How do you picture a pirate – A swarthy, weather-beaten man? Eye-patch? A bit like Jack Sparrow of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fame? You could be right – but they weren’t all men - some were women, and reputedly fiercer than the men. Pirates have always been around, pillaging and marauding, and there are still modern pirates on the high seas. Ocean shipping moves up to 90% of all internationally traded goods, and every year, dozens of ships come under attack from pirates.

They want the same as always - cash, cargo, and perhaps ransom. The Singapore Straits and off the coast of Peru see the most pirate attacks, where pirates boldly target commercial vessels for sea-jackings, hoping to capture the ships or tankers themselves and their contents, dangerously opening fire at close range with the crew being ditched, murdered or set adrift. An entire ship with cargo might be worth millions.

Blackbeard was probably the most feared pirate ever in the 1700’s and is a figure of mystery. His beard was said to come up to his eyes, he reportedly carried three braces of pistols and stuck lighted matches under his hat to cloud himself in an ominous haze of smoke.

Introducing some of the ladies

Although most pirates in history have been men, there are around a hundred known female pirates (well there’s a tick for feminists) often disguising themselves as men. In the early 1700s, fiery-tempered Irishwoman Anne Bonny started pirating disguised as a man on the ship of Calico Jack Rackham and became his pirate partner and lover, and was reportedly more menacing than her male counterparts. She also teamed up with another woman, Mary Read, who also dressed as a man. Bonny and Read became friends, both said to fight with a machete in one hand and a pistol in the other. All three were captured and sentenced to death, but the women begged for mercy because they were pregnant, and the court granted them a stay of execution until they gave birth. Read died of a fever in jail in April 1721 (likely due to pregnancy complications), but Bonny's fate is unknown.

Another successful woman was said to be one of the most successful pirates in history. Named Ching Shih, a privateer for the Vietnamese Tây Sơn dynasty. Born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, she married a pirate named Ching I in 1801, and together they consolidated control of the region's rival pirate gangs into a confederation, and when Ching I died, she took over the reins.

Nicknamed the ‘Pirate Queen’ at the height of her power, she controlled between 40,000 and 60,000 pirates using a code of law. She broke up the confederation in 1810 and negotiated a generous surrender deal with the Chinese government. Not only were the remaining pirates pardoned for their crimes, but some were allowed to keep their vessels and joined the Chinese navy. Some even took positions in the government!

Grace O’Malley was born in 1530 and is another one from Ireland. She forged a career in seafaring and piracy and was later considered a fierce leader at sea and a shrewd politician on land. She defended the independence of her territories at a time when much of Ireland fell under English rule and earned the name ‘the pirate queen of Ireland.’ Legend has it that the young Grace wanted to travel on an expedition with her father and was told she couldn't go as her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes. To embarrass her father, she cut off most of her hair which earned her the nickname ‘Gráinne Mhaol’, meaning ‘Bald Grace’. During her life, some considered her a bold and courageous heroine, while others thought of her as a cutthroat thief.

Why did these ladies become pirates?

Strangely it was believed that having a woman board a private vessel was bad luck, but these women somehow managed to be in it either for the money, for the adventure, or to escape terrible situations.

History has largely ignored these female swashbucklers. They came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a desire for freedom.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan