The Badass Lady Pirates of History

Not-so-recently (in 2005 in fact), a racist asshat sent a letter to fantasy author Scott Lynch, offended that he had included a black, female, mother-of-two as a competent pirate in the second of his Gentleman Bastard books, Red Seas under Red Skies. To see Lynch give the writer of a letter a smackdown, please go here. It recently was picked up on Tumblr and has made the rounds.

Still here? Cool. Firstly, applause to Scott Lynch.

I wanted to reply to the section where said asshat states:

Real sea pirates could not be controlled by women, they were vicous rapits [sic] and murderers and I am sorry to say it was a man’s world. It is unrealistic wish fulfilment [sic] for you and your readers to have so many female pirates, especially if you want to be politically correct about it!”

I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a bit of information about the real, historical, badass lady pirates, many of whom where not white.

1. Ching Shih or Cheng I Sao

Not actually her, obv

This was one badass lady pirate. You can listen to a podcast about her here, which is where I first learned about her. “A brilliant Cantonese pirate, she commanded 1800 ships and more than 80,000 pirates — men, women, and even children. She challenged the world superpower empires at the time such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia’s strongest pirates, and one of world history’s most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy.” You can get a brief overview of her life on Wikipedia, the source of the quote.

And yeah, she was so badass that governments paid her a lot of money to stop pirating.”The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule could not be defeated — not by Qing dynasty Chinese officials, not by the Portuguese navy, not by the British. But in 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates, and Ching Shih took advantage of it. She ended her career in 1810, accepting an amnesty offer from the Chinese government. She kept her loot, married her lieutenant and adoptive son Cheung Po Tsai, and opened a gambling house” (Wikipedia). And hey, look, she was a mother, too! Although married him, which is a bit weird.

Basically her motto was: “Can’t touch this.”

2. Alfhild

According to the Gesta Danorum (book 7), Alfhid was super hot, and so her dad put her in a bedroom guarded by snakes so no one tried to use their one-eyed snake on her. Alf was not deterred by this, and impales the snakes with red-hot pokers to get to Alfhild.

See those snakes? They dead.
See those snakes? They dead.

Alf was all “so, where’s my sexeh new bride?” but Alfhid’s mum was like “I dunno about this dude” and so “Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane; whereupon she exchanged woman’s for man’s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover” (source: Gesta Danorum book 7).

Alfhild goes off and does pirate lady things like raiding the coasts of the Baltic Sea with other pirate ladies, and Alf pursues her.

Lady pirates doing piratey things
Lady pirates doing piratey things

The Danes, led my Alf, started fighting these pirates, though they were “wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily beauty and such supple limbs.” Alf knocks off Alfhild’s helmet and sees she’s the hot lady she wants to marry, and she decided she’d pillaged enough and became queen instead.

3. Jeanne de Clisson aka the Lionness of Brittany

I don't think this is actually her, but it's how I imagine her
This isn’t actually her

Jean-Louise was married at 12 but her first husband died. She married a second time, and this was for love. But her husband, Olivier III de Clisson, was beheaded for treason.

Jeanne de Clisson’s reaction? OH HELL NAW.

She swore revenge on the king, sold off her possessions, bought three warships, and became a badass lady pirate.

“The ships that Clisson purchased were painted all black on her command, and the sails dyed red. The ‘Black Fleet’ took to the waters and began hunting down and destroying the ships of King Philip VI, and were merciless with the crews. But Clisson would always leave two or three of Philip’s sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the “Lioness of Brittany” had struck once again. Jeanne and her fleet also assisted in keeping the English Channel free of French warships, and it is very likely that as a privateer she had a hand in keeping supplies available to the English forces for the Battle of Crécy in 1346. When King Philip VI died in 1350, it was not the end to Jeanne’s revenge. She continued to wreak havoc among French shipping, and it was reported that she took particular joy in hunting down and capturing the ships of French noblemen, as long as they were aboard. She would then personally behead the aristocrats with an axe, tossing their lifeless bodies overboard” (Wikipedia).

After 13 years of piracy, her anger finally abated and she hid in England and married again. Also? She had seven kids between her first two husbands. SEVEN.

4. Anne Bonney & Mary Read

Mary-Read-AnneBonny2Anne abandoned her husband when she fell for the pirate Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham and they went about as pirates together. She had a baby and left it with friends in the Caribbean so she could go back to pirating. Not the mothering type.

She soon partnered with Mary Read, who for many years disguised herself as a boy. She fell in love with another sailor and told him her true sex and they bought an inn together, but then he died. She went back on the ships as a boy and fell into Anne Bonney’s company. They both had reputations for being badass and bloodthirsty, even more so than the men.

One day they were overwhelmed by the British Navy, and the men went below deck and hid, either because they were too drunk or cowardly. Anne and Mary fought them off as long as they could.

“Captain Jack and the male members of his crew were tried on November 16, 1720, and were sentenced to hang. Anne was allowed to visit her lover in his cell before his execution, and instead of the consoling, loving words he was undoubtedly expecting, her scathing comments live on throughout history: “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Anne and Mary were tried one week after Rackham’s death and were also found guilty. But at their sentencing, when asked by the judge if they had anything to say, they replied, “Mi’lord, we plead our bellies.” Both were pregnant, and since British law forbade killing an unborn child, their sentences were stayed temporarily.

Mary is said to have died of a violent fever in the Spanish Town prison in 1721, before the birth of her child. Other reports say she feigned death and was sneaked out of the prison under a shroud.

No record of Anne’s execution has ever been found. Some say that her wealthy father bought her release after the birth of her child and she settled down to a quiet family life on a small Caribbean island. Others believe that she lived out her life in the south of England, owning a tavern where she regaled the locals with tales of her exploits.

And yet others say Anne and Mary moved to Louisiana where they raised their children together and were friends to the ends of their lives.” (Source: The Legend of Anne & Mary)

5. Sayyida al Hurra

sayiddaSayyid was an Islamic pirate queen of the 16th century.

“Perhaps because of the memory of being forced to flee her home in childhood, Sayyida, like many other Muslims in the area, turned to piracy against her Christian enemy. She reached out to Barbarossa of Algiers, who controlled the eastern Mediterranean Sea while she controlled the west, and assembled her own fleet. She wreaked havoc on Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines, and was the undisputed leader of the pirates in the region.”

Later, she remarried the King of Morocco. But she wanted to let him know who was boss, and “to show that she had no intention of giving up her power and position, she refused to leave Tétouan for the marriage, forcing the king to come to her. This is the only time in Moroccan history that a king married away from the capital.” (Source: Amazing Women in History)

Eventually, her son (yet another pirate mother!) overthrew her, and people don’t know what happened to her after that.

So there you go. Plenty of awesome lady pirates were able to wrangle both other male pirates and have babies and do whatever they wanted. So, booyah to your sexist preconceptions, Mr. Asshat.

Further reading:

  • Cordingly, David Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives
  • Druett, Joan (2000) She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. Simon & Schuster
  • Lorimer, Sara (2002) Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas. Chronicle Books

If you haven’t read Scott Lynch, you should pick up his books, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, which are some of the best books in the fantasy genre.

For another sassy lady pirate, try reading The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke.


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