which artists of the day depicted the two in accounts of their exploits, sold to horny Dutch dudes.

Anne Mills

Another pirate who was clearly as tough as any man, Anne Mills disguised herself as a man and signed as a common sailor on the English frigate Maidstone around 1740, during the War of Austrian Succession, fighting against the French. Boy, did she hate the French. After defeating one enemy in hand-to-hand combat, she “cut off the head of her opponent, as a trophy of victory.” That’s how history will remember her, though she doesn’t really look like she’s attempting a disguise in this famous engraving of her, which shows her wearing a man’s tunic — over a skirt. Oh, well, it’s the severed head that’s really the focal point of this costume choice, anyway.

Anne Mills is portrayed wearing a mashup of men’s and women’s clothing in this 1740 engraving. | Rischgitz/Getty

Ching Shih

A vast fleet of 1,800 ships and 65,000 pirates terrorized China’s sea and rivers under the command of buccaneer king Ching I and his wife, Ching Shih. Madame Ching had been instrumental in building this fleet: In China female pirates fought alongside the men and even commanded ships. When Ching I died in 1807, his widow took command of the fleet, eventually expanding it to 2,000 boats. It was the largest pirate fleet of any pirate — male or female — in history. Madame Ching enforced a strict code of conduct among her crews, forbidding pirates from taking from the communal loot pile, torturing captured women and children—or committing rape.

“No pirate may take a woman without her consent, nor wed her without permission of his chief officer. To do so means instant death.”

Ching Shih appears dressed as a woman in a book on pirates, 1836. | PD–US

The Chinese imperial navy tried to eradicate Madame Ching’s fleet, but had so little success, they eventually granted her a pardon around 1810, even giving her pirates farmland to settle.

It’s unclear what became of Madame Ching. Some say she ran a gambling house or became a smuggler — or married a governor and became a fine lady. Madame Ching is revered by the Chinese as the most successful pirate ever.

It’s unclear exactly what clothes she wore, but she’s shown dressed as a woman in both Chinese and European accounts. Given that women fought alongside men, trick-or-treating as Madame Ching gives you the opportunity to go full-on femme with your costume.

So if you’re planning to go as a lady pirate this Halloween, arm yourself with sword, hook — and a bit of history.

Kickass Women in History: Sayyida al Hurra

Sayyida al Hurra never stopped resenting Spain for overthrowing the Muslims in Granada. She teamed up with the Turkish pirate Barbarossa. His pirate fleet harassed the Spanish and Portuguese in the Eastern Mediterranean and her fleet took over the Western Mediterranean. Anyone who wanted to negotiate regarding prisoners had to deal with her, and she was respected as a leader by the Spanish Christians. She was popular with her own people, who enjoyed the wealth Sayyida’s pirates brought to the area.

Sayidda al Hurra ruled for thirty years. In 1542, her son-in-law overthrew her. We know that he took away her property and titles, but we don’t know what happened to her after that or when or how she died.

Below is one of my sources – a short but incredibly informative video. Enjoy!

Other sources (other than those linked above) included:

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‘scuse me while I go share this with all my Muslim women friends. Most of them will cheer. A couple who have been fed the “women are weak” line will be inspired.

How have there been no books featuring her as heroine? This is vintage Bertrice Small material!

Anyone interested more kickass Muslim women of history needs to look up Noor Inayat Khan, who worked as a British radio operator for the French Resistance in WWII.

Just a few pedantic academic footnotes: modern Hispanists tend to avoid the term “Reconquista” unless used with heavy quotation marks, because the idea that it was a “re” conquest instead of a straight-up conquest is very much a propaganda invention after the fact. The Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, had unquestionably imperial ambitions, and while they cast the conquest of Granada as a Muslim/Christian religious conflict, after taking over Granada in 1492 they also annexed the northern (Christian) kingdom of Navarre in 1497, and fought to hold onto Sicily and Naples, which were also Christian. (In spite of their nickname the “Catholic” monarchs, they also had no problem being in conflict with various popes.)

So because language matters, I’d also say that Sayyida al Hurra was not “born” in Granada. She was FROM Granada, which is to say that she would have called herself Andalusi, or Granadina, or possibly Spanish, in the sense of the Roman province of Hispania. Granada was a relatively young city when she was born, about the same age as Boston is now (or about 100 years younger than Santo Domingo), so if anyone of European, African or Asian descent can meaningfully claim to be “from” pretty much anywhere in the Americas or Australia, then Sayyida al Hurra was from Spain. It’s somewhat tragic that she never regained her homeland, but rather than piracy I’d say she waged an unsuccessful military campaign, so “pirate queen” is a bit of a cutesy nickname. The Spanish regularly refer to Francis Drake and John Hawkins as “pirates” but Elizabeth I of England is very seldom called a “pirate queen.”

Thank you, Rebecca! The details of language are so important in the way we frame and understand history.

Black Caesar: African Chief Turned Raider

Black Caesar and his friend, the sailor, turn to a life of piracy. ( Noah Scalin / CC BY-SA 2.0)

While black pirates were not unusual, many of their names have been lost to history. One remembered to this day is Black Caesar (West African, . – 1718 AD), a legendary 18th-century AD African pirate . Originally from West Africa, Black Caesar was captured and sold into slavery. It is thought he may have been a chief. He is said to have been tall, strong, and intelligent. The ship he was imprisoned in sank off the coast of Florida, but he survived and began his career in piracy. He and his crew would pose as shipwrecked sailors and hail passing vessels for help. Once they were on board a ship, they would drop their disguise, rob the ship, and take the loot back to their hideout. In a disagreement about a woman, his partner and he had a duel, which Black Caesar won, killing his friend. Most sources claim that Black Caesar eventually joined the crew of another infamous pirate, Blackbeard. Eventually, Black Caesar’s reign of terror came to an end in 1718 AD, when he was convicted for piracy and hanged.

7 female pirates you might not know about

Names like Blackbeard and The Barbarossa Brothers may ring a bell. They conjure visions of a billowing Jolly Rogers flag, bands of thieving pirates, and of poor souls walking the plank to their watery graves. But you probably also picture only men. Contrary to popular belief, female pirates have also sailed the high seas, from the very beginning of piracy’s existence.

These swashbuckling female pirates left their mark on history. They defied odds when women weren’t even permitted on ships, commanded crews, and carried out some of the wildest heists in history.

1.Ching Shih

Madame Ching, also known as Cheng I Sao, was a pirate who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded over 300 ships, and 40,000 pirates, including men, women, and even children. Skirmishes with the British Empire, Portuguese Empire and the Qing dynasty were common during her reign.

But Madame Ching wasn’t always a successful pirate. She was born in 1775 and is believed to have worked in a brothel until she was in her late teens. Then in 1801, she met Cheng I, a notorious pirate with whom she fell in love. They were married and adopted a son, Cheung Po, who was being taught the ways of piracy by Cheng I. Allying with Madame Ching allowed Cheng to access the alliance and powers of the mainland underworld. Madame Ching, a cunning woman, only allowed his access on the condition that she have equal control and share of their fortune.

Six years after the two were married, Cheng died. Madame Ching took advantage of the opening. She was one of the few female pirates who was fully accepted by an entirely male crew, being adopted wholeheartedly by Cheng I’s crew. Madame Ching rose to become one of China’s most notorious pirates. Once she was in charge, Madame Ching also instituted a code of law for her pirates unlike any seen before. They included prohibition from stealing from friendly villagers, beheading for any rapes, and more.

By the time Madame Ching died in 1844, she held numerous coastal villages under her control, levying taxes and protecting towns from other pirates.

2. Anne Bonny

Despite Anne Bonny’s historic reputation, very little is known about her life. We know she was an Irish pirate who spent most of her life in the Caribbean. She’s thought to have been born somewhere near Cork, Ireland in the late 1600s or early 1700s. She and her father moved to London after a fight with his wife—who was not Anne’s mother. He began dressing her as a boy around that time. They later moved to Carolina, then Nassau in the Bahamas.

There, Anne met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a well-known pirate captain. The two quickly became secret lovers, although Anne had already married James Bonny. She was brought on board his ship in her old male disguise.

She took equal part in combat alongside the men, becoming well-liked amongst the crew. Together, they plundered the waters surrounding Jamaica. However, in 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a patrolling ship commissioned by the Governor of Jamaica. Most were taken off guard and too drunk to fight, but Bonny and a female crewmate (and rumored lover), Mary Read, held off the assailants for at least a short while.

Eventually, the entire crew was taken, convicted and hanged. Both Read and Bonny were able to gain a stay of execution due to their “delicate conditions” (read: pregnancies). However, Read died in prison, most likely during childbirth or from its aftereffects. Bonny gave birth in prison, then was released. Her fate after this is unknown. Some believe she actually died in prison, others that she escaped and returned to a life of piracy.

3. Grace O’Malley

Grace O’Malley has become a legendary figure in Irish folklore despite her very real roots—she was even an inspiration for Anne Bonny to take up piracy. From a young age, O’Malley longed to follow in her father’s footsteps as a privateer on the seas. She once asked her father if she could join him on a trading venture to Spain. She was promptly rejected: Her father said her hair was too long and would get caught in the ship’s ropes. In response, O’Malley chopped off her hair.

With this proof of her seriousness, her father backed down, and she joined him on his next journey to Spain. Upon his death, she took control of the family’s land and sea despite having a brother. She paraded up and down the coastline thieving and bringing her findings back to her family’s coastal stronghold.

Her marriage to Donal an Chogaidh brought her even greater wealth and power. She had three children, including a daughter who took after her mother. When an Chogiaidh was murdered in an attack on his lands, O’Malley was ready to seek vengeance. She launched an attack on Doona castle, whose owners were thought to be responsible. The ferocity of this attack left her with a lasting nickname: the Dark Lady of Doona.

Later in life, O’Malley had an ongoing battle with Sir Richard Bingham, an English officer who was responsible for the Tudor conquest of England. Irish nobles like O’Malley were unwilling to give up their freedom of rule and fought viciously against the Tudor monarchy. After her sons were captured during a battle, O’Malley decided to visit the Tudor court to plead for their freedom.

She and Queen Elizabeth spoke in Latin, their common language (Elizabeth spoke no Irish, O’Malley no English). O’Malley refused to bow to the queen, as doing so would recognize her rights as the Queen of Ireland. The court was scandalized by O’Malley’s behavior, including blowing her nose in front of the queen. Their meeting resolved in O’Malley’s sons’ freedom and the removal of Bingham from Ireland. O’Malley continued to support the Irish insurgency by sea and land until her death in (approximately) 1603.

Beloved by Irish nationalists, O’Malley was renamed Gráinne Mhaol after her death and held up as a symbol of Irish indepence.

4. Sadie Farrell

Though there is some speculation about whether she actually existed, Sadie Farrell, also called Sadie the Goat, was an American criminal, gang leader, and river pirate who operated primarily in and around Manhattan. Her nickname emerges from how she would attack her victims on land: ramming headfirst into her target’s gut while a nearby acquaintance readied their slingshot.

When she tired of thieving on land, Sadie traveled to the waterfront in West Side Manhattan. It was here that she witnessed a failed attempt by the Charlton Street Gang to board a small riverboat and rob it. She offered up her services to the group and soon became their leader. Within days, she’d organized a highly successful theft which ignited her career as a pirate.

She and the Charlton Street Gang would soon be seen sailing up and down the Hudson and Harlem Rivers raiding small villages with a Jolly Roger flying from their sloop’s masthead. She was notorious for kidnapping men, women and children for ransom and is said to have made countless men walk the plank. Within a few months, people began anticipating the gang’s raids and what successes they had became smaller. Eventually, the gang returned to the Bowery for the more consistent life offered there.

5. Jeanne de Clisson

This Breton pirate sailed the English Channel during the 1300s, and in these years earned the title Lioness of Brittany. Born in 1300, de Clisson was married first at 12. She had two children during her first marriage. Her husband, despite being only seven years older than her, died in 1326. Jeanne remarried twice after this. Her third and final marriage was rather unusual for the time—it seemed to be a love match. She and Oliver de Clisson had five children together, one of whom may have been born before they were actually married.

Her path to piracy began during the Breton War of Succession. For most of the fight, she sided with the French. That is, until her husband was lured onto French soil under the guise of achieving some kind of peace deal. He and his companions were captured, with their peers alleging that they had committed treason with the British. They were all tried and beheaded.

As revenge, de Clisson raised a force of loyal men and started attacking French forces in Brittany. With the English king’s help, she decorated three warships completely in black and, so the tale goes, wrote “My Revenge” across the vessels. It was on these ships that she patrolled the English Channel, hunting down and destroying French ships for 13 years before calling it quits. Jeanne seemingly decided that she had achieved sufficient vengeance out of nowhere and simply stopped wreaking terror upon the high seas. She died in a small port town on the Brittany coast in 1359.

6. Sayyida al Hurra

Though Sayyida al Hurra never sailed much, if at all, she was regarded as a queen of the pirates in the Mediterranean. Between 1515 and 1542, she was both the actual Queen of Tétouan in northern Morocco and a pirate queen. She controlled the western Mediterranean Sea and was well-respected throughout the Mediterranean for her ability to rule on her own terms and to resist occupation when her power was threatened. In fact, her name means “noble lady who is free and independent the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”

She was born into a family of power in 1485, and quickly rose in ranks, marrying Tétouan’s ruler in her teens. When he died, she became ruler in her own right, at about 30. Not long after, the King of Fez, another Moroccan city, sought Sayyida’s hand. They were married, and Sayyida began realizing how piracy could revitalize her city after invading Christian forces devastated it.

By 1523, Sayyida was running the Mediterranean Sea. Her pirates stalked Portuguese shipping routes, stealing goods and money for the benefit of Tétouan. Although it’s possible that Sayyida was never actually on board any of her ships, her strategy and skill were able to create the opportunities that her people needed to rebuild Sayyida’s most beloved city.

7. Charlotte de Berry

De Berry is another possibly mythic female pirate. Stories of her life only appear in writing two centuries after her supposed death. Despite this, many believe that Charlotte de Berry did in fact exist and did take to the seas.

Born in the mid-1600s, de Berry grew up in England. In her late teens, de Berry fell in love with a sailor, married him, and started on her journey to piracy. Disguised as a man, she joined her husband onboard and fought valiantly alongside her crew. After one of the ship’s crew discovered that de Berry was a woman, her husband was killed. De Berry barely managed to escape, shedding her sailor garb and posing as a woman working on the docks.

While she was working on the docks, a captain kidnapped de Berry and forced her to marry him. He was brutal to de Berry. In order to escape him, she convinced the crew to betray their captain. De Berry decapitated him before the crew, and took his role as captain of the ship.

For many years following, she sailed the seas, attacking ships and stealing their treasures. She fell in love with a Spaniard, and invited him to join her crew. Shortly after they were shipwrecked. Most of the crew perished, including de Berry’s lover. The survivors were rescued by a Dutch ship, but de Berry jumped into the ocean rather than leave her lover behind. Her fate after this is unknown.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

9 Female Pirates You Should Know About

When you think of pirates, you're likely picturing bearded buccaneers or peg-legged scalawags with names like Blackbeard, Barbarossa, and Calico Jack. While most pirates were men, there were women in these ranks of raiders who were just as merciless, notorious, and feared. Spanning the globe and centuries, we introduce you to the infamous she-pirates of the seven seas.

1. Anne Bonny

Born Anne Cormac in 1698, this Irish lass with luscious red locks and a dangerous temper became an icon of The Golden Age of Piracy (1650s-1730s) after marrying small-time pirate James Bonny. Anne's respectable father disowned her over the marriage, so she and her new husband moved to a portion of the Bahamas nicknamed the Pirates Republic, a sanctuary of sorts for scalawags. But the Bonnys were not happily married for long.

They divorced, and she took up with Calico Jack Rackham, first as his lover, then as his first mate of the ship Revenge. In October of 1720, she and the rest of Rackham's crew were captured despite Bonny and her bosom buddy Mary Read's valiant attempts to fight off the advancing English forces. Bonny blamed Rackham for their capture. Her last words to him in prison are recorded as, "Sorry to see you there, but if you'd fought like a man, you would not have been hang'd like a Dog."

He was hanged, but Bonny's pregnancy earned her a stay of execution. However, no historical record of her death sentence was found. Some speculate that her affluent father paid a handsome price to have her set free.

2. Mary Read

Best mate of Anne Bonny was Mary Read, an Englishwoman born the bastard of a sea captain's widow. While Bonny was said to wear clothes that identified her as female, Read had a long history of masquerading as male that dates back to her youth. Her mother would dress Read as her late older brother to wheedle money from the dead boy's paternal grandmother. Years later, she joined the British military as Mark Read. She found love with a Flemish soldier, but upon his untimely death Read headed to the West Indies. As fate would have it, her ship was taken by pirates, who pushed her to join their ranks.

Cross-dressing as a man, Read set sail with Anne Bonny and Calico Jack on the Revenge in 1720. Some stories suggest that only Bonny and Jack knew of Read's womanhood, and only because the latter grew jealous when the former flirted with "Mark." Later that year, a third in their crew would learn Read's secret, and she claimed him as her husband.

When the Revenge was captured by pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet, Read joined Bonny in "pleading the belly." But pregnancy from her unnamed husband would not save her. She died on April 28th 1721, from a violent fever in her prison cell. No record is made of the burial of a baby. Some suspect Read and the infant died during childbirth.

3. Sadie the goat

American pirate of the 19th century, Sadie Farrell earned her unusual nickname for her violent modus operandi. On the streets of New York City, Sadie won a reputation as a merciless mugger by head-butting her victims. It's said that Sadie was chased out of Manhattan when a fellow female tough, Gallus Mag, brawled with her, biting off Sadie's ear.

To flee the city, she wrangled a new gang to steal a sloop in the spring of 1869. With a Jolly Roger flapping above them, Sadie and her crew became pirates that swept the Hudson and Harlem Rivers for booty. She'd lead raids on the farmhouses and posh mansions that dotted the river's side, occasionally kidnapping folks for ransom. By the end of summer these raids became too risky as the farmers took to firing upon the sloop as it drew near. So, Sadie the Goat returned to the mainland, where she made peace with Gallus Mag, who returned to Sadie her lost ear which had been pickled for posterity.

Known now as "Queen of the Waterfront," Sadie took her dismembered ear and placed it in a locket, which she wore around her neck for the rest of her days.

4. Queen teuta of illyria

One the earliest recorded female pirates was actually a pirate queen. Once her husband Agron died in 231 BC, Teuta of Illyria became queen regent, as her stepson Pinnes was too young to rule. During her four years of reign over the Ardiaei tribe of what is now the Western Balkans, Teuta encouraged piracy as a means of fighting back against Illyria's domineering neighbors. This not only meant the plundering of Roman ships, but also the capturing of Dyrrachium and Phoenice. Her pirates spread out from the Adriatic Sea into the Ionian Sea, terrorizing the trade route of Greece and Italy. While Teuta's seafaring tribesman brought her kingdom great wealth and power, they also won her a great enemy.

Romans sent representatives to Teuta for a diplomatic meeting. She scoffed at their pleas, insisting that her tribe sees piracy as a part of lawful trade. From there diplomacy went out the window. It's unknown what the Roman reps said next. But one ambassador was killed, while the other was imprisoned. So began a war between Rome and Illyria that lasted from 229 BC to 227 BC, when Teuta was forced to surrender on terms that cut down her power and forced her tribe to pay annual tribute to Rome.

Though she continued to rail against Roman rule, she lost her throne. The rest of her life was lost to history.

5. Back From the Dead Red

Born the daughter of a Frenchman and a Haitian woman in 17th century, Jacquotte Delahaye stole untold fortunes and captured the imaginations of many seafaring storytellers. This buccaneer lost her mother to childbirth and her brother was mentally handicapped, and once her father was murdered Delahaye was left alone to care for him. Legend has it that piracy is how she managed to do just that.

Her nickname comes from the most popular aspect of her story, which claims this red-haired pirate faked her own death to escape the government forces that were closing in on her in the 1660s. From there, she took up a new identity, living for several years as a man. Finally, when the heat died down she resurfaced with her catchy new moniker Back From the Dead Red.

6. The Lioness Of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson's tale is one of tragedy, revenge and the showmanship. As the wife of Olivier III de Clisson, Jeanne was a happily married mother of five, and a lady of Brittany, France. But when land wars between England and France led to her husband being charged with treason and punished with decapitation, she swore revenge on the France's King Philip VI.

The widowed de Clisson sold all of her land to buy three warships, which she dubbed her Black Fleet. These were painted black, draped with blood red sails, and crewed with merciless privateers. From 1343-1356, the Lioness of Brittany sailed the English Channel, capturing the French King's ships, cutting down his crew, and beheading with an axe any aristocrat who had the misfortune to be onboard. Remarkably, despite all her theft and bloodshed, de Clisson retired quietly. She even remarried, settling down with English lieutenant Sir Walter Bentley.

Believed to have died in 1359, some say she has since returned to de Clisson Castle in Brittany, where her grey ghost walks the halls.

7. Anne Dieu-Le-Veut

Also from Brittany was this French woman, whose name translates to Anne God-Wants, a title said to speak to her tenacious nature. She came to the Caribbean island of Tortuga in the late 1660s or early 1670s. From there she suffered some rocky years that made her a widow twice over, as well as a mother of two. But as fate would have it, her second husband was killed by the man who'd become her third. Dieu-le-Veut insisted on a duel with Laurens de Graaf, to avenge her late mate. The Dutch buccaneer was so taken by her courage that he refused to fight her, and instead offered her his hand. They married on July 28th, 1693, and had two more children.

Dieu-le-Veut set sail with de Graaf, which was considered odd as many seamen considered women on ships bad luck. Yet Dieu-le-Veut and de Graaf's relationship has been compared to that of Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, in that they were inseparable partners who sneered at superstition. Like many pirates, their story is one that becomes fractured in its final chapter.

Dieu-le-Veut's legend has this brassy broad taking over as captain when de Graaf was struck down by a cannonball blast. Others suggest that the couple fled to Mississippi around 1698, where they may or may not have continued to pirate. And still other tales claim that Dieu-le-Veut's pugnacious spirit lived on in her daughter, who was said to raise eyebrows in Haiti by demanding a duel with a man.

8. Sayyida al Hurra

A contemporary and ally of the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, Sayyida al-Hurra was a pirate queen and was the last woman awarded the title of al Hurra (Queen), following the death of her husband who had ruled Tétouan, Morocco. In fact, her real name is unknown. Sayyida al Hurra is a title that translates to noble lady who is free and independent the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”

She ruled from 1515-1542, controlling the western Mediterranean Sea with her pirate fleet while Barbarossa roamed the eastern side. Al Hurra's inspiration to take to piracy came from a wish for revenge against the "Christian enemy" she felt had wronged her years before when Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ran her Muslim family out of Granada. She was a feared figure for the Spanish and Portuguese, whose historical records are peppered with paperwork involving reports about her exploits and ransoms.

At the height of her power, al-Hurra remarried to the king of Morocco, yet refused to give up her seat of power in Tétouan. But in 1542, she was given no choice when her son-in-law overthrew her. The Yemen Times weighs in on her final chapter, writing, "She was stripped of her property and power and her subsequent fate is unknown."

9. Ching Shih

One of the most feared pirates of all time was this menace of the China Sea. Born in humble beginnings as Shi Xiang Gu, she was working as a prostitute when pirates captured her. In 1801, she married the notorious Chinese pirate Zheng Yi (a.k.a. Cheng I), who came from a long line of fearsome thieves. Yi's Red Flag Fleet was immense, made up of 300 ships and somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 men. But all this was at risk of falling apart when he died on November 16th, 1807.

Gu became known as Ching Shih, which meant widow of Zheng. She was quick to seek the backing of her in-laws in her bid for leadership of the Red Flag Fleet. To help her maintain the day-to-day concerns of a sprawling pirate army, Ching Shih enlisted the help of Chang Pao, a fisherman's son who had been adopted by Yi. They proved a great team, and by 1810 the Red Fleet is said to have grown to 1800 sailing vessels and 80,000 crew members. To manage so many, Ching Shih essentially set up her own government to establish laws and even taxes. Yet she was no soft touch. Breaking her laws lead to decapitation. She was revered and feared as far away as Great Britain.

In 1810, Ching Shih and her fleet considered getting out of the piracy business when amnesty was offered. However, to get it a pirate must bend the knee before government officials. This was considered a sign of shameful surrender, but Ching Shih found a clever way to compromise. With Pao and 17 women and children in tow, she marched into the office of official Zhang Bai Ling, and asked that he marry her and her first mate. He did, and the newlyweds knelt to thank him. Ching Shih retired with her dignity and all her ill-gotten loot, which some have suggested makes her the most successful pirate of all time. She lived to the age of 69.

15 Amazing Women You May Not Know About

March is Women’s History Month, and there’s no shortage of important women to celebrate. From fierce warriors to beloved poets, political activists to fearsome pirates, women have certainly made their mark on history. To celebrate the many achievements of women, here are 15 amazing women you may not know about, but probably should.


Botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1766, the 26-year-old French woman boarded a ship disguised as a man named “Jean” and proceeded to sail around the world, collecting and studying plant samples with her paramour, the botanist Philibert Commercon. Her true gender was finally discovered somewhere in the South Pacific, and she and Commercon were kicked off the ship in Mauritius. Baret finally returned to France nearly a decade later, where she was lauded by the government as an “extraordinary woman” for her botanical work.


One the great poets of Ancient Greece, Anyte (3rd century BCE) was one of the earliest poets to write primarily about the natural world and not the supernatural, focusing on plants and animals instead of the gods. Anyte was famous for writing epitaphs, many of which were humorous in tone. In one, she satirized the seriousness of most human epitaphs by commemorating the life of a cicada kept as a pet by a little girl. She wrote, “Myro, a girl, letting fall a child's tears, raised this little tomb for the locust that sang in the seed-land and for the oak-dwelling cicada implacable Hades holds their double song.” More of Anyte’s works survive to this day than any other female Greek poet.


Sixteenth century Islamic pirate queen Sayyida Al Hurra was both the governor of the city of Tetouan in Northern Morocco and a legendary pirate who ruled much of the Western Mediterranean Sea, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese ships. Though her real name is unknown, the nickname “Sayyida Al Hurra” translates to “noble lady who is free and independent the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”


Seventeenth century playwright, novelist, poet, and government spy Aphra Behn may have been the first woman in England to earn her living as a professional writer. Though many men of her time vocally disapproved of female writers in general—and of the often risqué content of Behn’s writing specifically—Behn’s theatrical works were popular with audiences. Behn worked for most of her adult life as a writer, but took a brief break from the literary world from 1666 through 1667, and instead, worked as a spy for Charles II under the alias Astrea.


Born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers became known as one of the greatest Southern textile artists in United States history. Throughout her life Powers used intricate quilts to tell stories, stitching stunning and elaborate images from Bible stories, myths, and celestial phenomena while also drawing on West African artistic traditions. Only two of her quilts survive today one is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the other at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.


Sometimes called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Trieu Thi Trinh (3rd century BCE) was a warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders. Legend has it that she was nine feet tall and fought over 30 battles against the Chinese, sometimes riding an elephant. When someone tried to discourage her from fighting, she famously said, “I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse.”


British inventor Sarah Guppy received 10 patents during her lifetime for a truly eclectic range of inventions. From a coffee maker that used its excess steam to boil eggs and warm toast to a device for removing barnacles from the bottoms of ships (for which the British Navy paid £40,000), Guppy was an unstoppable force in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were 19th century orators and educators who travelled America lecturing on the horrors of slavery, and who penned numerous abolitionist tracts. They also spoke frequently on behalf of women’s rights, and were considered radical for arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but in support of genuine racial and gender equality.


Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret Knight went from working in a factory to inventing a product that would change the world—or, at least, the way we package groceries—forever: the paper bag. Knight created a machine that could mass-produce paper bags with flat bottoms (while earlier paper bags existed, they were more like flat envelopes). Her creation not only had a huge impact on the paper industry at the time, but machines based on Knight’s original design are still in use to this day.


Nineteenth century culinary expert Fannie Farmer is often called the “mother of level measurements.” Farmer, who was born in Boston in 1857, and whose cookbooks are still in print over a century after their initial publication, helped standardize the cooking measurements which we now take for granted.


Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a 16th century Indian poet who, despite the disapproval of her family, wrote numerous bhajans (prayerful songs) to the Hindu god Krishna. Mirabai was born into a wealthy family, but eschewed her aristocratic life, devoting herself fully to the worship of Krishna and the singing of bhajans.


One of the first internationally famous African American artists, Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 and studied art at Oberlin College before becoming a professional sculptor. She was known for her marble busts of famous abolitionists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Greeley, and her patrons included President Ulysses S. Grant.


A great Apache warrior, Lozen rebelled after she and her family were forced onto a reservation in the 1870s. Together with her brother Victorio, she led a band of warriors, raiding the lands that were taken from them by settlers. Victorio famously said of Lozen, “Lozen is my right hand . strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.”


Chinese feminist, revolutionary, poet, and eventual martyr, Qiu Jin fought for women’s access to education and against foot binding, founded a feminist journal, and fought against the Qing Dynasty before being executed in 1907 after a failed uprising. She often wrote poetry about current events and historical female warriors, and is considered a national hero by many in China.


British astronomer Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750 and spent her early years doing housework for her parents (she once called herself the “Cinderella of the family”). She later moved to England to help her astronomer brother run his household, and became a great astronomer in her own right. Not only was Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was the first woman to have her scientific writings published and to be paid for her work.

The Swashbuckling History of Women Pirates

It started with a simple question: where were all the women pirates? Laura Sook Duncombe loved Peter Pan as a child and gobbled up every book on piracy she could find. But as she read, she was forced to face the harrrrrrd truth: All of the women seemed relegated to mere footnotes and short paragraphs sprinkled throughout books about male pirates. This curiosity spurred a quest for answers—and led to her new book Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas.

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Few historical figures ensnare the imagination in the same way as pirates do. The rum, the talking parrots, the hats and cloaks and treasure—all make for dramatic, theatrical tales. But Duncombe’s book does more than revel in the mystery and infamy of lady pirates: It contextualizes them, providing history and background on the societies they came from. Whether it’s the Moroccan pirate queen Sayyida al-Hurra (who terrorized the Mediterranean during the mid-16th-century) or Queen Elizabeth I’s woman sea dog, Lady Mary Killigrew, Duncombe separates the myths from the facts and considers the charm of a little-understood group of women.

“I wanted something to point at as incontrovertible truth that women are as much a part of pirate history as men,” Duncombe says. talked to the author about the challenges, opportunities and surprises that came with writing about the often-overlooked women of the sea.

Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas

History has largely ignored these female swashbucklers, until now. From ancient Norse princess Alfhild to Sayyida al-Hurra of the Barbary corsairs, these women sailed beside–and sometimes in command of–male pirates. They came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a desire for freedom.

Early in the book you say that no one has discovered a first-person account of pirating written by a female pirate, and that the stories are a combination of myth and fact. What challenges and opportunities did that present in your research and writing?

I really wanted to be as transparent as possible. I come from a legal background, so telling the truth is important to me. Pretty early on in the research, I realized there was no way I could in good conscience say “All of this happened exactly as I reported.” When the best research you have is something that everybody knows is as much fiction as fact, I thought it was important to say so.

Whether or not these women lived as these stories were told, these stories have endured over the centuries. Why these stories are being told the way they are and why people care about these stories says a lot about our culture and the culture these stories come from. But anybody who tells you they have a completely factual account of pirates is trying to sell you something.

Did anything surprise you in the research process?

How many layers some of these stories went through was surprising to me. Viking women stories were passed down orally and not recorded until later by Christian missionaries. The bias [the missionaries] had for maintaining order in the church and the family meant they were presenting ideal gender roles that were beneficial to the time period. It’s just the experience of wondering what these stories may have been like before they went through so many revisions. You wonder about the original intent in all of these pirate stories.

Once I started looking, it was apparent how many people had their hands on these stories and how much of history is recorded in a similar fashion. Even [when you’re present for an event], everybody’s got an agenda, even the people who try to present history as unbiased as possible. I don’t think there’s a 100 percent objective nature unless you point a video camera at something and just walk away. But even then, where do you put the camera?

You include St. Augustine’s story about Alexander the Great capturing a pirate and berating him for molesting the seas, to which the pirate replies, “How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.” Can you talk about this idea of the sea as being a place owned by everyone and no one and why that might have been appealing to women?

Maritime law is still a separate branch of the law. Crimes committed on cruise ships are treated differently than crimes committed on terra firma. The idea of the sea being a place of opportunity unbounded by country is appealing. Countries who may have been allies up in Europe are now [on ships] in the Caribbean, and it’s a free for all. The shifting alliances led to an explosion of piracy because everybody was out for themselves. You don’t know where someone is from, you can fly a flag from a different country and pretend you’re someone you’re not. It’s a multinational masquerade ball.

For women this was appealing because they were able to more completely divest themselves of the repressive roles that they had been cast in in their own societies. They were able to make themselves anew. 

Anne Bonny was one famous female pirate in the Caribbean. (Wikimedia Commons) After her husband died, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus took over ruling parts of Asia Minor, which sometimes included pillaging by ship. (Gerard van Honthorst/Wikimedia Commons) The Viking pirate Ladgerda. (Wikimedia Commons)

Did women succeed in getting rid of those roles society had set for them?

Some women clearly did. You’ve got Cheng I Sao, who commanded a fleet larger than many of the legitimate fleets of her day. We have women who commanded male pirates and were astoundingly successful. This is where I bemoan the lack of primary sources: we don’t know how women felt when they were on the sea, with the wind in their hair. We don’t really know what their day-to-day life was like, if they found the peace and the freedom they were seeking.

But there’s something to the fact that we know women continued to do this over millennia. That siren song of the sea does continue to draw them to it and away from their home and their lives on the shore. Somehow women keep going to sea. It’s not a piece of cake to be a pirate, to be a sailor, but time after time after time, women weighed the pros and cons and did so.

Did women have to give up their femininity to be pirates?

Many of them dressed like women. They were not in disguise, so clearly they were able to maintain some semblance of outward femininity while aboard these ships. Grace O’Malley [an Irish pirate of the 16th century] gave birth to her youngest son on a pirate ship. I love this idea of, you’ve got a sword in one hand and you have a baby on your hip. Some of the pirates we’re told were very pretty, but we can only guess at how much they would’ve used their feminine wiles. A pretty face would not get you particularly far on a ship. I’m sure they had to keep up with the men because there’s not enough room on a ship for ornaments—but we only know about the ones who were caught. So there may have been scores of women who lived and died as men that we just don’t even know about.

You call Cheng I the most successful woman pirate of all time. Can you talk about her code of conduct and the way she surrendered, and how these things only amplified her success?

Lots of different pirates had codes of conduct that were observed on their ships. Cheng I is unique in her harshness of the penalties for the offenses and also the strict proscription of sexual activity, both consensual and nonconsensual, on- and off-board of the ship. [Raping female captives was punishable by death and even if captives had consensual sex they would still be killed.] There are some conflicting accounts of who actually wrote this code, whether or not it was her husband Chang Pao, but [the code] has been associated with her. It’s interesting when you think about women lawmakers, how men and women sometimes prioritize different things when they’re making the rules.

Her surrender is, to my knowledge, one of the only of its kind. She was the only one I can think of who was able to secure pensions for her crew. She was so terrifying that she basically forced the Chinese government to pay her to stop pirating.

She had to have been brilliant to do what she did. She married into a decent pirate operation but then expanded it beyond her late husband’s wildest dreams. I think her calculation [with the surrender] was, the government is expecting somebody coming to them with a phalanx of burly bodyguards armed to teeth. And she comes in with a bunch of ladies. That would’ve at the very least been very surprising and shifted the balance to power, and forced everyone to reconsider. She was incredibly successful in her negotiations, so it was a smart gambit.

You talk about pirates from the ancient Mediterranean all the way to modern times. Is there anything that unites all these women from different cultures and time periods?

They all had ships that were very different and methods that were very different. But I think they share the desire to control their own fates. And the desire for freedom from convention would unite all these women. Their hopes to escape the normal and be a part of something adventurous would tie all these women together. That’s part of what calls so many people to a love of piracy today. We share that desire for adventure. Not the desire for slitting throats and plundering the high seas, but one can empathize with the desire to have a say in how their lives go.

What do you want readers to come away from these stories with?

If someone comes away from this inspired to follow a path that they hadn’t felt bold enough to pursue before, I hope these women can be role models. Not in stealing, but going after your heart’s desire with everything you’ve got.

Do you have a favorite from all the women you wrote about?

I say different pirates all the time because I love them all so much. I love Ladgerda, the Viking pirate who said it was better to rule without her husband and murdered him after rescuing him. His fleet was in distress after he left her for another woman. She sailed in to save the day but had a knife in her skirt and stabs him and says, ok I’m in charge now. I just think she’s cheeky. 

Watch the video: LHL - Ep. 04 - Sayyida Al Hurra