Historically women have been undereducated, financially dependent and generally oppressed by a patriarchal society, but these badass female pirates broke away from a society that treated them as weak and stepped into the life of fierce buccaneers. Shrouded in myth, these legendary pirate kweens have left a legacy of being unforgiving captains, shrewd business women and generally kick ass head bitches in charge.
1. Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny (Anne Cormac) was an Irish-born in 1690 redhead with a fiery spirit who became an iconic figure from the Golden Age of Piracy.
Her father William McCormac took Bonny to London to avoid his wife’s family and began calling her “Andy” and dressing her in boy's’ clothing. Her mother died when she was 12 and soon after her father changed their name to Cormac to better blend in and began working as a successful merchant, elevating them to affluent status.
Bonny was thought of as the eighteenth century version of wifey-material—except she had a wicked temper. There were rumors that she stabbed a servant girl at age 13. And a few years later when her father disowned her— after she married a small-time pirate, James Bonny—she set fire to her his plantation.
The Bonnys moved to an area in the Bahamas known as a the “Republic of Pirates.” It was there that she met John “Calico Jack” Rackman and they soon became lovers. They had a son in Cuba which she may have left with family but may have simply abandoned. After divorcing James Bonny, she joined Rackham and they were married.
The pirate power-couple met Mary Read (see below) and the trio stole the ship Revenge, recruited a new crew and enjoyed a few years of great success. They captured many (usually smaller) ships and acquired a hefty treasure.
In 1720, the Revenge was attacked by a King’s ship sent by the Governor of Jamaica. Most of the men were too drunk to fight but Bonny and Read fiercely held off the attackers for awhile. However, the ship was captured and they were all sentenced to death. Bonny and Read were both pregnant so they “pleaded their bellies,” exploiting a law that would let a pregnant woman live until she had her baby.
It is rumored that Bonny’s last words to her husband were, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.”
There is no record of Anne being hung or released. It is suspected that her father bought her freedom from the Governor of Jamaica and remarried her to a Virginian and she had eight kids and lived into her 80s. However, there is a chance she returned to her first husband or perhaps continued her life of piracy under a new alias.
2. Mary Read
Mary Read was Anne Bonny’s bestie and operated primarily under the alias Mark Read, passing as a man quite effectively.
Read began as a member of the British Army fighting in the War of Spanish Succession as a man. She then married and lived as a woman until her husband died and Read took to dressing as a man and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies.
She became a pirate when her ship was captured by Calico Jack (John Rackman) and Anne Bonny and they forced her to join their crew. Rackman and Bonny believed Read to be a man. It wasn't until Bonny confessed possible romantic feelings for Read, that she exposed her female gender. However, Read still continued to pass convincingly for a man
When their ship was attacked in 1790, Read and Bonny were forced to fight alone because the men were too drunk. It is believed that Read shot and killed one of the men hiding in the hole and injured a few others when they refused to come up and fight with the women.
She wasn’t hung right away with the rest of the crew because she was pregnant. Mary died in prison of a terrible fever or possibly in childbirth.
3. Elise Eskilsdotter
Elise Eskildotter began as a Norwegian noblewoman—the daughter of a knight. She became a pirate to avenge the death of her husband, another Norwegian knight, Olav Nilsson. He was murdered in 1455 by a powerful German colony. After his death she, along with her children, waged war against the German merchant-class. Eskildotter was a fiefholder, meaning she owned inherited property. However in 1468 kin Christian took away her fief because she was no longer to be trusted, thus ending her career in piracy.
4. Back From The Dead Red
Jacquotte Delahayne was a Caribbean pirate who had a rough start. Her mother died in childbirth and her father was murdered when she was young, leaving her alone to care for her mentally handicapped brother. It is through piracy that she acquired the means to give her brother a comfortable life, or so the legend goes.
The redheaded buccaneer's exploits and adventures were fodder for many stories and legends among pirates. “Back from the Dead Red” was a nickname awarded to her not only for her red locks but for faking her own death to escape arrest in the 1660s. After that, she took up a new alias as a man, under which she lived for several years. Once it was safe she resurfaced and returned to piracy, going by her new nickname.
5. Ingela Gathenhielm
Ingela Gathenhielm is a Baltic pirate who was wife and partner of Lars Gathenhielm. The pair had received permission from the king to attack and plunder ships from enemy nations on the Baltic Sea. However, that didn’t stop them from attacking whoever they wanted.
It is believed that Ingela was the brains behind many of her husband’s plans. She was not his only wife but she was his only professional partner. When Lars died in 1718, she took over his privateering affairs and entire pirate empire. During the war, she expanded both the business and the empire and earned herself the title “Shipping Queen.” When the Swedish peace treaty with Denmark was enacted in 1720 and later in Russia, the privateering business ended. Ingela remarried to a lieutenant and died five years later.
6. Cheng Shih
Cheng I Sao, also known as Cheng Shih, began working as a prostitute before marrying a powerful corsair, Cheng I in 1801. Together, they created a pirate empire of several hundreds of ships and over 50,000 men. The ruthless armada pillaged anything and everything from fishing vessels to coastal villages in Southern China. After Cheng I died in 1807, Cheng I Sao took over the fleet. Under her command, the fleet of over six hundred ships and nearly 70,000 men enjoyed immense financial success.
What Cheng I Sao is most known for is her strict code of conduct that she held all her men to. Any pirate who deserted had their ears chopped off. If she caught a man stealing they would be beheaded. If any man on her ship raped a female captive, she would behead them. Even if a man had consensual sex on duty they would have their head cut off with a battle axe and the woman would be cast off the ship tied to a cannonball. Cheng I Sao was not messing around.
Her ruthless nature and bloody reign earned her a spot as public enemy number one to the Chinese government. Eventually, the British and Portugese Navies caught up with her and she surrendered her ships, while keeping her treasure. She spent the rest of her life gambling and living it up. She died at age 69 as one of the most successful pirates in history.
7. Grace O’Mally
Grace O’Mally is an Irish pirate who commanded a 20-ship fleet in the sixteenth century. She was born into a very powerful clan that ruled over the coastline of western Ireland. She was also known as “Granuaille” or “Bald” because she kept her hair short.
In 1560 she took over the fleet and kept up the family way by continuing to pirate, pillage and plunder with impunity. Her targets were often English and Spanish shipping vessels and rival clans.
Her legacy lives on in folklore. One tale claims that she went into battle only a day after giving birth. But her notoriety eventually lead the authorities to find her. After a few brushes with the law and even an 18-month stay in jail, her fleet was eventually overtaken by British authorities in the early 1590s. The very wiley O’Malley did not give up, however, she appealed directly to Queen Elizabeth I, portraying herself as an old, broken-down woman.The 63-year old begged the Queen to return her ships and free one of her sons, and vowed to retire from her life of piracy. It worked and after they were freed O’Malley broke her promises and continued her life as a pirate until her death in 1603.
8. Rachel Wall
The true story of Rachel Wall is difficult to surmise from all is the myths and legend that surround her legacy. However, it is believed that she was the first American women to give piracy a try. The Pennsylvanian ran away from home and married George Wall, a fisherman. After the couple settled down in Boston they faced constant financial woes, so they turned to piracy. In 1781, They put together a rag-tag team of mariners and got a small boat that they sailed around New England.
They were not particularily ferocious, but they were smart and methodic in their ventures. After a big storm, the pirates would make their boat look like a distressed ship. Rachel would stand on the deck and use her womanly wiles to draw in passing ships to help them. When the rescuers came near enough the Walls and their crew would murder everyone on board and take all the valuables.
However, karma may have caught up to the crew in 1782 when a real storm destroyed their ship and killed George. Rachel continued to live a life of crime until she was arrested in 1789 for mugging a Boston woman. While behind bars she wrote a semi-confession: “Sabbath-breaking, stealing, lying, disobedience to parents, and almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder.” This however did not help her. She may have been the first American female pirate, but she was the last woman to be hanged in Massachusetts on October 8, 1789.
9. Sadie The Goat
Born Sadie Farrell, the Hudson and Harlem River pirate began life as a ruthless mugger in NYC’s bloody fourth ward. She was dubbed Sadie the Goat because she head-butted her victims in the stomach. Eventually, she was chased out of town by Gallus Mag, a bouncer at local dive Hole-In-The-Wall, after they got into a fight and Gallus Mag bit off Sadie’s ear.
Sadie left the city and took to the water after gathering a small crew and stealing a sloop in 1869.The gang of pirates would attack ships on the Hudson and Harlem rivers, pillage small villages and wealthy estates, and would often kidnap affluent people to hold for ransom. Their raids became so infamous among the local farmers that when they saw the sloop drawing near, they would throw fire at it. Sadie and her crew returned to the mainland where Sadie made peace with Gallus Mag who then returned her ear. Saide put the ear on a chain that she wore around her neck for the rest of her days.
10. Sayyida Al Hurra
Sayyida Al Hurra was an active contemporary of Turkish pirate Barbarossa. She ruled over the western Mediterranean Sea from 1515-1542 while Barbarossa took the east. This fearsome pirate Queen’s real name is unknown. Sayyida Al Hurra translates to “noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”
She turned to piracy to seek revenge on her “Christian enemy,” Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella who exiled her Muslim family out of Granada. Spanish and Portuguese newspapers from the time frequently reported on her pillaging and plundering and ransoms, making her a sixteenth century household name. She remarried to the king of Morocco but refused to give up her pirate empire.
Her rule came to a close in 1542 when her son-in-law overthrew her and took her place in command. She came to a mysterious end after her 30-year rule. The Yemen Times reported, “She was stripped of her property and power and her subsequent fate is unknown."
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