Opinion: Aaaarrrrg! Women pirates
March is Women’s History Month, and in the past I’ve written about the history of women in various occupations, from lighthouse keepers to inventors to scientists. Today, I turn my attention to women pirates. Pirating was an unusual — to say the least — occupation for women because the vast majority of pirates were men, and it was considered to be bad luck to have a woman aboard a pirate ship. Nevertheless, a number of women managed to break through the rum-soaked curtain.
Although there are tales of women sea pilots and pirates in Asian waters going back more than a thousand years, our “western” experience of female piracy probably begins with Grace O’Malley (1530-1603). Grace was the daughter of a chieftain who ruled the area around Clew Bay, Ireland. At age sixteen, she married Donal O’Flaherty, moved into her husband’s castle, bore three children, and lived the good life until Donal died. Because women were not allowed to inherit property, she had to move out of her home, and she turned to piracy to support her kids.
Adept with both pistol and cutlass and having defeated several ships of the English Royal Navy, her conquests were known to Queen Elizabeth I. She was eventually captured and imprisoned while attacking the estate of the Earl of Desmond. However, she was pardoned in order to assist the queen in enforcing her policies in Ireland. She and her son Tibbot did so well that Tibbot was knighted Sir Theobold. Grace retired to Rockfleet Castle, where she died of old age. But, legend has it that she buried nine tons of gold treasure which was protected by a curse and never found.
The age of piracy
The years between 1650 and 1720 have been called “The Golden Age of Piracy.” A lot of pirate activity centered around the colonization of the Americas, mainly because of new trans-Atlantic trade routes as well as the slave trade, which involved the transport of European goods to Africa and the shipment of sugar, rum, and new-world products from the Americas to Europe.
During that time, some European countries were either at war with one another or were in fierce competition for imports from the Americas. So, a certain amount of piracy was not only tolerated but also sanctioned. Consequently, some pirates were called buccaneers or privateers and granted license (often called a letter of marque) to attack ships and steal the bounty of rival countries.
Anne Bonny came into the world as the “illegitimate” daughter of a wealthy Irish lawyer. Although born in Ireland, she was raised by her father and his mistress in Charleston, South Carolina. To hide her dubious parentage, her father had her dress as a boy and act as his law clerk for part of her childhood. In the early eighteenth century, she married a sailor and moved to the pirate-infested island of New Providence in the Bahamas. There, she left her husband to take up with “Calico” Jack Rackam, a successful pirate in the Caribbean.
Aboard “Calico” Jack’s ship, she showed that she could guzzle rum, curse, and wield a sword with the best of his crew. On one occasion, she nearly beat a man to death when he tried to force himself on her. She had a child by “Calico” Jack, but they abandoned the baby in Cuba. When their ship was boarded by authorities in Jamaica, only Anne and two crew members put up any resistance. “Calico” Jack and the rest of the crew were drunk.
After a speedy trial, her husband and most of the crew were sentenced to be hanged, but Anne was spared because she was pregnant again. As “Calico” Jack approached the hangman’s noose, he got little sympathy from Anne who shouted, “If you had fought like a man, you wouldn’t be hanged like a dog.” Anne’s whereabouts after the hanging is something of a mystery, but it is believed that she returned to live out her life in Charleston.
Mary Read was born to a penniless mother in England and spent most of her youth disguised as her deceased half-brother so that her mother could scam the dead boy’s grandparents. She later adopted the name Mark Read and worked at traditional men’s jobs, including soldier and merchant sailor. Around 1710, she joined Anne Bonny aboard “Calico” Jack’s ship, “The Revenge,” and became a pirate.
When The Revenge was boarded by authorities in Jamaica, she fought alongside Anne Bonny and one male crew member while the rest of the drunken crew cowered below decks. As she fought, she screamed at the non-combatants, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” After being captured, it was found that, like Anne, Mary was pregnant, so she was spared the noose. However, while in prison, she developed a fever and died.
Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, and little is known about her formative years. As a teenager, she used to hang around the waterfront. One day, she was attacked by a group of girls and was rescued by a fisherman named George Wall. After a while, they married, and the couple moved to Boston where they tried to scrape out a living. Lack of money, however, was a constant problem. Economic circumstances forced them to turn to a life of crime.
George secured a schooner, and he, Rachel, and five sailors became pirates. The crew began preying on ships, mostly off the coast of New Hampshire. They would wait for a storm and then disguise their ship to look as if it were damaged and about to sink. The comely Rachel would stand on deck and call to a passing ship for help. When the two ships were side by side, the pirates would board the rescue ship, kill the crew, and steal the goods.
During one storm, their ship actually did sink, and the crew was lost. However, Rachel survived, returned to Boston, and became a household servant. When she was caught stealing from her employer, she confessed to her crimes of piracy and was the last woman to be hanged in the state of Massachusetts.
This may not be the most pleasant story that you’ll hear this month, but it’s part of women’s history.
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at email@example.com.