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Women of the Sea: Female Pirates since the 1700s

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Now we continue with the stories of Women of the Sea: Female Pirates. We are in the midst of the Golden Age of piracy, a time immortalized in legends, books, films, and video games. The seas would yield some of the most famous pirates in history, including Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and Captain Kidd. Yet it would also yield additional female pirates, most left in relative obscurity except for their names.

And though we think of the Golden Age as the last hurrah for the pirates, it was not. Piracy would continue, albeit evolving to match the new technologies and political restructuring of the modern world. And women would evolve with them, carrying on the traditions that their foremothers had begun.

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

We start with the two most famous female pirates in history: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Despite their fame, however, they are two of the most obscure figures in historical record. Most of what we know comes from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, written in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson (who also remains a mysterious historical figure, though some believe it to be a pen name for Daniel Defoe). This account is highly speculative, and thus the biography that follows is also speculative in nature: handed to us by legend more than historical record, but captivating nonetheless.

Anne Bonny was born Anne Cormac sometime between 1698 and 1702 near Cork, Ireland. She was likely the illegitimate daughter of Irish lawyer William Cormac. Cormac eventually left his wife for Anne's mother, and the trio immigrated to Charles Towne, South Carolina (later renamed Charleston). Anne's mother, unfortunately, died when she was only 13.

Legend claims that Anne's spirit showed through early in life. It is reported that, while a young woman, Anne beat an attempted rapist so badly that the man had to be hospitalized!

In 1718, Anne was married to John Bonny, a sailor. They traveled to the Bahamas, where John became an informant for Governor Woodes Rogers. Yet Anne apparently did not care much for her husband, as she quickly became involved with John "Calico Jack" Rackham. She abandoned her husband in 1720 for Calico Jack, and assisted with commandeering the sloop William from Nassau Province. They began pirating merchant vessels along the Jamaican coast. Anne reportedly never hid her identity from her shipmates and only donned a male disguise when they were pillaging or participating in armed combat.

Eventually, Anne and Calico Jack were joined by Mary Read. Mary had been born in England, likely around 1690, to the widow of a sea captain. After her older brother's death, Mary was disguised by her mother as a boy in order to continue receiving financial support from her paternal grandmother. Eventually, Mary found work as a footboy and then a sailor - reportedly participating in the British campaigns during the Nine Years War or War of Spanish Succession (it is unclear which). Legend says that she fell in love with a Flemish soldier during the war, and eventually married him, but he died young. After his death, she again donned her male disguise and entered military service in Holland. How she traveled to the Caribbean is unknown, but by mid 1720 she had joined Anne and Calico Jack aboard the William.

The trio plundered for only a short time. Late in 1720, they were caught by Captain Jonathan Barnet at Negril Point, Jamaica. They were taken to Spanish Town for trial, where Calico Jack and his male shipmates met their deaths by hanging. Though Anne and Mary were also tried and found guilty of piracy, their sentences for death by hanging were stayed as it was discovered that both women were pregnant. (Reportedly, Mary had fallen in love with one of Calico Jack's prisoners onboard ship.) They were both taken to prison, when Mary died the next year. No record exists of her baby's birth or burial.

Anne, however, did not die in prison. Nor did she die by hanging. In fact, as no historical records exist to indicate where Anne went off to, it is believed that her father managed to maneuver her release or escape from prison shortly after Mary's death. It is unknown what happened to her or her baby, but family legend claims that they relocated to Charles Towne, where Anne lived out the rest of her days as a proper colonial woman.

Interview with Mary Read!

Other Women of the 1700s

Several other female pirates prowled the Caribbean and coast of the colonies during the 1700s, though very few records exist to confirm their lives and exploits. In fact, most of what we know is simply names, trial dates, hangings, and scraps of legend.

First is Mary Harley (also known as Mary Harvey), who was tried in Virginia in 1726. She died by the hangman's noose. Three years later, Mary Crickett followed Harley, also being tried and hung in Virginia.

Another pirate of this decade was Ingela Gathenhielm, who lived from 1692 to 1729. Ingela was a Swedish pirate operating in the Baltic Sea. She was the wife and partner of legendary Swedish pirate Lars Gathenhielm, and took control of Lars's pirate fleet following his death in 1718.

After 1741, we know that a pirate by the name of Flora Burn was operating along the eastern coast of America. We don't know how successful she might have been or if she was ever caught.

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During the course of the American Revoluiton, Rachel Wall gained infamy as a female pirate, becoming known as the first truly "American" female pirate. Records indicate that she was born in 1760 and married to George Wall in 1776. Wall was a former privateer serving in the Revolutionary War. Rachel operated along the coast of New England, likely aiding the war effort by plundering British ships. In 1789, she was accused of robbery, confessed to being a pirate, and died by the noose.

Ching Shih

A famous pirate of the late 1700s and early 1800s was Ching Shih, who operated out of China. An excellent video detailing her exploits is below.

19th Century Pirates

Though the Golden Age of Piracy had come to a close in the Americas, pirate activity did not cease in other areas of the world. In fact, it was just getting started.

In 1806, Australia gained its first female pirate. Charlotte Badger, a convict en route to Australia, joined the crew of the ship Venus due to a shortage of manpower. Eventually, the crew mutinied and Charlotte became a significant player in Australian and South Pacific waters. However, historical record does not indicate much about her life and exploits. According to legend, the crew quickly abandoned most of the female convicts on board - including Catherine Hagerty and Charlotte Edgar - to the Bay of Islands with a supply of stores. These convicts were eventually found, and Edgar would go on to become one of the first settlers of New Zealand, but nothing was ever heard of Charlotte Badger again.

Across the world, Johanna Hard became Sweden's last female pirate. She was born in 1789 and had become widowed by 1823. Records indicate that she was a farm owner on Vrango Island, but her ownership did not last. Along with her farmhands, Johanna stole after the Danish ship Frau Mette on a fishing vessel, asking the crew of the Frau Mette for fresh water. Once on board, Johanna and her crew killed the crew, beached the ship, and plundered the stores. The crew was eventually arrested for piracy, but evidence against Johanna was claimed to be insufficient. She was released and disappeared from the historic record.

Gunpowder Gertie

One of the last great hurrahs of female pirates came from Canada! In 1879, a lass named Gertrude Imogene Stubbs was born in Whitby, England, to a train engineer and his seamstress wife. Legend claims that little Gertie had a love of the sea from the start, spending her childhood riding in her father's trains and listening to stories told by sea captains at the local docks. In 1895, her family emigrated to Sandon in Canada, where her father accepted a job running trains for the K & S Railway. They traveled by steamer, further enhancing Gertie's love of the sea.

Unfortunately, Gertie's mother was killed only a month after they arrived. An avalanche destroyed her home, with her mother inside, while Gertie watched as she was returning home from work at a local general store. Afterwards, her father became an alcoholic gambler and died only a year later. Gertie was now left in a strange new land, penniless and alone. She was unable to continue work on the trains as train companies refused to hire women.

Frustrated, she cut her hair short and disguised herself as a man; she was hired on as a coal hand to sternwheelers. Unfortunately for Gertie, she was soon caught in a boiler accident that sent her to the local hospital, where her true identity was revealed. She was fired from the sternwheeler without pay or recompense for her injuries, which infuriated her. Gertie swore vengeance against the steam lines.

On February 13, 1898, Gertie managed to steal the Provincial Police's new patrol boat, the Witch. No one knows how she did it, as she would have had to get the boat off the train it had been delivered on and into the water. She hand-sewed a Jolly Roger flag and remained the boat the Tyrant Queen. She began her career by robbing the S.S. Nasookin at gunpoint, and continued steaming up and down rivers to attack and rob steamboats with her Gatling gun and growing crew.

In 1903, one of her own crew betrayed her. Bill Henson provided information on her whereabouts and how to capture her to police in exchange for a handsome reward and a promise of clemency. Gertie was caught and sentenced to life imprisonment for her crimes. She died of pneumonia in 1912, taking the location of her treasure to her grave. No one has ever found where she stored all that loot.

Chinese Women Pirates

Communist propaganda on female pirates

Communist propaganda on female pirates

Finally, we come to the 20th century female pirates. All of the known ones are from China, though whether female pirates operated - and continue to operate - in areas such as off the coast of Africa is relatively unknown.

The most well-documented female pirate from China is Lo Hon-Cho, who operated briefly around 1920. In 1921, following her husband's death, it is reported that she took command of his 64-ship pirate fleet. She gained a reputation as the most ruthless of all China's pirates, attacking villages and fishing fleets in the seas around Beihai. She was known for capturing a number of women from the villages to sell into slavery. In 1922, her fleet was intercepted by a Chinese warship, and 40 of her vessels were destroyed. Fearing for their lives, Lo Hon-Cho was handed in to authorities by her remaining crewmen in exchange for clemency.

Two other Chinese women were notorious pirates. The first is Lai Sho Sz'en, who prowled the waters from 1922 to 1939 with a fleet of 12 ships. The second is Huang P'ei-mei, who operates from the 1930s to 1950s and supposedly commanded a fleet of over 50,000 men. Little detail exists about their lives, however, as the communist regime in China destroyed or hid many historical records.


Sherry Johnson on January 05, 2017:

"The story of Gunpowder Gertie was told as an April fools joke in the local Kootenay area newspaper, the Kootenay Review. So many people believed that it was true that it was later retold as historical fact on the CBC program, This Day in History. The story of Gunpowder Gertie was written by Carolyn McTaggart, a local storyteller and resident of the Kootenays." from the wikipedia entry on Gertrude Stubbs.

Denis Lubojanski from 7 Station Street, London on March 01, 2016:

Nice article. To be honest, I have never seen anything tat described above. But I am sure that I am gonna see Anne Bonny and Mary Read tonight.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on January 15, 2014:

Years ago there was this show called Pirates starting up on tele. I had visions of pirate leaders of both genders and their blood curdling histories being displayed in dramatic action. What did the show turn out to be? Some damnable 'reality' game thingy. Boy was I spitting chips about that one.

Tarrin Lupo from Peterborough NH on January 15, 2014:

Awesome finds.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on January 14, 2014:

Very entertaining.

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