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Women in piracy

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Women in piracy

Anne Bonny (1697-1720). Engraving from Captain Charles Johnsons General History of the Pyrates (1st Dutch Edition 1725)

While piracy was predominantly a male occupation, a minority of pirates have been female. Pirettes,[1] like other women in crime, faced interesting issues in both practicing this occupation and being punished for it.[2]

The following is a list of female pirates, who may or may not have lived, but are recognized by historians and listed in the time period they were active.

Early pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Queen Teuta of Illyria 232 to 228 BC Illyria Adriatic Sea.

Viking Age and Medieval pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Rusila Norwegian Fought against her brother Thrond for the thrones of both Denmark and Norway. Possibly fictional. Recorded in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes). Johannes Steenstrup linked her to the Ingean Ruadh (Red Maid) of Irish folklore.[1]
Stikla Norwegian Sister of Rusila: Became a pirate to avoid marriage.[1] Recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Princess Sela c. 420 A.D. Norwegian. Sister of Koller, king of Norway. Horwendil (later to be father of Amleth/Hamlet) was King of Jutland but gave up the throne to become a pirate. Koller "deemed it would be a handsome deed" to kill the pirate and sailed to find the pirate fleet. Horwendil killed Koller but had to later kill Sela, who was a skilled warrior and experienced pirate, to end the war.[1] Recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Alvid Norwegian Leader of a group of male and female pirates.[1] Also recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Wigbiorg, Hetha and Wisna c. 8th century A.D. Norwegian All three are listed in the Gesta Danorum as sea captains. Wigbiorg died in battle, Hetha became queen of Zealand, and Wisna lost a hand in a duel.[1]
Alfhild a.k.a. Ælfhild, Alwilda, Alvilda, Awilda post-850 A.D. Swedish Existence is disputed. Often wrongly dated to the 5th century.[1]
Ladgerda c. 870 A.D. Ladgerda is the inspiration for Hermintrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet.[1]
Æthelflæd aka The Lady of the Mercians 872–918 911-918 English Eldest daughter of Alfred the Great of England. Became the military leader of the Anglo-Saxons after her husband's death in battle against the Danes in 911. Took command of the fleets to rid the seas of the Viking raiders.
Jeanne de Clisson 1300–1359 1343-1356 French The "Lioness of Brittany". A French woman who became a pirate to avenge the execution of her husband. Attacked only French vessels.
Elise Eskilsdotter d. 1483 1460s-1470s Norwegian A Norwegian noble who became a pirate to avenge the execution of her husband. She operated outside the sea of the city of Bergen.

16th-century pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Gráinne Ní Mháille aka Gráinne Mhaol, Granuaile, Grace O'Malley, "The Sea Queen of Connaught" 1530-1603 Ireland Gráinne Ní Mháille was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and a pirate in 16th century Ireland. She is an important figure in Irish folklore, and a historical figure in 16th century Irish history, and is sometimes known as "The Sea Queen Of Connaught". Biographies of her have been written primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries by the historian Anne Chambers.
Sayyida al Hurra
(full name Sayyida al-Hurra ibn Banu Rashid al-Mandri al-Wattasi Hakima Tatwan)
1510-1542 Moroccan Allied with the Turkish corsair Barbaros of Algiers. al Hurra controlled the western Mediterranean Sea while Barbaros controlled the eastern. Also prefect of Tétouan. In 1515 she became the last person in Islamic history to legitimately hold the title of “al Hurra” or Queen following the death of her husband who ruled Tétouan. She later married the King of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi, but refused to leave Tétouan to do so. This marriage is the only time in Moroccan history a King has married away from the capital Fez.[3][4]
*al Hurra is also the name of an American Arab language pirate radio station used as a counter to al Jazeera.
Lady Mary Killigrew 1530-1570 English Mary was the daughter of a former Suffolk pirate. Mary's husband Sir Henry Killigrew, a former pirate himself, was made a Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I and tasked with suppressing piracy. Whenever her husband went to sea Mary engaged in piracy using the staff of her castle (Arwenack Castle in Cornwall) as crew and possibly with the Queen's knowledge. In 1570 she captured a German merchant ship off Falmouth and her crew sailed it to Ireland to sell. However, the owner of this ship was a friend of Queen Elizabeth who then had Lady Mary arrested and brought to trial at the Launceston assizes. Some sources say she was sentenced to death and then pardoned by the Queen but this is due to confusion with another family member. According to sources, her family either bribed the jurors and she was acquitted or Queen Elizabeth arranged a short jail sentence. Whatever transpired, she gave up pirating and took up fencing stolen goods until she died several years later.[5]
Lady Elizabeth Killigrew 1570s-1582 English Elizabeth and her husband Sir John lived in Pendennis Castle in Falmouth Harbour. In early 1581 a Spanish ship, the Marie of San Sebastian was blown down Channel by a storm and was forced, dismasted, to take refuge in Falmouth harbour. Lady Elizabeth led an attack on the ship and then fenced the proceeds. Lady Elizabeth was later arrested and sentenced to death but pardoned. Her husband Sir John was ordered by the Privy Council to restore the vessel and goods to their owners but went into hiding along with the ship which resulted in several warrants for his arrest being issued for acts of piracy committed over the next eight years.[6] It is possible that Lady Elizabeth did not actually board the vessel herself, so it might be incorrect to describe her as a pirate.

17th-century pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Elizabetha Patrickson 1634 English
Jacquotte Delahaye 1650s-1660s Caribbean pirate. Also known as "Back from the Dead Red" due to her red hair and return to piracy after faking her own death and hiding dressed as a man for several years.
Christina Anna Skytte 1643-1677 1650s-1660s Swedish Swedish pirate. She actively participated in the secret piracy conducted by her brother and spouse in the Baltic sea.
Anne Dieu-le-Veut aka Marie-Anne and Marianne ca 1650 - 1660s-1704 French Caribbean pirate and later based in Mississippi after Tortuga was closed down. Dieu-Le-Veut was a nickname meaning "God wills it" and given to her as it seemed anything she wanted God gave her. Married to a pirate, Anne challenged pirate Laurens de Graaf to a duel after he killed her husband in 1683. He refused and she became his common law wife, fighting by his side and sharing command.

Female Interaction with Pirates in the 18th Century

The first level on which pirates and women interacted was through purely business affairs. We often see, in times of war and other hardship that calls upon the entirety of the male population, that women often step up to work the jobs their fathers, husbands, and sons left behind. This was no less the case during the Golden Age of piracy, when many men were forced to set sail for economic reasons.[7] Many women, as a result, took up important jobs previously filled by men. They were allowed to trade, own ships, and work as retailers. Often they were innkeepers or the heads of alehouses. Some laws in seaside towns were even written to allow widows to keep their husbands' responsibilities and property. This was important, as alehouses and other such establishments were spots where pirates congregated and traded with each other and with the people onshore. As heads of these establishments, women had a considerable amount of freedom in business. They boarded and fed pirates, bought illegally pirated goods, acted as pawnbrokers for pirates, and even gave out loans, something many men, let alone women, were cautious of in that time period. In this way, women dealt with pirates and came into possession of pirate goods.[7] When authorities came looking to arrest their clients for piracy, these women even sheltered them from harm.

Mary Read (1690-1721) Engraving from General History of the Pyrates 1725

Some women interacted with pirates on a closer level, not just by trading with them, but by marrying them. However, this was not as advantageous as it seemed. Although their husbands may have been very rich, women often gained very little by their union, as it was difficult for sailors to send home wages and booty earned overseas to their wives waiting back at home. Even though these women were not generally wealthy as a result of their marriages, they were favored by pirates that came to shore and their houses and establishments were used as a safe haven for people who otherwise would be enemies of all nations.[7]

On the third, final, and most intimate level of interaction, women interacted with male pirates by becoming pirates themselves. This seems surprising for quite a few reasons. First, there are very few female pirates documented by name, and the information on them is often shady and filled with speculation and flourishes rather than facts. In addition to this, pirates did not let women on their ships very often. There were not many conveniences of technology on pirate ships, and not many women were up to the physically demanding tasks the crew had to do. In fact, there were not many men who were up to it, either. Women were also often regarded as bad luck among pirates, and it was feared that arguments would break out between the male members of the crew about them. On many ships, women, young boys, and even different acts such as gambling were prohibited by the ship's contract that the crew all signed.[7] Also, many women on pirate ships did not identify themselves as such. Anne Bonny, for example, dressed and acted as a man while on Captain Calico Jack's ship.[7] She and Mary Read, another female pirate, are often credited with this act as if they had been creative and innovative in their cross-dressing. However, that was not the case. Many women dressed as men during this time period, in an effort to take advantage of the many rights, privileges, and freedoms that were exclusive to men.

Female pirates of this time also had a very unique appearance. In modern media female pirates are often shown to be dressed in the same fashion as their male counterparts. While true, there are also at least a half dozen first hand accounts, collected from port authorities as well as pirating victims, describing a style that was unique to their gender. One trend that was especially popular among female pirates of the South American Pacific coast and Caribbean was incorporating common sailing equipment such as fishing nets, jackstays, trunnels, chocks and cordage into their clothing.

18th-century pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Maria Lindsey Early 1700s The wife of Captain Eric Cobham and possibly fictional. Pirate operating on the Canadian east coast.
Maria Cobham Early 1700s Often listed separately in lists of pirates but is likely to be Maria Lindsey (see above).[8]
Ingela Gathenhielm 1692-1729 1710-1721 Swedish Baltic pirate. Wife and partner of legendary pirate Lars Gathenhielm. Took sole control following his death in 1718.
Anne Bonny born Anne Cormac, aliases Ann Bonn and Ann Fulford, possibly also Sarah Bonny 1698-1782 1719-1720 Irish Caribbean pirate. Married to pirate James Bonny, had an affair with pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, and later joined his crew. Discovered another crew member Mark Read was secretly a woman (Mary Read) and the two became very close.
Mary Read, alias Mark Read c.1690-1721 1718-1720 English Caribbean pirate. As a man Mary went to sea and later joined the British army, fighting in the War Of The Spanish Succession. Mary married and settled down as a woman but returned to male dress following the death of her husband, later boarding a ship bound for the West Indies. Captured by "Calico" Jack Rackham, Mary joined his crew. In 1721, she died in prison.
Mary Harvey (or Harley), alias Mary Farlee 1725-1726 In 1725, Mary Harvey and her husband Thomas were transported to the Province of Carolina as felons. In 1726, Mary and three men were convicted of piracy. The men were hanged but Mary was released. Thomas, the leader of the pirates, was never caught.
Mary Crickett (or Crichett) 1728 In 1728, Mary Crickett and Edmund Williams were transported to the colony of Virginia together as felons. In 1729, along with four other men, both were convicted of piracy and hanged.[9]
Flora Burn 1751 Operated on the East Coast of North America.
Rachel Wall 1760-1789 1770s Married George Wall, a former privateer who served in the Revolutionary War, when she was 16. Operated on the New England Coast. Thought to be the first American female pirate. In 1782, George and the rest of his crew were drowned in a storm. She was accused of robbery in 1789 and confessed to being a pirate. She was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
Charlotte de Berry 1700s Possibly fictional.

19th-century pirates

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Ching Shih 1775-1844 1801-1810 China She was a Chinese prostitute who married a pirate and rose to prominence after his death. Regarded as one of the most powerful pirates in human history she commanded her husband's fleet after his death. While the fleet she inherited was already large she further increased the number of ships and crew. At its height her fleet was composed of more than 1,500 ships and 80,000 sailors. She controlled much of the waters of the South China Sea. After years of piracy where British, Chinese and Portuguese navies could not defeat her China offered her peace in 1810 and she was able to retire and married the second in command.[10]
Charlotte Badger and Catherine Hagerty 1806 English Widely considered to be the first Australian female pirate. The ship Venus, due to a shortage of manpower, took on convicts including Badger and Hagerty as crew while in Australia. After docking at Port Dalrymple, Tasmania, the Captain went ashore and the crew seized the ship, sailing for New Zealand. Hagerty along with two other convicts, a woman named Charlotte Edgar and a child were put ashore at the Bay of Islands with a supply of stores. Hagerty died shortly thereafter. The two men were arrested for piracy and Edgar remained to become one of the first settlers in New Zealand. Badger was never seen again.[11]
Margaret Croke (Margaret Jordan) 1809 Following a dispute with investors over his schooner The Three Sisters, Edward Jordan was on his way to Halifax to sort it out. Wrongly assuming his family was being sent to debtors' prison, he killed two crewman then threw the Captain overboard before commandeering the vessel with the help of the remaining crewman. The marooned Captain survived and testified against Jordan claiming Margaret, who was aboard with her son and three young daughters, was also involved. Margaret admitted hitting the Captain after he had hit her husband during an argument in her cabin before he decided to commandeer the vessel; the other crew member testified she was actually in fear for her life from her violent husband and had attempted to escape. Both Margaret and Edward were hanged for piracy.[12]
Johanna Hård 1789 - 1851 1823 Sweden's last pirate; in 1823, recently widowed Hård, a farm owner on Karlstens fortress where he died 1853. The evidence against Johanna Hård was insufficient and she was released and subsequently disappeared.[13][14][15]
Sadie the Goat 1869 Operated around New York State as a member of the Charlton Street Gang. Named for her habit of headbutting her victims before taking their money.
Gertrude Imogene Stubbs alias "Gunpowder Gertie, the Pirate Queen of the Kootenays" 1898-1903 Fictional pirate who operated in the Kootenay Lake and river system of British Columbia, Canada. Told as an April Fools joke in the local newspaper, so many people believed it that it was later retold as historical fact on the CBC program, “This Day in History”.

China Sea pirates of the 20th century

Name Life Years Active Country of origin Comments
Lo Hon-cho alias Hon-cho Lo 1920s East China Took command of 64 ships after her husband’s death in 1921. Youthful and reported to be pretty, she gained the reputation of being the most ruthless of all China's pirates. Lo Hon-cho's fleet attacked villages and fishing fleets in the seas around Beihai taking young women as prisoners and later selling them into slavery. In 1922 a Chinese warship intercepted the fleet destroying 40 vessels. Despite escaping, Lo Hon-cho was later handed to authorities by the remaining pirates in exchange for clemency.[16]
Lai Sho Sz’en alias Lai Choi San 1922-1939 East China Operated in the South China Sea. Commanded 12 ships.
P’en Ch’ih Ch’iko[17] 1936 East China
Ki Ming
Huang P’ei-mei 1937-1950s East China Led 50,000 pirates.[18]
Cheng Chui Ping

(nicknamed "Sister Ping")

1970s - 1990s Fujian province, China Operated in the South China Sea smuggling thousands of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and Europe. Was convicted in the U.S. and sentenced to 35 years in prison and is due for release in 2040.

Female pirates in fiction

While most fictional and dramatic depictions of pirates have been male, some notable female pirates have been depicted.



  • Dragon Lady depicted in Milton Caniff's comic series Terry and the Pirates was inspired by Lai Choi San
  • Janme Dark from Aoike Yasuko's "Sons of Eve" manga series.
  • Blackboots from Mary Hanson-Roberts' graphic novel Here Comes A Candle.
  • Marquise Spinneret Mindfang from the webcomic Homestuck.

Film & TV


Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ransome's Missee Lee (dustjacket)


Video games

Multiple media and other depictions


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Grammaticus, Saxo (November 11, 2006). The Danish History, Books I-IX.  
  2. ^ Were there really woman pirates?
  3. ^ Heads of State of Morocco Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership
  4. ^ Sayyida al Hurra Ottoman biographies
  5. ^ The Killigrews of Falmouth
  6. ^ Sea Borne Raiders of Cornwall St Keverne Local Historical Society
  7. ^ a b c d e Pennell, C. R. 2001. Bandits at sea : A pirates reader. New York: New York University Press. 283
  8. ^ List of Known Women Pirates
  9. ^ Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader C. R. Pennell 2000 Page 304 ISBN 0-8147-6678-1
  10. ^ "Vincent Cheng Talkasia Transcript". CNN. October 7, 2005. 
  11. ^ Convicts on the “Venus”. 1806
  12. ^ Uncertain Justice: Canadian Women and Capital Punishment 1754-1953. Frank Murray Greenwood, Beverley Boissery Page 61, ISBN 1-55002-344-6
  13. ^ Västergötaland executions
  14. ^ History of Vrångö
  15. ^ Swedish Pirates
  16. ^ Lady Pirate Chief, Beauty, Betrayed Copy of December 15, 1922 newspaper article
  17. ^ Pirates of the Caribbean: Female Pirates
  18. ^ Women In Power 1900-1940

Further reading

  • Cordingly, David Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives
  • Driscoll, Sally (2009) Anne Bonny: "revenge". Great Neck Publishing.
  • 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
  • Nelson, James L. The Only Life That Mattered (Also published as 'The Sweet Trade' under the pseudonym 'Elizabeth Barrett')
  • Riley, Sandra Sisters of the Sea
  • Stanley, Jo Bold in Her Breeches

See also

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