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Female Pirates

Most pirates were men. One of the reasons for this is that it was traditionally believed to be bad luck to have a woman on board a pirate vessel. But there were pirate women, and when they hijacked a target ship, the incumbents no doubt cursed their bad luck in running into them.

Piracy attracted the fair sex for the same reasons as it did for men – the money, the adventure, and some to escape terrible situations at home.

This short paper looks at the lives and exploits of just a few female pirates. An excellent place to start is the Royal Museums Greenwich website[1]. Whilst the so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of piracy is generally thought to be 1650 to 1720, the fact is that throughout history, there have been dramatic tales of women sailing the oceans. There are accounts of female pirates dating back thousands of years.

Historically, women were not allowed to remain on ships once they had set sail. Old-fashioned sailor superstitions thought that women on merchant and military vessels were bad luck and could spell disaster at sea.

Seafaring professions were barred to women until the 20th Century. Yes, a woman could disguise herself as a man and adopt a false name, but her career would be over if discovered. It is only recently that women were allowed at sea within the British Royal Navy. In October 1990, during the Gulf War, the HMS Brilliant carried the first women officially to serve on a functioning warship. In 1998, Commander Samantha Moore became one of the first female officers to command a Royal Navy warship, HMS Dasher. 

Picture Credit: “File: Statue of Gráinne Mhaol in Westport House.jpg” by Bastun is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Here are some female pirates from history:

Grace O’Malley
Grace O’Malley (1530 – 1603) is one of the most famous pirates of all time and was active in the 16th century. She grew up in County Mayo, Connacht, a province in the West of Ireland. From the age of eleven, she forged a career in seafaring and piracy and was considered a fierce leader at sea and a shrewd politician on land.

Grace successfully defended the independence of her territories at a time when much of Ireland fell under English rule and is still considered today ‘the pirate queen of Ireland.’

Grace O’Malley (in her native Irish language Gráinne Ní Mháille, also known as Gráinne O’Malley), was the head of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland, and the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. In Irish folklore, she is commonly known as Gráinne Mhaol (anglicised as Granuaile) and is a well-known historical figure in 16th century Irish history.

O’Malley was educated in matters of maritime skills by her father. Upon his death, she took to the seas (even giving birth to her first child while aboard a vessel). O’Malley fortified important coastal defences as the English began occupying Ireland, and she supported Irish rebels. She even met with Queen Elizabeth I in September 1594 at Greenwich Castle, where they created a treaty in Latin. In 1546, Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the heir to the O’Flaherty clan. She became active in Irish politics and was taught about pirating by her husband. When her husband was murdered by a rival clan, she took back Donal’s castle after defeating the people who killed him[2].

Grace’s name was also rendered in contemporary English documents in various ways, including Gráinne O’Maly, Graney O’Mally, Granny ni Maille, Grany O’Mally, Grayn Ny Mayle, Grane ne Male, Grainy O’Maly, and Granee O’Maillie.

Gráinne Mhaol’s reputation is as an Irish pirate who lived in Ireland in the 16th century. She sailed from island to island along the west coast with her fleet of ships. She raided as she went, building up a significant hoard of wealth and earning her title as the Pirate Queen. She was also one of the last Irish leaders to defend against English rule in Ireland. To this day, Grace O’Malley is seen as a symbol of Ireland and an inspiration for many modern songs, theatre productions and books. Through these, her legend lives on.

Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny, née Anne Cormac, was born near Cork, Ireland but grew up in the early 1700s in Charles Towne (now Charleston), South Carolina, US), an Irish-American pirate whose brief period of marauding the Caribbean during the 18th century enshrined her in legend as one of the few to have defied the proscription against female pirates.

Picture Credit: “Anne Bonny, Firing Upon the Crew, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes” by Allen & Ginter is licensed under Creative Commons

Wikipedia[3] says it is recorded that Bonny had red hair and was considered a “good catch” but may have had a fiery temper; at age 13, she supposedly stabbed a servant girl with a knife. Her father had disowned her after she married small-time pirate James Bonny and they moved to the Bahamas – a sanctuary for pirates.

James eventually turned informant to the governor, turning in many former comrades. Anne spent time in the taverns with other pirates and fell in love with John “Calico Jack” Rackham, pirate captain of the REVENGE. Anne joined Calico Jack as part of his pirate crew became one of the most famous female pirates of all time. She and Calico Jack were active until they were captured in 1720 and sentenced in Jamaica to be hanged for piracy, although she probably evaded the noose as she was pregnant at the time.

Most of what is known of Bonny’s life comes from the volume A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724)[4], written by a Capt. Charles Johnson (thought by some scholars to be a pseudonym of English writer Daniel Defoe) and is considered highly speculative[5].

Mary Critchett
Mary Critchett was one of six convicts sent from England to Virginia to serve their time. Six prisoners – “Edmund Williams, George Caves, George Cole alias Sanders, Edward Edwards, Jeremiah Smith and Mary Critchett” – were transported from England to Virginia in late 1728 to work off their sentences. On 12th May 1729, they escaped and overpowered the two-man crew of the sloop John and Elizabeth. Critchett held the prisoners in the ship’s hold, sitting on the hatch to prevent their escape. They released the pair a few days later over Critchett’s objections, who feared the two would alert the authorities. The pirates sailed into Chesapeake Bay, but before they could raid any other ships, they were captured by HMS Shoreham under Captain Long. Returned to Virginia, they were tried in August 1729 in Williamsburg, convicted of piracy, and sentenced to hang.[6]

Rachel Wall
Rachel Wall was born about 1760 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Wall was born Rachel Schmidt to a family of devout Presbyterians.[7] She lived on a farm outside Carlisle but was not happy and spent most of her time at the waterfront. While at the waterfront, at age 16, she was attacked by a group of girls and rescued by a man named George Wall. They were later married, and she travelled with him to Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.

After disappearing for about ten years, George returned, and Rachel joined him as a pirate. After stealing a ship, they targeted vessels up and down the New Hampshire coast. Pretending they were in distress, Rachel would call nearby ships for help. When the helpers approached to render aid, they would be robbed and killed. But Rachel’s career as a pirate was short-lived, and she was hanged for piracy in the oldest public park in the United States, Boston Common, on 8th October 1789.[8]

Queen Teuta of Illyria
Teuta was the queen regent of the Ardiaei, a group of Illyrian tribes (based in modern-day Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia) who reigned approximately from 231 BC to 228/227 BC. After the death of her husband, King Agron of the Ardiaei, Teuta ruled in his stead. She was known for supporting the plunder and raids of her subjects on Roman and Greek ships and coastal settlements, which was not illegal in their eyes.

When asked to cease her hostile activities by two Roman ambassadors, Teuta is said to have replied: “it was never the custom of royalty to prevent the advantage of its subjects they could get from the sea.” The two envoys were later imprisoned and executed. Rome declared war on the Ardiaei in 229 BC which ended in her surrender two years later. Rome allowed her to continue ruling but announced that no warship should sail under her command.[9] 

Aethelflaed (c. 870 – 12 June 918) was known as “the Lady of the Mercians” and was the first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom (from 911AD until her death). Appearing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she became the military leader and chief strategist of the Anglo-Saxons after her husband’s death in battle with the Vikings in 911. She is recognised as playing a vital role in defeating the Viking raiders and reconquering English lands lost to Danish pirates.[10]

Æthelflæd was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his wife, Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born at the height of the Viking invasions of England.[11] 

Lady Mary Killigrew
Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew, was a gentlewoman from Suffolk who married into an ancient Cornish family. She was accused of piracy during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  She was known for her pirate activities along the Cornish coast. Mary was the daughter of Lord Phillip Wolverton, a former pirate. She later married Sir Henry Killigrew, a pirate who was later made a Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I.

Picture Credit: “Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew” by lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

While Henry was employed to uphold maritime law, some ex-pirates were engaged as “privateers,” sailing under the favour of the crown to amass illicit profits for England. Mary was known to be a champion of her husband’s criminal activities. She redesigned their home at Arwenak castle to hide stolen goods, cut deals with smugglers, and raid ships. It is thought that Queen Elizabeth I turned a blind eye to this and even pardoned her in later life.[12] 

Ching Shih[13]
Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih, was a Chinese pirate leader who was active in the South China Sea from 1801 to 1810. Born as Shi Yang in 1775 to humble origins, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi at age 26 in 1801.

Ching Shih (1775–1844) is known as the most successful pirate in history. Beginning life in a Cantonese brothel in the Chinese Empire, Shih later married Zheng Yi, commander of “The Red Fleet,” a fleet of pirate vessels that sailed under a red flag. Sao was an honorific bestowed upon her by the people of Guangdong, meaning ‘wife of Zheng Yi.[14]

On 16th November 1807, Zheng Yi fell overboard in a gale and died at the age of 42. Ching Shih quickly took over her deceased husband’s operations through the support of her late husband’s nephew, Zhang Bao. She effectively inherited her late husband’s informal command over the entire Pirate Confederation, while Zhang Bao became the official commander of the Red Flag Fleet. After taking control of the confederation, Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao quickly entered a sexual relationship, and they later married[15]. As the unofficial commander of the Guangdong Pirate Confederation, Ching Chih’s fleet was composed of 400 junks and between 40,000 to 60,000 pirates in 1805. Her ships entered into conflict with several major powers, such as the East India Company, the Portuguese Empire, and Qing China.

A group of people in a crowd Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Fair Use Claimed. © Original image by Walt Disney Pictures. Uploaded by Celina Bebenek, published on 12th November 2021 under the following license: © Copyright, fair use.

Citation: Pictures, Walt Disney. “A Female Pirate Based on Zheng Yi Sao.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified 12th November 2021.

After the death of her husband, Shih came to amass and rule over history’s largest pirate fleet. Her 1200-strong armada (with a whole crew of over 70,000 men) dominated over the South China Sea, battling domestic and foreign empires to retain control.

Shih is also known for her strict policies and harsh punishments for disobeying orders – from beheadings to cutting off ears. For crimes of rape or unsolicited looting (something often associated with pirates), the sentence was also death.

Seemingly unstoppable, Ching Shih was granted a pardon in later life by the Chinese Emperor, retaining her wealth and opening a profitable gambling den.

Sources and Further Information
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  7. Source: Women and the Jolly Roger”. Cindy Vallar.
  8. Source:
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  11. See: Wikipedia at:Æthelflæd
  12. Source:
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  14. Sources: (1) Siu, Kwok-kin; Puk, Wing-kun (January 2007). An annotation on Yuan Yonglun’s Jing Hai Fen Ji] (PDF). Fieldwork and Documents: South China Research Resource Station Newsletter (in Traditional Chinese). 46: 6–29. And (2) Wang, Ke (June 2019). [Zheng Yi Sao in Fact and Fiction: The Transformation of a Female Pirate in Chinese and Western Context]. Comparative Literature and Transcultural Studies. 3 (1): 82–129 – via CNKI.
  15. Source: Murray, Dian H. (1987). Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804713764.

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