Scalawags, swashbucklers, bottles of rum, and a cries of “Yo, ho ho?” Not for female pirates—they sailed the seas as impresarios, coordinators and directors. There were not many female pirates as seamen believed having a woman onboard brought bad luck; women donned men’s clothing for their adventures at sea. No films, plays or books dedicated to piracy on the high seas for the distaff side, women made their mark in history.
The Queen of Illyria named Teuta sailed the ocean blue in 232 B.C. When her spouse sailed out of our known world, Teuta decided her flotilla of small, swift vessels (Lembi) would combat then ransack the picturesque and thriving towns along the Adriatic. Teuta was a hands-on pirate and could often be found joining her sailors in the pillaging. That motivated the towns to trek inland abandoning the coast to Illyria until Rome decided enough was enough and brought Teuta to heel—her fleet was disbanded.
Halfway through the 9th century, Alfhild of the Valkyries was born. Daughter of King Siward of the Goths, she commanded her own fleet of longships, with crews of female buccaneers who plundered towns long the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Alfhild’s chamber is said to have been protected by a lizard and a snake which kept her suitors at bay. A Danish prince named Alf crushed Alfhild’s guards but the lady scorned his marriage proposal and decided to remain a pirate and dressed as a man in chain mail accessorized by a sword and the fashionable horned helmet. Alf and Alfhid were destined to meet again—he searched and found her fleet off the coast of Finland. After a bloody battle Alfhild lost her helmet and was recognized. The fighting came to an end and Alf embraced Alfhild who had sailed her last sea as a Valkyrie. Dear reader—she married Alf.
Anne McCormac came into this world around 1697 in Kinsale, Ireland—the daughter of a lawyer, William McCormac and a housemaid Mary Brennan. McCormac left his wife and Ireland for London bringing Mary and Anne with him. He began dressing Anne as a boy and calling her “Andy”—guess he wanted a son. When his family discovered their whereabouts, they moved to a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina where McCormac changed his name to Cormac and after a rough start joined a mercantile business and made a good deal of money. Poor Mary passed on when Anne was twelve.
Anne had a temper to match her red hair and at thirteen she is thought to have stabbed a servant girl. She married a sailor and pirate named James Bonney who did poorly at both jobs. Her father disowned her. The couple moved to Nassau on New Providence Island—a haven for pirates where Anne began socializing with pirates in taverns and met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a colorful dresser and Captain of the pirate sloop Vanity with its notorious skull and bones flag—Rackham and Bonney fell in love. Farewell to James Bonney—Anne considered him a coward for accepting the pardon of Bahamian Governor Woods Rogers and becoming his informant. Anne, once again, disguised herself as a man, joined Rackham’s pirate crew and married the scoundrel.
Mary Read’s mother was married to a seaman who went on a long voyage and disappeared from their lives. After waiting many years for his return and becoming destitute she took Mary to London to request financial help from her mother-in-law. Knowing the lady preferred boys; she dressed Mary in a boy’s clothes, told her act like a young lad and informed her in-law she had a grandson. Promised a crown a week, Mary continued to dress as a boy.
Her first job was a footboy; she enlisted on-board a man-of-war for awhile then still wearing her disguise joined a foot regiment in Flanders and then a horse regiment. There she met and fell in love with another soldier, admitted to being a woman and changed her mode of dress. The couple opened an inn called The Three Horseshoes in Holland. Her husband died while still in the prime of youth and her finances soon shrank.
Mary knew that life as a man was much easier so she raided her husband’s trunk and went to sea on a Dutch merchant ship sailing toward the Caribbean. Eventually the ship was commandeered by Captain Jack Rackham’s Vanity and tired of her “legitimate job,” she once again turned pirate. Anne Bonney and Mary quickly discovered each other’s cross-dressing and became good friends. The two shared a reputation as fierce, ruthless, bloodthirsty pirates.
Ching Shih, before becoming a pirate, worked as a prostitute in one of Canton’s floating brothels in 1801. That same year she married a legendary and infamous pirate named Zhung Yi who descended from a pirate family of renown. Yi brought together competing pirate fleets and brokered an alliance know as the Red flag Fleet. After Yi passed on in 1807, Ching Shih took over her husband’s leadership position and commanded over 1,500 ships and 60,000 pirates.
Those ladies knew how to crack a glass ceiling.