Swashbuckling Sisters: 6 Lady Pirates

Anne Bonny, John Rackham, and Mary Reid Pirate Anne Bonny (left) and Mary Reid (right) served on the crew of the John Rackham in the early 18th century. We’ve all heard of Blackbeard, Redbeard, and Bluebeard, but what about the beardless privateers? Even at the height of piracy, there were fewer than a dozen female pirates but an astonishing number of fearless pirates. A woman was sailing the seven seas.

Jeanne de Clisson

A good story is often a better story when retold. Therefore, it can be difficult to distinguish what is real and what is legend. However, if the legend of Jeanne de Clisson (née Jeanne Louise de Belleville) is to be believed, she was a bad mother. Literally. Jeanne de Clisson was a mother of seven children when the Reign of Terror began. The death of the Duke of Brittany during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th century sparked a territorial dispute between France and England over the region.

Joan’s second husband, Sir Olivier de Clisson, was captured during this conflict and killed by  King Philip VI of France. He was executed as a traitor. Enraged, Joan (according to her two sons) went to sea and began attacking the French army. By selling her family’s assets, she was able to purchase three ships painted black and equipped with red sails. Although the full extent of her ruthlessness is somewhat unclear, she is said to have personally beheaded every French aristocrat she encountered.

Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille) 

 Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s ‘pirate queen,’ is one of the most notorious privateers of either gender.  She was born in 1530 and grew up in a seafaring family led by her father. She married successfully (twice) and basically spent her time protecting her fortune by any means necessary. And embezzling other people’s property to boot. Legend has it that Grace was reckless and fearless, gave birth to one of her sons on board the ship, and fought to protect her ship the next day. As if that wasn’t enough, Grace plucked up the courage to request an audience with none other than Queen Elizabeth. She demanded the release of her captured brother and sons. And the queen obeyed.

Chin Shi 

Chin Shi was not only a very famous pirate but also perhaps the most successful. Little is known about her childhood other than that she was a prostitute, but she was captured by a pirate named Cheng Yi in 1801, and she later became Cheng Yi’s wife. I did. Together, they sailed the seas and organized an army of pirates known as the Red Banner Fleet. Upon Cheng Yi’s death in 1807, she assumed command of a fleet of several hundred ships and approximately 50,000 pirates. She imposed a strict code of conduct on them, with most violations punishable by beheading. The fleet proved so unstoppable, sometimes even traveling up the river in small boats and attacking cities and towns not on the coast, that Chinese admirals committed suicide without being captured. Eventually, she was offered amnesty by the Chinese government and retreated to the countryside with her spoils.

Anne Bonny 

Anne Bonny. Irish-American pirate Anne Bonny (1698?-1782?). His nickname is Annie Bonnie. Born in Kinsale, Ireland, her real name is Anne Cormack. Excerpt from source file Asset 177069 (IC code piratp002). Anne Bonny was a pioneer. She was born in Ireland (née Anne Cormack), but she later immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a teenager. She married sailor John Bonney against her father’s objections, and she sailed into the iconic sunset with him.

When her marriage didn’t work out, she befriended notorious pirate John (“Calico Jack”) Rackham. Together, they captured ships and began plundering along the coast of Jamaica. Women were considered unlucky on the ship, but unlike crew member Mary Read, Anne did little to hide her gender (more on her next time). In 1720, Rackham and his crew were taken prisoner. The male crew members were hanged for piracy, but Bonnie and Reed received suspended sentences on the grounds that only women were allowed to be pregnant. Bonnie was later released and lived the rest of his life more quietly.

Mary Reed 

Mary Reed was born an illegitimate child, but she was raised as a legitimate child. Her half-brother was given birth at sea by her mother shortly after her husband’s death and was to be taken care of by her grandmother until he reached adulthood. When he died, Mary’s mother immediately became pregnant with Mary and, after giving birth, tried to pass her off as her dead son. But this plan came to an end as her grandmother became wiser.

However, Mary’s mother continued to dress her like a boy so that she could employ her as a domestic helper. She worked on ships and also joined the military as a man. While traveling on her Dutch ship, Mary was captured by “Calico Jack” Rackham and his crew. She soon became friends with Rackham’s lover, Anne Bonny,  who discovered her secret. They raided with the best of them, but it didn’t last long. When they were finally captured, both were spared execution by claiming to be “pregnant,” but Mary died in prison.

Rachel Wall 

Rachel Wall (née Schmidt) is considered America’s first female pirate. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1760. When she was 16, she married George Wall, and soon the couple moved to Boston, where Rachel worked as a maid, and George worked as a fisherman. Their work brings in little money, and George plans to become a pirate. They went out to sea with a small crew and, weather permitting, fished. After the storm, they pretended to be shipwrecked and robbed those seeking help.

This plan worked for about a year until, like Boy and Wolf, we got caught in a storm, and the boat was irreparably damaged. Rachel survived, but George met an untimely end. After her husband’s death, she continued her life of crime, committing robberies in the countryside and occasionally engaging in prostitution. She was eventually arrested for assaulting a young woman, and after she confessed to crimes including piracy, she was sentenced to death. She was the last woman to be executed in Massachusetts.

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