Imagine a pirate. Perhaps your vision would be a gravel-throated man wearing an eyepatch with a parrot on his shoulder riding a ship with a flying Jolly Rogers flag while yelling something like, “Make the lad walk the plank! Aaaarrrrggghh!” While that was the comical and stereotypical description of a pirate, what’s realistic about it was that we always think of pirates as men. In reality, there were also female pirates who ruled the high seas. Aye, here are three of them:

Anne Bonny

It wasn’t only Jack Sparrow who sailed the Caribbean seas. Anne Bonny, an Irish pirate, also once dominated the West Indies. There were only a few details about her life, but we know that her father brought her to London after a fight with his wife, who wasn’t Anne’s mother. Her father began dressing him as a boy and called him “Andy.” They say that was because he hoped to raise Anne as a lawyer’s clerk. She, later on, moved to Nassau in the Bahamas with her husband James Bonny— a poor sailor and small-time pirate.

Anne Bonny.

Nassau at that time was known as a sanctuary for English pirates, and Anne started mingling with other pirates in the tavern. She met Calico Jack, who tried to pay James Bonny to divorce Anne. Naturally, he was met with threats of beating. So they eloped, and she became a member of Calico Jack’s crew, all while disguised as a man. The secret was kept among her, Calico, and a Mary Read. Anne became a crowd favorite, fighting alongside the men and ruling the waters near Jamaica.

In 1720, their crew was attacked by a sloop commissioned by the British Governor of Jamaica to hunt down pirates. Unfortunately, Calico’s crew was unprepared and was too drunk to fight. They were caught and hanged, except for Anne and Mary Read, who pleaded for mercy because they were pregnant. Their plea was granted.

It is said that Mary Read died from childbirth in prison. As for Anne, her death was as vague as her origin. Some say she was given a pardon, while others believe she died in prison.

Ching Shih

Zheng Yi Sao or Ching Shih lived in the early 19th century. She was born to humble beginnings in a poverty-ridden society in Guangdong province, China. During this period, women who reached the age of thirteen were forced into prostitution to provide for their families. Ching Shih was one of those. She worked at a brothel where she became well-known for her beauty and hospitality that she attracted a lot of high-profile customers, from military commanders to wealthy merchants.

Zheng Yi Sao, undated. Photo from historyheroines.com

In 1801, a notorious pirate commander of Red Flag Fleet named Zheng Yi met Ching Shih fell head-over-heels for her. He asked to marry her, to which she agreed in exchange for two conditions: granted fifty percent share over his monetary gains and partial control over his pirate fleet. The enthralled Zheng Yi agreed.  She must have been a good negotiator or very naive to think a pirate would give over half his booty and his fleet. 

Zheng Yi died just six years after their marriage, and Ching Shih took over. The crew wholeheartedly accepted her, and together, they terrorized the China Seas. According to History of Yesterday, “At the height of her power, she commanded over 800 large ships, 1000 smaller vessels, and over 70,000 pirate crew, comprised of both men and women.”

Grace O’Malley

She wasn’t called “The pirate queen of Ireland” for no reason. Grace was said to be a fierce leader at sea who lived in the 16th century.

According to the Irish Post, “Gráinne Ní Mháille (or Grace) was born into the great seafaring family Clan O’Malley around 1530, while the notorious Henry VIII was King of England and held the title Lord of Ireland.” She rejected the role of women in society during their time and instead wanted to join her father, who was a privateer. Her father, expectedly, did not like the proposition, saying her hair would get caught up in the ship’s rope. In response, she chopped off her hair.

It sent a clear message to her father that she meant serious business, so he allowed her to join him on his next trip to Spain. When his father died, she took it to herself to manage the family’s land and sea, applying what she learned from her father.

She married Donal O’Flaherty, who introduced her to the world of politics and pirating. They also had three children— two sons and one daughter. When a rival clan murdered O’Flaherty, Grace gracefully sought revenge and killed the people responsible for her husband’s death.

The meeting of Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I.

Later on, in their lives, her sons were captured by the Tudors, who wanted to rule Ireland. Simply put, Grace was not a fan of them. She spoke to Queen Elizabeth to plead for her sons’ freedom, all the while refusing to bow down and showing any sign of respect or submission to her as the Queen of Ireland. It is said that she even blew her nose in the Queen’s presence. Surprisingly enough, the meeting resulted in her sons’ freedom.

Irish nationalists loved Grace. To this day, she is seen as a symbol of Ireland and an inspiration for many modern songs, theatre productions, and books. Through these, her legend lives on.

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