Disappearing Female Pirates and the Role of Story in History

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Macmillan Employee
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Happy International Pirate Month! Here are a few female figures from the extensive history of piracy to celebrate a pirate-centric August. 

First, though, it’s important to note that experiences of women on pirate ships are less documented than their male counterparts. It’s often hard to distinguish myth from history, and the ends of all these women’s lives below are not known. Still, their piracy careers are fascinating and worthy of study. 


Anne Bonny and Mary Read

These two famous English pirates both were active during the early 1700s, both were illegitimate children, and both dressed as men at different parts of their lives. 

Eventually, Anne Bonny left her sailor husband James Bonney to join the crew of John “Calico Jack” Rackman, where she dressed as a man when interacting with other ships. In one of these interactions, the ship took Mary Read, dressed as a man, prisoner. The two women became friends, fighting together on the ship. 

They eventually both stood trial in Jamaica and were found guilty, sentenced to be hanged. But, they were not killed at that time, as they were both found to be pregnant. While the primary source on these two pirates, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates says a lot, it doesn’t state what happened to these two women in the end. It also doesn’t say what is certainly true, and what might be myth.


Sayyida al-Hurra

When the Spanish armies conquered the Muslim Granada in 1492, Sayyida became a refugee and vowed to avenge herself. After she went to Chaouen, in present day Morocco, she married Abu al-Hasan al-Mandri. After he died in 1515, she became the sole governor of Tétouan and thus the last woman to hold the title of “al-Hurra.” This also makes her the last Islamic queen.

Twenty-three years after becoming a refugee, Sayyida assembled a fleet and started her piracy career by attacking Portuguese shipping routes in the Mediterranean. The profits from these exploits were used to rebuild her city. 

Still, Sayyida’s full story is not well documented, especially after she married the King of Morocco in 1541. We don’t know how she was deposed, but her career as a pirate and ruler was certainly prolific. 


Zheng Yi Sao (Ching Shih)

Ching Shih, or “Cheng’s widow” started her career in piracy after her husband’s death, taking over his fleet of 1,800 ships and 80,000 men. The two had married in 1801, and Ching died in 1807. Ching Shih then started a relationship with Ching’s adoptive son, whom she eventually married. 

Ching Shih then became leader of the infamous Red Flag Fleet, which she commanded until she retired in 1810. She died in 1844, but like all the female pirates on this list, not much is known about her later years. She also inspired the character Mistress Ching in The Pirates of the Caribbean


How do you approach the role of stories in history? Discuss in the comments! 

For more on pirates, check out the Bedford Document Collection Pirates and Empire in the Seventeenth Century Atlantic-World by David Head. 

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