A Short History of Lady Pirates

Slate's Culture Blog
May 17 2011 12:38 PM

A Short History of Lady Pirates

The new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides , opens this Friday. Inthe film, the fourth in the franchise, Pen é lopeCruz will match sabers with Johnny Depp as Angelica, strong-willed daughterof the legendary Blackbeard. The news raised eyebrows: a lady pirate? Rare itwas, we thought, to encounter a woman in the briny annals of maritime villainy.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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But aswe scoffed, a strange schooner glided silently up Connecticut Avenue to the Slate office, cannons lowered. There was a flash we suddenly found at our feet asea-stained package, wrapped in twine and inked with letters from an unknownhand: Seafaring Women: Adventures of PirateQueens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives , by David Cordingly,published by Random House in 2001.

Cordinglyserved for twelve years as Head of Exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum inGreenwich, England. (He also has a new book out this week: PirateHunter of the Caribbean , on the 18 th -century sea captainWoodes Rogers.) From his earlier book, we learn that women rarely dared thecramped conditions and physical hardship of life at sea. Sailorssuperstitiously considered the fairer sex unlucky, and pirates especiallydreaded the discord and jealousy they believed would run in the wake of femalecompanionship. But a few undaunted women bucked the trend, following theirlovers or their fortunes into the deep. Cordingly's tome in hand, here's ourlist of the most dastardly lady marauders ever to brave the tides.  

Thepirate queen known only as Cheng I Sao, or "wife of Cheng," started out as aprostitute in Canton. In 1801, she married the raider Cheng I, who wasorganizing a confederation of sea brigands to prey on fishing and cargo boatsaround the Southern edge of China. When Cheng died in 1807, Mrs. Cheng seizedher chance and took full control of the operation. Eventually, she governedmore than 50,000 pirates. She was notorious for her ruthless sentencing: Lootersthat disobeyed orders were summarily beheaded, and first-time deserters losttheir ears. Mrs. Cheng also entered into a politic fling with a promising younglieutenant, Chang Pao, after appointing him captain of the Red Flag Fleet, hermost powerful squadron. Trouble arrived when the Chinese government soughtprotection against the pirates from the British and Portuguese navy. To avoidan epic battle, Mrs. Cheng brought 17 women and children with her to theGovernor-General's house and asked for pardon. She got it, along withpermission to keep the wealth she'd acquired through plundering. Then, clearlycraving respectability, she retired to open a gambling house in Canton.

Growingup in 16 th -century Ireland, Grace O'Malley earned the nicknameGranuaille ("bald") because she cut her hair short like a boy's. She was thedaughter of an Irish chieftain and took to the seas early her family owned anargosy of ships that they used in occasional raids on neighboring clans. Grace eventuallyinherited her father's fleet and began attacking merchant vessels; in the1570s, she became such a menace that Governor Edward Fitton of Connaught launchedan expedition against her. (She repelled his navy in 1574, but was captured andbriefly imprisoned three years later.) Grace is perhaps most famous for sendinga late-in-life letter to the Queen of England, in which she defended hermarauding lifestyle and asked for "some reasonable maintenance for the littletime" she had left on earth. In September 1593, she actually sailed to Londonand met the Queen in her Greenwich palace. Five days later, the governor ofConnaught received a royal directive to arrange for O'Malley's maintenance.(Perhaps the Queen was charmed by the notion of the graying pirate "invad[ing]with fire and sword all your highness's enemies" another memorable line fromthe letter.)

In the early18 th century, the piratesses Anne Bonny and Mary Read sailed under atwo-bit rogue called Calico Jack (after his motley garb).

Mary wasborn out of wedlock to an English woman, whose husband had disappeared at sea.When her legitimate son died, Mary's mother disguised the girl as her brotherso that she could fleece her mother-in-law for money. Mary took a shine to thelife masculine and, in drag, joined the crew of a merchant ship but en route tothe West Indies, her vessel was overtaken by English raiders and she was forcedto become a pirate. Still disguised as a man, Mary enlisted under Calico Jack in1720 and caught the eye of the only other woman on deck Jack's paramour, AnneBonny.

Anne,too, had been raised as a boy, in Cork, Ireland. Her philandering father wantedto keep his beloved bastard daughter at home without disgracing his name, so hetold neighbors he had taken in a young "gentleman" to train as a lawyer'sclerk. When Anne and Mary sailed together onboard the William , only Jack knew that Anne was a woman, and neither had aclue about Mary. But Mary had to come clean after Anne attempted to seduce herin private. (The two ladies notified Jack later, sensing his jealousy for thehandsome new sailor.)

Over onebrief year, Jack's crew looted more than twelve vessels around Jamaica and theBahamas before a pirate hunter named Jonathan Barnet closed in on them.Reportedly, the entire band surrendered quietly except for Mary and Anne.Brandishing cutlasses and pistols, they shouted, swore, and triedunsuccessfully to rally the others. In 1721, they were sentenced to hang inKingston. But a last-minute medical examination brought the women unexpectedreprieve: The executions were called off when it was discovered that both Anneand Mary were pregnant. Having "pleaded the belly," Mary languished in prisonfor several months before dying of fever. Anne, thought to be carrying Jack'schild, is more of a mystery. She vanished from the historical record soon afterher trial Cordingly speculates that her well-connected father spirited her awayto live as a homemaker in Charlestown, South Carolina.

IfAngelica is anything like these true-to-life hellcats, Captain Jack Sparrowshould be thrilled to have her aboard. A word to the wise, though, Jack: If youborrow her eyeliner, ask first.

Photograph of CaptainJack (Johnny Depp) and Angelica (Pen é lope Cruz) in  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides  by Peter Mountain © DisneyEnterprises, Inc.

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