Part of what makes Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller so fantastic is the kick-ass lady pirate at the heart of the story. There aren’t a lot of stories about lady pirates – and that’s partly because there weren’t a lot of lady pirates in real-life. But they did exist, and today, we’re spotlighting five of our favorite real-life lady pirates!
Though her name may be well-known, not a lot is known about Anne Bonny besides various unaccounted for legends and stories.
She was born around 1690 in Ireland to her father’s servant and moved to the Carolinas as a child when her father left his wife. Known to have red hair and a vicious temper, Anne was disowned by her father after marrying a poor, small-time pirate named James Bonney.
In the early 1700s, Anne and her husband moved to a sanctuary for English pirates known as “the Republic of Pirates” on Nassau in the early 1700s. There she began mingling with more accomplished pirates, and became lovers with the infamous John “Calico Jack” Rackham — eventually divorcing poor James Bonny and marrying Rackham at sea.
Eventually the pair teamed up with Mary Read (more about her below), and together the three recruited a new crew and spent years pirating near Jamaica. Bonny never actually captained any pirate ship, however.
In 1720, Rackham, Bonny, and their crew were captured by a ship under the command of the Governor of Jamaica and all of them sentenced to be hanged. Because they were pregnant, Bonny and Read were both given a stay of execution until they could give birth. But it’s not known what actually happened to Bonny.
There is no record of her release or execution.
Some believe her father may have bought her freedom and married her off; some believe she resumed a life of piracy under a new name.
Mary Read was born in the late 1690s in England to the widow of a sea captain. Born illegitimately, Mary’s mother disguised her as her dead older brother Mark in order to keep getting financial support from her paternal grandmother.
The ruse was so successful, Mary and her mother lived off the inheritance into her adolescence. When the money ran out, Mary began seeking employement — still dressed as a boy — and eventually found work on a ship, before joining the British military. Yes, still pretending to be a dude.
During her time in battle, she fell in love with a Flemish solider. They married and used their military commission to buy an inn in the Netherlands.
When her husband died, Mary went back to dressing as a man and joined the military in Holland. When peacetime proved not-so-profitable for a soldier, she boarded a ship for the West Indies — which was taken by pirates, who forced her to join their rank. She eventually teamed up with Calico Jack and Anne Bonny — and pirated with them for many years, before their capture.
Though given a stay of execution due to her pregnancy, Mary died while in prison. It’s believed she may have died during childbirth or while still pregnant, as there was no record of her child’s birth or burial.
Mary and Anne are the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy during the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy.”
Ching Shih was a pirate in the China Sea in the early 19th century, and is often considered one of the most successful pirates of all time — and easily the most successful lady pirate.
She personally commanded over 300 ships, manned by some 20-40,000 pirates — and her fleet included more than 1,500 ships and a crew in the ballpark of 180,000.
One lady. In charge of 180,000 pirates.
Shih didn’t set out to become a pirate, of course. She was a Cantonese prostitute who was captured by pirates and ended up marrying a successful captain. She took over his fleet when he died, and successfully maintained control over all his ships and men — and then grew her lady pirate empire, as it were.
Oh, she’s also one of the only pirates to ever retire from piracy. (Instead of, you know, being captured & killed for her crimes.) When she was finally captured, she negotiated a pardon for herself and her crew, kept all her booty, and lived to the ripe old age of 69.
Read more about Ching Shih on Tricia’s website here.
Jeanne de Clisson
Nicknamed “the Lioness of Brittany,” Jeanne de Clisson became a pirate for revenge and her story reads like something out of a fairy tale.
Raised in aristocracy, Jeanne was married twice in her pre-pirate life — and it was the death of her second husband, Olivier de Clisson, that fueled her revenge piracy. Olivier was sentenced for treason and beheaded for allegedly helping the English during the War of Breton Succession. There’s no proof he betrayed the French forces he was commanding, but King Philip VI of France beheaded him anyway and displayed his head on a gate.
Jeanne was outraged, and swore revenge on the king. She sold all of her holdings, purchased a fleet of ships, and rallied a troupe of loyal men to begin attacking French forces. To really intimidate her enemies, Jeanne’s ships were painted black and her sails dyed red.
She earned her nickname “The Lioness of Brittany” when her ships patrolled the English Channel, hunted down French ships and killed all but a few witnesses — left alive to relay the story of Jeanne’s massacres. Jeanne’s piracy of the English Channel continued for 13 years!
She eventually retired from piracy, married her third husband – an English nobleman – and lived quite comfortably for the rest of her life.
Read more about Jeanne on Tricia’s website here.
The daugher of the O’Malley clan’s chieftan in 16th century Ireland, Grace took over her father’s shipping and trading business when he died and proved herself a ruthless and cunning leader.
She earned her piratical reputation after taxing anyone who wanted to fish off her land or sail through her waters. When anyone refused to pay, Grace and her crew would become violent and even murderous. They would take whatever they wanted — literally pillaging and plundering castles, ships, etc. and sometimes even kidnapped people for ransom.
Grace even sought marriages that helped improve her standings. In particular, Grace negotiated marriage with her second husband (after the first died in battle) to expand her holdings and boost her power against English invaders.
Even when they weren’t invading, the English were none too pleased with Grace — and accused her of “behaving like pirates” (ha!) — but for many years, Grace and her crew continued their piratical ways. She also recruited fighting men to help the Irish rebellion against English rule during the Nine Years’ War.
Famously, Grace even met with Queen Elizabeth in the late 16th century to negotiate the removal of and English governor in Ireland, who had taken her sons and her half-brother captive. The negotiation didn’t go fabulously well, and despite initially agreeing to stop her support of the Irish rebellion, Grace said screw it, and went back to helping them out.
It’s believed Grace died at Rockfleet Castle in Ireland around 1603, but the time and place of her death is up for much academic debate.
Read more about Grace on Tricia’s website here.
All this week, we are giving you a chance to win a copy of Daughter of the Pirate King thanks to our friends at Macmillan. To enter, tell us in the comments which lady pirate would you most want to sail with? — then fill out the Rafflecopter to complete your entry.
Come back each weekday now through February 28th to see our latest Daughter of the Pirate King post and earn more chances to win. The more posts you visit & comment on, the better your chances!
Contest runs through midnight (PT) on Wednesday, March 1st and is open to the U.S. only.
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Definitely Anne Bonny!
Hindsight being 20-20…I’d choose Ching Shih for the retirement benefits 🙂
Right? Let’s go with the lady who survived, kept all her booty & retired.
I’m definitely in Ching Shih’s boat (or should I say, one of her 300 ships!!). Amazing woman for her time. P.S. I am related to a family named Rackham. Have no idea if it’s the same as the Pirate John.
Wouldn’t that be cool?
Anne Bonny–but I may or may not be influenced by my love of Black Sails. I shall never tell. Thanks for this Sara!
Gah, I need to catch up on Black Sails. I’ve only seen the first season!
I love how they are at the mercy of the sea all the while taking control of all other elements of their lives.
Grace O’Malley has to be my top pick. I’m studying abroad in Ireland right now, and I’ve heard so much about her badass ways. Gráinne Mhaol (her Irish name) actually chopped off her hair and pretended to be a man in order to sneak onto a ship and join the crew.
I like the thought of being able to retire after years of fun, so I would joint Ching Shih.
I would absolutely sail with Jeanne de Clisson. She sounds fierce!
Jeanne de Clisson. She earned the title of a pirate and the nickname of Lioness reminds me of “The Song of the Lioness” series by Tamora Pierce. Alanna, the main character, pretends to be a man just like Mary Read.
I love that it can include such a diverse cast and plot because piracy is such a general, awesome topic!
I’d most like to sail with Ching Shih! She sounds so awesome!
I’d like to sail with Anne Bonny. She sounds like fun!