Pirating the Pirates: What Were Women Doing on Ships?

The reading I’ve been doing on piracy throws up an interesting question: where are the women? The literature and the culture around piracy is very very male, so did women have a place at all?

The answer is that they did, although it is not clear the extent to which women did turn pirate. The reason for this is that the women who were captured as pirates were dressed up as men, and it was only on further examination that they were identified as women – and excused the gallows as they were both pregnant. So it may well have been that there were more women who were pirates who simply never got caught. Certainly, the evidence suggests that there were more women involved in the Royal Navy of the 18th century than had been previous thought – working mostly as cooks or laundresses, but also as sailors.

The two most notorious female pirates were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Bonny was the daughter of a rich merchant who left her inheritance and comfortable position for a life of adventure, while Mary Read ended up a sailor because of her mother’s impoverished background. Interestingly, both of them were disguised as boys from a young age to cover up scandals, and it seems that they took to their boyish attire for life.

Their lives as pirates though were marked by terrific courage, which was the real currency that pirates traded in. Pirate codes on many ships banned women from being on board, mostly because they thought that they might cause disturbance (although punishments for harassment of women captured were severe) but the fact that Bonny and Read fought for many years goes to show that they evidently won over the deep respect of their fellow crew-members. Indeed, both were commonly part of the initial boarding party sent onto captured ships – a job reserved for only the bravest and most experienced pirates.

The impact that these two had is difficult to gauge accurately, but there is evidence that ripples of influence can be detected throughout Europe in emancipatory struggles in the 18th and 19th centuries. What is more clear is that these women had a profound effect on those they served with, who treated them as equals and were prepared to go to their deaths for them. In this sense we might say that Bonny and Read had pirated the pirates: subverted the norms even of the emerging piratic society through their cunning and courage, and this contributed to the expansion of the culture of inclusion that embraced different religions, ethnicities, disabilities – and genders.


One response to “Pirating the Pirates: What Were Women Doing on Ships?”

  1. Have you looked at Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Mayo in the West of Ireland? She was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I and in fact went head to head with her to gain her son’s freedom, if I remember rightly. A very strong character in Irish history and lore.