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Top 5: Fearless Female Pirates


Five women who bravely appropriated one of the most masculine roles in history.

Of all the human roles, the one played by pirates, those navigators of the unclaimed oceans and ruthless thieves of the sea, is perhaps the one that we most identify as being masculine — particularly in the case of 18th century European pirates. Their barbarism, and why not, bravery, has made them survive history as some of the most enigmatic and cruelest characters of recent centuries.

As a result it is especially exciting when, charting the history of those characters, we suddenly come across women who made piracy their profession and their life, and not only in England but around the world and in different epochs. Following are four female pirates who are worth remembering and who, before fiercely boarding ships and galleons, took by force a social role that had long been exclusively occupied by men:

1. Queen Teuta of IIlyria, one of the examples of a woman pirate who dates back the farthest. After the death of her husband, she ruled the area of the Balkan Peninsula known as Illyria from 231 until 228 B.C., conquering territories and intercepting and sacking Roman ships. Her corsairs dominated the Adriatic and Ionian seas and the maritime route between Greece and Italy. After her four-year reign Illyria had added numerous territories and enormous wealth, but in 227 B.C. it was forced to surrender to the Romans.

2. Jeanne de Clisson (1300-1359), “the lioness of Brittany,” whose story is full of tragedy and revenge. She was a Breton noblewoman and mother whose husband – accused of treason – was decapitated by the French king Philip VI during the territorial wars between France and England. She swore she would avenge his death and, a short time later, sold her land to buy three warships that she painted black and bedecked with sails the color of blood. Between 1343 and 1356 her fleet sailed the English Channel, hijacking Philip VI’s ships and decapitating any nobleman on board with an axe. Surprisingly, after a few years, she married again and returned to a quiet life. Some say her ghost still walks the corridors of Clisson castle.

3. Mary Read (1690-1721) was the bastard daughter of an English widow. Her father had been a seaman. One of her characteristic traits is that Mary used to dress as a man – since she was a child, her mother disguised her in her dead brother’s clothes to procure money from her paternal grandmother. Years later she joined the British Navy, passing herself off as “Mark Read”. After the death of her Flemish soldier lover, Read sailed for the Americas but her ship was attacked en route by pirates who persuaded her to join their ranks. Mary was one of the crew aboard Revenge, a famous pirate ship, along with Anne Bonny and her famous lover captain Calico Jack. It is said that only the two of them knew she was a woman. Read soon joined forces with another crewmember of the ship, who became her husband and, when Revenge was finally captured she was able to have her life spared because she was pregnant. She died of fever in prison.

4. Anne Bonny (1700-1782), an Irish pirate known for her unruly red hair. She became notorious after marrying the corsair Jack Bonny with whom, after being disinherited by her wealthy father, she fled to the Bahamas, in those days the refuge of numerous pirate communities. She split from Bonny and became the lover of Calico Jack Rackham, sailing the seas together aboard Revenge until the ship was captured and she blamed Calico Jack for the defeat. It is said that the last words she said to her lover before he was hanged were: “I’m so sorry to see you there, but if you had fought like a man they wouldn’t hang you like a dog.” Anne’s life was spared due to her pregnancy; some say that her father paid a large sum to have his daughter released.

5. Ching Shih (1775-1844). A poor prostitute kidnapped by Chinese pirates in 1801 and married the famous corsair Zheng Yi, who had a fleet of 300 ships and some 40,000 seamen. When he died, Ching Shih took control of the so-called ‘red-flag fleet’ and grew it in size to some 1,800 ships. She formed her own government, charging taxes from all those who wanted to sail within her dominions and decapitating anybody who did not comply with her orders. Other versions of the story maintain that she used to nail her enemies’ toes to the deck of the ship before beating them to death. Ching Shih’s fleet was attacked several times by English and Portuguese ships but they were never able to defeat it, prompting the Cantonese authorities to offer an amnesty to the powerful pirate. This meant that she would have to kneel before a government official. To avoid doing so, a government official served as a witness at her wedding with one of her trusted men, which meant the couple would have to kneel, and which was accepted as a surrender, as simply kneeling to those she had defeated time and again at sea was unacceptable.

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