|by Jacqueline Church Simonds
Captain Mary, Buccaneer
Captain Mary, Buccaneer is a work of fiction. However, there were many women pirates in history. Here are profiles of 5 of them: Cheng I Sao / Ching Shih of the early 19th century, Mary Read and Ann Bonny in the 18th century (both were used as inspiration in "Captain Mary, Buccaneer"), Grace O’Malley/Granuaile, the Irish "Pirate Queen" of the 17th Century, and Alwilda the 5th century Scandinavian pirate.
|Cheng I Sao / Ching Shih||Mary Read||Ann Bonny||Grace O’Malley/Granuaile||Alwilda|
|Cheng I Sao / Ching Shih||
In 1805, Cheng I Sao (wife of Cheng) or Ching Shih became the leader of the infamous Red Flag Fleet, a confederation of pirates with over 1500 ships that ranged the whole Chinese coast and South to Malaysia. When Cheng died in 1807, Cheng I Sao took charge as a sort of admiral and placed Chang Pao, formerly her husband’s right-hand man, in command of the operation of the fleet. Shortly, they became involved with each other and later married. The discipline Cheng I Sao imposed was formidable, with punishments much more severe than the pirate "articles" of the Caribbean. Most offences were punishable by beheading. Her battle plans were just as ruthless. Many engagements of the Red Flag Fleet were conducted by hundreds of ships, each with twenty to twenty-five cannons, and upwards of two-thousand pirates. The pirate ships were shallow-hulled junks that had wide sails, but had as many as twenty oars to be rowed up rivers. Not only was her fleet engaged in acts of piracy, they also extorted money as "protection" from the pirates themselves.
Chinese officials tried many tactics to bring the Red Flag Fleet to justice, but every expedition to eradicate the pirates failed. The Chinese navy lost sixty-three ships in the attacks. Twice, the Red Flag Fleet was ambushed by citizens of beset villages, only to have their towns burnt to the ground and the men slaughtered. Even the navies of Portugal and Britain could not defeat Cheng I Sao. In desperation, a general amnesty was offered to all pirates in 1810 and Cheng I Sao decided to take advantage of it. She negotiated pardons for almost all of her men, and even managed to get Chang Pao a lieutenancy in the Chinese Army. She retired with all of her fortune, ran a gambling house and had at least one son with Chang Pao before dying in 1844. Some historians say that she was the "best pirate who ever lived."
Mary Read was born in England and raised as a boy so that her widowed mother could get money from her husband's parents. About the age of 12, Mary served as a "footman" for a Lady. Later she joined the Flemish army and fought as an infantryman. No one knew the soldier was a woman until her heart got the better of her. She fell in love with a fellow soldier, who at first was alarmed at the advances of this "man." She finally revealed herself to be a woman and the soldier became enamored of her. At the end of the conflict, they revealed their secret to their fellow soldiers. The unit gave them a lavish wedding and chipped in to buy them a tavern near Breda, The Netherlands.
Alas, happiness was not to last and Mary’s husband died of an illness soon after. Having nothing better to do with herself, Mary donned her male disguise and went to sea on a ship to the West Indies. As was common in that time (see this website, Pirate Facts), pirates captured the vessel and pressed the captured crew into pirate life. Mary apparently took to the life of piracy very well. She was said to "Swear and Shoot as well as any Mann." She fell in love with a sailor — who apparently didn’t return her affections. When the sailor offended another pirate and was challenged to a duel, Mary created an offense with the pirate that also demanded a duel — only she scheduled their face-off a half-hour before her would-be lover’s. Then she promptly killed the man, thus saving her love interest. He was less than grateful.
As luck would have it, the ship Mary boarded belonged to "Calico Jack" Rakam. Aboard this vessel was the only other woman pirate of the Caribbean, Ann Bonny. Bonny, although she was openly living with Calico Jack, was attracted to one of the new crew and made her interests know to the "fellow," who revealed "himself" to be Mary Read. There are some historians who believe there may have been a sexual relationship between the two.
Ann Bonny was born in Ireland, the product of a married lawyer and his wife’s maid. Their union created so much of a scandal that the threesome left to join the South Carolina colony and start a plantation. Ann was a wild child, riding and shooting as well or better than boys her age. Then she fell in love with a poor seaman by the name of Bonny and ran away with him. The two ended up in New Providence, Bahamas, then a pirate stronghold.
Ann and Bonny soon had a parting of the ways when raffish Calico Jack showed up. There are differing accounts, but it seems that there was an attempt at a Common Law Divorce in which Calico Jack offered money or barter for Ann’s freedom from her husband. Some historians say Ann was too proud to go through with it. In any case, the three were jailed and, once freed, Bonny and Calico Jack left the island for the pirate’s life. Ann wore men’s clothes when the crew went to action.
Calico Jack and his crew were captured by the British in 1721. It was said that while Calico Jack and most of the crew stayed below decks drinking and gambling rather than face their foes. Mary, Ann and a few others fought bravely, but were eventually captured. The crew were taken to trial in Spanishtown, Jamaica and sentenced to die by hanging. At this point, Mary and Ann (still in men’s clothes) stepped forward and said "Sir, We plead our bellies" — meaning they were pregnant. The court went into an uproar. No one had ever heard of women behaving in such a manner. But the women knew their legal standing. English law forbade the hanging of a pregnant woman (taking of an unborn life) until they came to term, at which point the mother would be executed and the baby turned over to an orphanage. A doctor confirmed that the women were, indeed, both about six months along. Before the pirate crew was hanged, they testified to both women behaving as men — especially Mary’s would-be (& possibly the father of the baby) lover. Apparently, this was an attempt to have the women hanged with the rest of the crew. The women were, however, spared. Mary Read died a few months later of a fever. Bonny either escaped or was bailed out by her rich father — depending upon what source you believe.
|Grace O’Malley / Granuaile||
Grace O’Malley or Granuaile is often described as a sort of "pirate queen." Born in 1530 in Connaught on the West coast of Ireland, the daughter of a chieftain whose clan ruled the area from several castles and a fleet of ships–until the British put the Irish under their rule. Grace went to sea on her clan’s ships very early in life. Granuaile means "bald"–a name which apparently came from her decision to cut her hair short like the men. Otherwise, Grace at first had a very common life; in 1546 she married a young man and had three children by him. When he died, she returned to her clan and took over the fleet, which numbered at least one galley–one of the few in Ireland.
Grace remarried in 1566 and moved to County Mayo where she raided other clans and attacked passing merchant ships. When the British came to stop her piratical attacks, Grace fought back, eventually forcing them to retreat. She continued her activities, but now focused more on harassing the British. A later raid on Limerick in 1577 saw her capture and imprisonment for 18 months.
Grace’s husband died and she found herself without lands or financial support–Irish law did not guarantee that the wife could inherit the husband’s land. She began raiding the English holdings nearby. This incurred the wrath of the Governor of the province, Sir Richard Bingham, who had her fleet impounded in 1593. Grace felt this was so unjust, she appealed to Queen Elizabeth I by letter and then–when Bingham arrested her son–in person. She asked that the Queen have her fleet released and give Grace an annual stipend to live on for the rest of her days so that she would not have to pirate. She also vowed to fight the Queen’s enemies. No record was made of the meeting (although there are many stories and poems of the encounter), but it did occur, since the Queen wrote to Bingham to do as Grace wished. Bingham kept the ships impounded until he was replaced by his successor. Grace’s son took over the fleet, and was as loyal to the Crown as his mother, as he was made Viscount Mayo in 1627. Grace O’Malley died in 1603.
There is some doubt of Alwilda’s actual existence; many scholars believe her tale to be a legend. The daughter of a Scandinavian king, her father arranged a marriage with Alf, the Prince of Denmark. Alwilda objected to her father’s choice and decided to leave home. She and some of her female friends dressed in men’s clothes and took a ship into the Baltic. There they encountered a pirate ship that had just lost its captain. The pirates were impressed by Alwilda and voted her their captain. In short order, the pirates became successful enough to raise the ire of the King of Denmark. He sent his son, Prince Alf, and his finest soldiers to deal with the troublesome pirates. Prince Alf and crew attacked the pirates and boarded them, fighting until the pirates surrendered. Alwilda was so impressed with Alf, she changed her mind and decided to marry Alf — eventually becoming Queen of Denmark.
For More Information, go to
Women Pirates Generally:
Ann Bonney & Mary Read:
Grace O’Malley/ Granuaile: