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5 Notorious Female Pirates

5 Notorious Female Pirates

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1. Cheng I Sao

One of history’s most influential raiders began her career in a Chinese brothel. Cheng I Sao, or the “wife of Cheng,” was a Cantonese former prostitute who married a powerful corsair named Cheng I in 1801. The husband and wife team soon raised one of China’s most formidable pirate armies. Their outfit boasted hundreds of ships and some 50,000 men, and it preyed on the fishing vessels, supply junks and the coastal villages of Southern China with impunity.

Upon her husband’s death in 1807, Mrs. Cheng elbowed her way into power and partnered with a trusted lieutenant and lover named Chang Pao. Over the next few years, she plundered her way across Southeast Asia and assembled a fleet that rivaled many countries’ navies. She also penned a rigorous code of conduct for her pirates. Rape of female prisoners was punishable by beheading, and deserters had their ears lopped off. Mrs. Cheng’s bloody reign made her public enemy number one of the Chinese government, and in 1810, the British and Portuguese navies were enlisted to bring her to justice. Rather than duking it out at sea, she shrewdly agreed to surrender her fleet and lay down her cutlass in exchange for the right to keep her ill-gotten riches. Cheng retired as one of history’s most successful pirates, and went on to run a gambling house until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.

2. Anne Bonny

The notorious pirate Anne Bonny began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish lawyer. In an effort to hide her dubious parentage, her father had her dress a boy and pose as his law clerk for part of her youth. She later moved to America, where she married a sailor in 1718 and journeyed to the pirate-infested island of New Providence in the Bahamas. There, she abandoned her husband and fell under the spell of “Calico” Jack Rackam, a flamboyant buccaneer who plied his trade in the Caribbean.

Bonny had always been known for her “fierce and courageous temper”—according to one legend, she nearly beat a man to death when he tried to force himself on her—and she quickly showed she could guzzle rum, curse and wield a pistol and cutlass with the best of Calico Jack’s crew. She later forged a friendship with fellow female pirate Mary Read, and the pair played a leading role in a spree of raids against small fishing boats and trading sloops in the summer and fall of 1720. Bonny’s stint on the high seas was cut short that October, when Calico Jack’s ship was captured by a band of pirate-hunters. Calico Jack and several other men were executed, but Bonny and Read dodged the noose after they were both found to be pregnant.

3. Mary Read

Born in England in the late-17th century, Mary Read spent most of her youth disguised as her deceased half-brother so that her penniless mother could scam the boy’s grandmother. Hoping to quench her thirst for adventure, she later adopted the name Mark Read and took on a succession of traditionally male jobs, first as a soldier and later as a merchant sailor. Read turned pirate in the late-1710s, after buccaneers attacked the ship she was working on and impressed her into their ranks. She later found her way aboard Calico Jack Rackam’s boat, where she met and befriended Anne Bonny and revealed herself to be a woman.

Read only sailed with Calico Jack for a few months, but during that time she won a fearsome reputation. One of her most famous exploits came in October 1720, when she and Bonny fought like banshees during an attack by pirate-hunters. “If there’s a man among ye,” she supposedly screamed at the male buccaneers cowering below decks, “ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” Despite Read’s heroics, she and the rest of Calico Jack’s crew were captured and charged with piracy. Read avoided execution by admitting she was “quick with child,” but she later came down with a fever and died in prison.

4. Grace O’Malley

During a time when most women were denied an education and kept restrained to their homes, pirate Grace O’Malley led a 20-ship fleet that stood up to the might of the British monarchy. Also known as “Granuaille,” or “bald,” for her habit of cutting her hair short, O’Malley was born into a powerful clan that lorded over the coastlines of western Ireland. After taking the reins in the 1560s, she continued a family tradition of piracy by plundering English and Spanish shipping vessels and attacking rival chieftains. Her escapades were legendary—one tale claims she did battle at sea only a day after giving birth—but they also drew the ire of the authorities. She was forced to repel a siege against her stronghold at Rockfleet Castle in 1574, and later did 18 months behind bars after she was captured during one of her raids.

O’Malley resumed her marauding after her release, but more trouble arrived in the early 1590s, when British authorities impounded her fleet. With nowhere else to turn, the 63-year-old buccaneer appealed directly to Queen Elizabeth I for assistance. During a famous royal audience in London, O’Malley portrayed herself as a tired and broken old woman and begged the Queen to return her ships, release one of her captured sons and allow her to retire in peace. The gambit worked, but it seems that “Granuaille” didn’t keep up her end of the bargain—records show that she and her sons continued pirating until her death in 1603.

5. Rachel Wall

Rachel Wall’s biography is peppered with myths and legends, but if certain tales about her are true, she was one of the first and only American women to try her hand at piracy. As the story goes, Wall was a Pennsylvania native who ran away from home as a teen and married a fisherman named George Wall. The couple settled in Boston and tried to scrape out a living, but constant money problems eventually led them to turn to a life of crime. In 1781, the Walls procured a small boat, teamed with a few low-life mariners and began preying on ships off the coast of New England. Their strategy was as ingenious as it was brutal. Whenever a storm passed through the region, the buccaneers would dress their boat up to look like it had been ravaged by rough seas. The comely Rachel would then stand on the deck and plead for aid from passing ships. When the unsuspecting rescuers came near, they were promptly boarded, robbed and murdered.

Wall’s siren song may have lured as many as a dozen ships to their doom, but her luck ran out in 1782, when a real storm destroyed her boat and killed George. She continued her thieving on land, and was later arrested in 1789 for attacking and robbing a Boston woman. While in prison, she penned a confession admitting to “Sabbath-breaking, stealing, lying, disobedience to parents, and almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder.” Unfortunately for Wall, the mea culpa was not enough to sway the authorities. On October 8, she became the last woman ever executed in Massachusetts when she was hanged to death in Boston

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.


Bonny's birthdate is speculated to be around 1700. [4] She was said to be born in Old Head of Kinsale, [5] in County Cork, Ireland. [6] She was the daughter of servant woman Mary Brennan and Brennan's employer, lawyer William Cormac. Official records and contemporary letters dealing with her life are scarce, and most modern knowledge stems from Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (a collection of pirate biographies, the first edition partly accurate, the second much embellished). [7] [8] [9]

Bonny's father William Cormac first moved to London to get away from his wife's family, and he began dressing his daughter as a boy and calling her "Andy". When Cormac's wife discovered William had taken in the illegitimate daughter and was bringing the child up to be a lawyer's clerk and dressing her as a boy, she stopped giving him an allowance. [10] Cormac then moved to the Province of Carolina, taking along his former serving girl, the mother of Bonny. Bonny's father abandoned the original "Mc" prefix of their family name to blend more easily into the Charles Town citizenry. At first, the family had a rough start in their new home, but Cormac's knowledge of law and ability to buy and sell goods soon financed a townhouse and eventually a plantation just out of town. Bonny's mother died when she was 12. Her father attempted to establish himself as an attorney but did not do well. Eventually, he joined the more profitable merchant business and accumulated a substantial fortune. [11]

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. [8] She married a poor sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny. [12] James hoped to win possession of his father-in-law's estate, but Bonny was disowned by her father. Anne's father did not approve of James Bonny as a husband for his daughter, and he kicked Anne out of their house. [13]

There is a story that Bonny set fire to her father's plantation in retaliation, but no evidence exists in support. However, it is known that sometime between 1714 and 1718, she and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on New Providence Island, known as a sanctuary for English pirates called the Republic of Pirates. [14] Many inhabitants received a King's Pardon or otherwise evaded the law. It is also recorded that, after the arrival of Governor Woodes Rogers in the summer of 1718, James Bonny became an informant for the governor. [15] James Bonny would report to Governor Rogers about the pirates in the area, which resulted in a multitude of these pirates being arrested. Anne disliked the work her husband did for Governor Rogers.

While in the Bahamas, Bonny began mingling with pirates in the taverns. She met John "Calico Jack" Rackham, and he became her lover. He offered money to her husband James Bonny if he would divorce her, but her husband refused and apparently threatened to beat John. She and Rackham escaped the island together, and she became a member of Rackham's crew. She disguised herself as a man on the ship, and only Rackham and Mary Read were aware that she was a woman [13] until it became clear that she was pregnant. Rackham then landed her at Cuba where she gave birth to a son. [10] She then rejoined Rackham and continued the pirate life, having divorced her husband and married Rackham while at sea. Bonny, Rackham, and Read stole the ship William, then at anchor in Nassau harbor, and put out to sea. [16] Rackham and the two women recruited a new crew. Their crew spent years in Jamaica and the surrounding area. [17] Bonny took part in combat alongside the men, and Governor Rogers named her in a "Wanted Pirates" circular published in The Boston News-Letter. [15]

In October 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a sloop captained by Jonathan Barnet under a commission from Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica. Most of Rackham's pirates put up little resistance, as many of them were too drunk to fight. They were taken to Jamaica where they were convicted and sentenced by Governor Lawes to be hanged. [18] According to Johnson, Bonny's last words to Rackham were: "Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang'd like a dog". [19] [20]

Read and Bonny both "pleaded their bellies", asking for mercy because they were pregnant, [21] and the court granted them a stay of execution until they gave birth. Read died in prison, most likely from a fever from childbirth. A ledger from a church in Jamaica lists her burial on 28 April 1721, "Mary Read, pirate". [22]

There is no record of Bonny's release, and this has fed speculation as to her fate. [23] A ledger lists the burial of an "Ann Bonny" on 29 December 1733, in the same town in Jamaica where she was tried. [22] Charles Johnson writes in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, published in 1724: "She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time but what is become of her since, we cannot tell only this we know, that she was not executed". [24]

  • Bonny and Read are portrayed in the Detective Conan animated film Detective Conan: Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure.
  • Bonny is featured in the video game, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, at first as a sub-character, and later as Quarter Master to Edward Kenway, she is voiced by actress Sarah Greene.
  • Bonny is a playable character in Fate/Grand Order as a Rider-class and an Archer-class Servant along with Read Bonny is voiced by Ayako Kawasumi.
  • Bonny is a main character in the Starz series Black Sails and is portrayed by Clara Paget
  • Read (Cara Roberts) introduces herself to Bonny under the name of Mark Read in the final episode of Black Sails. [25]
  • Bonny is featured in the song "The Ballad of Mary Read and Anne Bonny" by the Baja Brigade. [26]
  • The second song from the Death Grips album Government Plates is named Anne Bonny.
  • Bonny is depicted as a pirate lord having founded Libertalia alongside Henry Avery, Thomas Tew, and several other famous pirates in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End in an altered version of the pirate colony's founding. Her corpse is encountered at a certain point in the game.
  • Bonny and Mary Read are mentioned in Charlie Kaufman's 2020 novel Antkind.
  • In the manga One Piece, the character Jewelry Bonney is named after Anne Bonny.
  • Bonny is portrayed by Mia Tomlinson in the Netflix series The Lost Pirate Kingdom.
  • Anne Bonny is a prominent character in the German animated film Die Abrafaxe – Unter schwarzer Flagge (The Pirates of Tortuga - Under the Black Flag)

In 2020, a statue of Bonny and Read was unveiled at Execution Dock in Wapping, London. It is planned to eventually bring the statue to Burgh Island in south Devon. [27]

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. Smithsonian.com 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. 

The pioneer of the Jolly Roger flag, Calico Jack Rackham was a Caribbean buccaneer who had few epic plunders to his name, but is known for his association with Anne Bonny as well as his classic pirate death. Captured in Jamaica in 1720, Rackham was hanged, tarred and displayed as a warning to others in a location now called Rackham's Cay.

A noble to some but an outlaw to others, Drake spent time — between circumnavigating the globe and defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 — engaging in piracy and slave-trading in the Caribbean. The raids he led, especially on Spanish colonies in Central America, took some of the richest bounties in pirating history.

If There’s a Man Among Ye: The Tale of Pirate Queens Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Last week Mike Dash told a tale of high seas adventure that put me in mind of another, somewhat earlier one. Not that Anne Bonny and Mary Read had much in common with kindly old David O’Keefe—they were pirates, for one thing, as renowned for their ruthlessness as for their gender, and during their short careers challenged the sailors’ adage that a woman’s presence on shipboard invites bad luck. Indeed, were it not for Bonny and Read, John “Calico Jack” Rackam’s crew would’ve suffered indignity along with defeat during its final adventure in the Caribbean. But more on that in a moment…

Much of what we know about the early lives of Bonny and Read comes from a 1724 account titled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (which some historians argue is a nom de plume for Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe). A General History places Bonny’s birth in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, circa 1698. Her father, an attorney named William Cormac, had an affair with the family maid, prompting his wife to leave him. The maid, Mary Brennan, gave birth to Anne, and over time William grew so fond of the child he arranged for her to live with him. To avoid scandal, he dressed her as a boy and introduced her as the child of a relative entrusted to his care. When Anne’s true gender and parentage were discovered, William, Mary and their child emigrated to what is now Charleston, South Carolina. Mary died in 1711, at which point the teenaged Anne began exhibiting a “fierce and courageous temper,” reportedly murdering a servant girl with a case knife and beating half to death a suitor who tried to rape her.

William, a successful planter, disapproved of his daughter’s rebellious ways the endless rumors about her carousing in local taverns and sleeping with fishermen and drunks damaged his business. He disowned her when, in 1718, she married a poor sailor by the name of James Bonny. Anne and her new husband set off for New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas, where James is said to have embarked on a career as a snitch, turning in pirates to Governor Woodes Rogers and collecting the bounties on their heads. Woodes, a former pirate himself, composed a “most wanted” list of ten notorious outlaws, including Blackbeard, and vowed to bring them all to trial.

Anne, meanwhile, spent most of her time drinking at local saloons and seducing pirates in A General History, Johnson contends that she was “not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity,” and that James Bonny once “surprised her lying in a hammock with another man.” Anne grew especially enamored of one paramour, John “Calico Jack” Rackam, so-called due to his affinity for garish clothing, and left Bonny to join Rackam’s crew. One legend holds that she launched her pirating career with an ingenious ploy, creating a “corpse” by mangling the limbs of a dressmaker’s mannequin and smearing it with fake blood. When the crew of a passing French merchant ship spotted Anne wielding an ax over her creation, they surrendered their cargo without a fight.

John “Calico Jack” Rackam (Public Domain)

A surprising number of women ventured to sea, in many capacities: as servants, prostitutes, laundresses, cooks and—albeit less frequently—as sailors, naval officers, whaling merchants or pirates. Anne herself was likely inspired by a 16th-century Irishwoman named Grace O’Malley, whose fierce visage (she claimed her face was scarred after an attack by an eagle) became infamous along the coast of the Emerald Isle. Still, female pirates remained an anomaly and perceived liability Blackbeard, for one, banned women from his ship, and if his crew took one captive she was strangled and pitched over the side. Anne refused to be deterred by this sentiment. Upon joining Rackam’s crew, she was said to have silenced a disparaging shipmate by stabbing him in the heart.

Most of the time Anne lived as a woman, acting the part of Rackam’s lover and helpmate, but during engagements with other ships she wore the attire of a man: loose tunic and wide, short trousers a sword hitched by her side and a brace of pistols tucked in a sash a small cap perched atop a thicket of dark hair. Between sporadic bouts of marauding and pillaging, pirate life was fairly prosaic our modern associations with the profession draw more from popular entertainment—Peter Pan, The Pirates of Penzance, a swashbuckling Johnny Depp—than from historical reality. The notion of “walking the plank” is a myth, as are secret stashes of gold. “Nice idea, buried plunder,” says maritime historian David Cordingly. “Too bad it isn’t true.” Pirates ate more turtles than they drank rum, and many were staunch family men Captain Kidd, for instance, remained devoted to his wife and children back in New York. Another historian, Barry R. Burg, contends that the majority of sexual dalliances occurred not with women but with male shipmates.

Accounts vary as to how Anne met Mary Read. According to Johnson, Rackam’s ship conquered Mary’s somewhere in the West Indies, and Mary was among those taken prisoner. After the engagement, Anne, dressed in female attire, tried to seduce the handsome new recruit. Mary, perhaps fearing repercussions from Rackam, informed Anne she was actually a woman—and bared her breasts to prove it. Anne vowed to keep Mary’s secret and the women became friends, confidantes and, depending on the source, lovers.

Learn more about Anne and Mary after the jump…

They had much in common Mary was also an illegitimate child. Her mother’s first child (this one by her husband) was a boy, born shortly after her husband died at sea. Mary’s mother-in-law took pity on the widow and offered to support her grandson until he was grown, but he died as well. Mary’s mother quickly became pregnant again, gave birth to Mary, and, in order to keep receiving money from her husband’s family, dressed her daughter to resemble her dead son. But her grandmother soon caught on and terminated the arrangement. To make ends meet, Mary’s mother continued dressing her as a boy and occasionally rented her out as a servant.

Mary excelled at living as a man. Around age 13, she served as a “powder monkey” on a British man-of-war during the War of the Grand Alliance, carrying bags of gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the gun crews. Next she joined the Army of Flanders, serving in both the infantry and cavalry. She fell in love with her bunkmate and divulged her secret to him. Initially, the soldier suggested that Mary become his mistress—or, as Johnson put it, “he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony”—but Mary replied, with no apparent irony, that she was a reserved and proper lady. After informing her entire regiment that she was a woman, she quit the army and married the solider, who died shortly before the turn of the 18th century.

Mary resumed her life as a man and sailed for the West Indies on a Dutch ship, which was soon captured by English pirates. The crew, believing Mary to be a fellow Englishman, encouraged her to join them. Calico Jack Rackam served as the quartermaster of her new crew, and he, along with his shipmates, never suspected Mary’s true gender. She was aggressive and ruthless, always ready for a raid, and swore, well, like a drunken sailor. She was “very profligate,” recalled one of her victims, “cursing and swearing much.” Loose clothing hid her breasts, and no one thought twice about her lack of facial hair her mates, most of them in their teens or early twenties, were also smooth-faced. It’s also likely that Mary suffered from stress and poor diet while serving in the army, factors that could have interrupted or paused her menstrual cycle.

Initially, Rackam was jealous of Anne’s relationship with Mary, and one day burst into her cabin intending to slit her throat. Mary sat up and opened her blouse. Rackam agreed to keep Mary’s secret from the rest of the crew and continued to treat her as an equal. (He was also somewhat mollified when she took up with a male crewmate.)

During battles Anne and Mary fought side by side, wearing billowing jackets and long trousers and handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, wielding a machete and pistol in either hand. “They were very active on board,” another victim later testified, “and wiling to do any Thing.” The summer and early fall of 1720 proved especially lucrative for Rackam’s crew. In September they took seven fishing boats and two sloops near Harbor Island. A few weeks later, Anne and Mary led a raid against a schooner, shooting at the crew as they climbed aboard, cursing as they gathered their plunder: tackle, fifty rolls of tobacco and nine bags of pimento. They held their captives for two days before releasing them.

Near midnight on October 22, Anne and Mary were on deck when they noticed a mysterious sloop gliding up alongside them. They realized it was one of the governor’s vessels, and they shouted for their crewmates to stand with them. A few obliged, Rackam included, but several had passed out from the night’s drinking. The sloop’s captain, Jonathan Barnett, ordered the pirates to surrender, but Rackam began firing his swivel gun. Barnett ordered a counterattack, and the barrage of fire disabled Rackam’s ship and sent the few men on deck to cowering in the hold. Outnumbered, Rackam signaled surrender and called for quarter.

But Anne and Mary refused to surrender. They remained on deck and faced the governor’s men alone, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses. Mary, the legend goes, was so disgusted she stopped fighting long enough to peer over the entrance of the hold and yell, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” When not a single comrade responded, she fired a shot down into the hold, killing one of them. Anne, Mary and the rest of Rackam’s crew were finally overpowered and taken prisoner.

Calico Jack Rackam was scheduled to be executed by hanging on November 18, and his final request was to see Anne. She had but one thing to say to him: “If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” Ten days later, she and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, both of them pleading not guilty to all charges. The most convincing witness was one Dorothy Thomas, whose canoe had been robbed of during one of the pirates’ sprees. She stated that Anne and Mary threatened to kill her for testifying against them, and that “the Reason of her knowing and believing them to be women then was by the largeness of their Breasts.”

Anne and Mary were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but their executions were stayed—because, as lady luck would have it, they were both “quick with child.”

Captain Charles Johnson. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. London: T. Warner, 1724.

Barry R. Burg. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

David Cordingly. Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives. New York: Random House, 2007.

_________. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 2006.

_________. Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean: The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers. New York: Random House, 2011.

Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Tamara J. Eastman and Constance Bond. The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Cambria Pines, CA: Fern Canyon Press, 2000.

Angus Konstam and Roger Kean. Pirates: Predators of the Seas. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

C.R. Pennell. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Diana Maury Robin, Anne R. Larsen, Carole Levin. Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England.

“Scholars Plunder Myths About Pirates, And It’s Such A Drag.” Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1992 “West Indian Sketches.” New Hampshire Gazette, April 10, 1838 “How Blackbeard Met His Fate.” Washington Post, September 9, 1928 “Seafaring Women.” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1896 “Capt. Kidd and Others.” New York Times, January 1, 1899 “Female Pirates.” Boston Globe, August 9, 1903.

Black Bellamy: Robin Hood Of Pirates?

Black Bellamy was a famous pirate and also the richest pirate ever. (Allen & Ginter / CC0)

The notorious pirate “Black Sam” Bellamy (English, 1689 – 1717 AD) sailed the seven seas, plundering and pirating, becoming the richest buccaneer ever known. He was born in Devonshire, England, and in his late teens, he joined the British navy and fought in several battles. In 1716 AD, after a mutiny aboard a ship, he was named the new captain, and during just one year he and his crew robbed more than 50 ships in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, accumulating the equivalent to $120 million in today’s money, making him the richest pirate ever. Bellamy was also famous for his expensive clothes, especially black coats. As a captain, he was almost democratic, and the crew liked to call him “Pirate Robin Hood.” But this was no storybook ending – his pirate career was short-lived. In 1717 AD, he and his crew drowned when their ship was wrecked, and the 102 lost souls have recently been found buried in a secret location in Massachusetts. He was 28.

Ching Shih Gains Control of the Red Flag Fleet

In 1801, Pirate Zhèng Yi, who commanded a fleet of ships called the “Red Flag Fleet,” noticed Ching Shih’s beauty, and wished to be with her. There are varying accounts of how they actually came to be together. According to some, Zhèng Yi sent a raid and ordered them to plunder the brothel. He asked that they bring him Ching Shih, his favorite prostitute. The men did as they were ordered, and Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih were married.

By other accounts, Zhèng Yi simply asked Ching Shih to marry him. She agreed to his proposal so long as she would have some power within his organization, and would receive an equal share of his plunder. While the accounts vary as to how they actually came to be together, Ching Shih and Zhèng Yi began to run the Red Flag Fleet together.

With Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih side-by-side, the Red Flag Fleet quickly grew from 200 ships to more than 600 ships, and eventually to 1700-1800 ships. Their fleet was “color-coded,” with the lead fleet being Red, and the remaining fleets Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green. They formed the Cantonese Pirate Coalition with pirate Wu Shi’er. Zhèng Yi died in 1807, only 6 years after marrying Ching Shih. At the time of his death, the Red Flag Fleet included approximately 50,000 – 70,000 pirates.

Ching Shih , not wishing to go back to a life of prostitution, knew that this was her opportunity to rise to become a powerful female pirate lord. She could have simply stepped down from the organization, allowing Chang Pao, Zhèng Yi’s second in command, to take over. Chang Pao had been adopted as a son by Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih. However, Ching Shih craved the power and glory of being the leader of the Red Flag Fleet. With Chang Pao’s support, Ching Shih took charge.

The distinctive curve of a Chinese 'Junk Ship'. Pirate fleets flew a red flag ( adventures in history land )

Early Years

Most of what is known about Anne Bonny's early life comes from Captain Charles Johnson's "A General History of the Pyrates" which dates to 1724. Johnson (most, but not all, historians believe that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe) provides some details of Bonny's early life but did not list his sources and his information has proven impossible to verify. According to Johnson, Bonny was born near Cork, Ireland probably sometime around 1700, the result of an affair between a married English lawyer and his maid. The unnamed lawyer was eventually forced to bring Anne and her mother to America to escape the gossip.

Anne’s father set up in Charleston, first as a lawyer and then as a merchant. Young Anne was spirited and tough: Johnson reports that she once badly beat up a young man who “would have lain with her, against her will.” Her father had done quite well in his businesses and it was expected that Anne would marry well. Instead, at about age 16, she married a penniless sailor named James Bonny, and her father disinherited her and cast them out.

The young couple set out for New Providence, where Anne's husband made a meager living turning in pirates for bounties. Sometime in 1718 or 1719, she met pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham (sometimes spelled Rackam) who had recently wrested command of a pirate vessel from the ruthless Captain Charles Vane. Anne became pregnant and went to Cuba to have the child: once she had given birth, she returned to a life of piracy with Rackham.

5 Notorious Female Pirates - HISTORY

Today I found out about the prostitute that rose to command a huge armada that controlled the South Chinese Sea and the Guangdong province.

While female pirates weren’t uncommon off the coast of Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, one woman stood above them all. Her birth name isn’t known, but this Cantonese pirate went by the name Ching Shih (also, by Zhèng Yi Sao, “wife of Zhèng”, and Zhèng Shì, “widow of Zhèng”. For the purpose of this article, I’ll just refer to her as Ching Shih to avoid any confusion.)

Ching Shih was born sometime around 1775 (the exact date isn’t known). At the age of 26, she found herself working as a prostitute in a floating brothel in Canton. While there, she caught the eye of Zhèng Yi, already a successful pirate with a small fleet of ships at his command, known as the “Red Flag Fleet”. Exactly how the two ended up together is disputed. Some historians hold that Zhèng Yi sent a raid to plunder the brothel and asked his men to bring back his favorite prostitute, Ching Shih, for his portion of the loot, while others claim he simply went there himself and proposed that they wed, which she only agreed to after he consented to give her equal share of his plunder and to allow her to help run the organization. Whatever the case, once married, Ching Shih did indeed begin helping Zhèng Yi run the Red Flag Fleet.

During the next six years, their fleet grew initially from about 200 ships to 600 with some key alliances, including forming the Cantonese Pirate Coalition with pirate Wu Shi’er, and then to 1700-1800 ships by 1807, as more and more pirates flocked to their banner. Unfortunately for Zhèng Yi, on November 16, 1807, he found himself caught in a typhoon and didn’t manage to survive the ordeal.

Rather than step aside, handing over the organization to someone else, Ching Shih convinced Zhèng Yi’s second in command, 21 year old Chang Pao, to support her in taking over the Red Flag Fleet. Chang Pao was the son of a fisherman and had actually been captured by Zhèng Yi when Chang Pao was just 15. He was then forced into the life of a pirate. He quickly gained favor in the eyes of Zhèng Yi due to his intelligence, bravery, and skill in a fight and was adopted by the pirate captain and Ching Shih as a son and made second in command of the fleet.

With Chang Pao leading their troops in raids and the like, Ching Shih focused on the “business” side of things, continuing to plan military strategy and also to govern and grow the organization into something that went beyond just partnered pillaging pirates. At the Red Flag Fleet’s peak in 1810, she commanded about 1800 ships, both big and small 70,000-80,000 pirates (about 17,000 male pirates directly under her control, the rest being other pirate groups who agreed to work with her group, then female pirates, children, spies, farmers enlisted to supply food, etc.) controlled nearly the entire Guangdong province directly held a vast spy network within the Qing Dynasty and dominated the South Chinese Sea.

She didn’t just rely on looting, blackmailing, and extortion to support her troops either. She setup an ad hoc government to support her pirates including establishing laws and taxes. Because she controlled pretty much the entire criminal element in the South Chinese Sea, she also was able to guarantee safe passage through it to any merchants who wanted to pay. Of course, if they didn’t pay, they were fair game for her pirates.

In order to manage her ruffians and get them all to do what she said without question, she setup a strict system of law within the Red Flag Fleet which basically equated to, “You don’t follow the rules or I think you aren’t and you get your head chopped off. No exceptions.” Specific laws included:

  • If you disobey an order, you get your head chopped off and body thrown in the ocean.
  • If you steal anything from the common plunder before it has been divvied up, you get your head chopped off and body thrown in the ocean.
  • If you rape anyone without permission from the leader of your squadron, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown in the ocean.
  • If you have consensual sex with anyone while on duty, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown in the ocean and the woman involved would get something heavy strapped to her and also tossed in the ocean.
  • If you loot a town or ship of anything at all or otherwise harass them when they have paid tribute, you get your head chopped off and your body thrown into the ocean.
  • If you take shore-leave without permission, you get your head chopped off and body thrown into the ocean.
  • If you try to leave the organization, you get your head… ha, just kidding, in this case you get your ears chopped off.
  • Captured ugly women were to be set free unharmed. Captured pretty women could be divvied up or purchased by members of the Red Flag Fleet. However, if a pirate was awarded or purchased a pretty woman, he was then considered married to her and was expected to treat her accordingly. If he didn’t, he gets his head cut off and body thrown in the ocean.

She didn’t just restrict herself to sea battles either. She used her numerous shallow-bottomed boats to good advantage along rivers to raid towns along the way, including defeating any armies that came against her. For instance, two towns once banded together, raised an army, and sent it against her forces. The Red Flag Fleet won the battle and she subsequently marched her army to the two towns and ransacked them, including beheading every male found there.

Now, a pirate controlling a large portion of the Emperor’s land and subjects didn’t sit well with him. As such, he raised a fleet of ships to attack Ching Shih’s fleet. Unfortunately for him, Ching Shih was also a brilliant military strategist and rather than running from the Emperor’s armada, she sailed out to meet it with her fleet, which defeated the armada quite easily. Not only this, but she managed to steal 63 of the large ships sent against her and convinced most of the surviving crews to join her… by letting them choose between being nailed to the deck by their feet and then beaten to death or becoming members of the Red Flag Fleet and celebrating the victory with the rest of the pirates. Needless to say, she found herself with plenty of replacements for the pirates she’d lost in the battle. As for the Admiral of the fleet sent against her, Kwo Lang, he committed suicide before he could be captured by Ching Shih.

The attacks on her fleet didn’t stop there. However, now without a fleet large enough to take her on alone, the Qing Dynasty government enlisted the aid of the super-power British and Portuguese navies, as well as many Dutch ships, paying them large sums for their help. These combined forces waged war on Ching Shih’s organization for two years with little success. She won battle after battle until finally the Emperor decided to take a different tack. Instead of trying to defeat her, he offered her and most of her organization amnesty.

Ching Shih initially rejected the terms of the amnesty treaty. However, in 1810 she unexpectedly showed up at the home of the Governor General of Canton with the intention of working out a peace treaty. The deal that she struck was that the fleet would disband, including giving up most of their ships, and in return, they would nearly all be granted amnesty and allowed to keep any loot they had acquired during their time as pirates. The exceptions were 376 of her crew of which 126 were executed and the other 250 received some punishment or other for their crimes.

All the rest got off scot-free and as part of the agreement any who wanted it were to be allowed to join the military, including her second in command and now husband, Chang Pao. He was given command of 20 ships in the Qing Dynasty navy to command. Ching Shih was also given money to distribute to her crew to help offset the cost of them switching from a life at sea, to one in the mainland.

As for Ching Shih herself, she negotiated the rights to keep the fortune she’d accumulated and acquired a noble title, “Lady by Imperial Decree”, which entitled her to various legal protections as a member of the aristocracy. She then retired at the age of 35, opening a gambling house/brothel in Guangzhou, Canton, which she managed until her death at the age of 69. During this time, she also became a mother to at least one son and a grandmother. One can only imagine the bedtime stories she told her son and grandchildren.

So not only was she arguably the most successful pirate of all time, but unlike pretty much every other famous pirate in history, she also managed to escape being executed or punished in any way for her crimes and retired extremely wealthy and a member of the aristocracy. The Dread Pirate Roberts has nothing on her.

If you liked this article and the Bonus Pirate Facts below, you might also like:


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Watch the video: 5 Most Notorious Female Outlaws (May 2022).