Female pirates have been terrorising the seas for thousands of years. Yet before the 20th century, women were often barred from seafaring altogether.
Sailors believed having women aboard could anger the water gods, causing dangerous weather. They also assumed that women would distract male sailors during long voyages. Therefore, women at sea often remained so illicitly or in disguise.
Piracy is also a crime and not a lifestyle decision any woman made lightly, facing arrest or even death. In fact, while pirates are often portrayed as swashbuckling antiheroes, the reality is that many were ordinary people forced into piracy to survive. Although for some women, piracy also helped them hold onto powerful positions traditionally held by men.
Here are 10 of the most famous female pirates in history.
1. Queen Teuta of Illyria
Following the death of her husband King Agron in 231 BC, Teuta became the Ardiaei’s ruler. The Ardiaei were a group of Illyrian tribes based in modern-day Albania and Bosnia. As Queen Regent, Teuta supported her subjects’ raids on Roman and Greek ships and coastal settlements.
When Roman ambassadors asked her to stop the attacks, Teuta purportedly replied, “it was never the custom of royalty to prevent the advantage its subjects could get from the sea.” The diplomats were then imprisoned and executed.
In response, Rome declared war on the Ardiaei in 229 BC. Two years later, Teuta surrendered. Rome allowed her to continue ruling but forbade any warship to sail under her command.
2. Jeanne de Clisson
Known as the ‘Lioness of Brittany’, Jeanne de Clisson was a Breton privateer born in 1300. Initially, de Clisson’s allegiances were French but this changed when the French King Philip VI murdered her husband.
De Clisson began hunting the English Channel for French ships with her 3 vessels called the Black Fleet, led by her flagship My Revenge. Her ships were distinguished by their red sails and black hulls. De Clisson and her Black Fleet killed everyone they met at sea, leaving only one terrified survivor per ship to spread stories of her fearsome reputation.
3. Sayyida al-Hurra
After her husband’s death in, 1515 Sayyida al-Hurra became the pirate queen of Tétouan, a major port city in Morocco. At the time, Iberian Catholic powers advanced on Al Hurra’s territory. However, her pirates dominated the Mediterranean Sea where she had an alliance with the Turkish corsair, Barbarossa.
To further secure her lands against colonial conquest, in 1541, al-Hurra accepted a marriage proposal from the Wattasid Sultan, Ahmed al-Wattasi. But al-Hurra was not forfeiting her role as queen of Tétouan just yet. Instead, the sultan traveled from Fez to Tétouan to marry her – the only recorded instance of a Moroccan king marrying outside of his capital.
4. Lady Mary Killigrew
Mary Wolverston, also known as Lady Killigrew, was a fearsome pirate of the Elizabethan era, dominating the Cornish coast. She was the daughter of Lord Phillip Wolverton, a former pirate, and married Sir Henry Killigrew, another former pirate, who was later made a Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I.
As Vice-Admiral, Henry’s job was to uphold maritime law. However, he was also part of a group of ex-pirates engaged as ‘privateers’, sailing under the crown to gather profits for England. Mary supported her husband’s enterprise: she redesigned their home, Arwenack Castle, to hide stolen goods, cut deals with smugglers and took part in raiding ships.
5. Grace O’Malley
Born in 1530, O’Malley’s father, an Irish chieftain, educated her in seafaring. As a child, Grace shaved her head and dressed as a boy to sneak aboard her father’s ships. When he died she took to the seas, even giving birth to her first child aboard a ship.
O’Malley was a respected pirate and leader, successfully defending her lands against encroaching English power as well as other hostile clans. She fortified important coastal defenses and offered her support to Irish rebels fighting back the English, eventually meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in September 1594 to negotiate a treaty.
6. Jacquotte Delahaye
What we know of Jacquotte Delahaye comes from oral storytelling. She is believed to have been born in Saint-Domingue in 1630 as the daughter of a French father and a Haitian mother who died in childbirth. As a young woman struggling to survive, Jacquotte took to piracy.
She was said to be fairly ruthless, faking her own death and often pretending to be a man. Aged 26, Jacquotte and her crew took over a small Caribbean island called Tortuga, known as the ‘freebooter republic’.
Interestingly, there are no contemporary sources describing her adventures; stories about Jacquotte appear after she died during a shootout on Tortuga in 1663.
7. Mary Read
Mary Read, born in 1685, was a legendary female pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. Mary disguised herself as a boy to join the British Army. She married a Flemish soldier who knew her secret but when he died Mary found herself destitute.
Then, heading to the West Indies, Mary’s ship was attacked by pirates. Sensing her chance to escape poverty, Mary proved her skills to the pirates and joined their crew.
She eventually found the crew of notorious criminal Calico Jack Rackham and his lover Anne Bonny. After the three were captured in 1720 and sentenced to death, Mary and Anne delayed their hanging because they were both pregnant. However, Mary fell ill in prison where she died in 1721.
8. Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny was born in Ireland on 8 March 1697, the illegitimate child of lawyer William Cormac and servant Mary Brennan. Anne moved to London with her father at a young age, before eventually emigrating to the Province of Carolina, a British colony in North America.
As a young woman, Anne married a poor sailor named Jack Bonny and together they travelled to Nassau, a Caribbean sanctuary for pirates, where she met Calico Jack Rackham. Anne eloped with Rackham, joining his crew disguised as a man.
Bonny was arrested alongside her lover in 1720, but her fate remains unknown.
9. Ching Shih
Originally a Cantonese sex worker, Ching Shih married a powerful pirate named Cheng I in 1801. The couple quickly built one of China’s most formidable pirate armies.
When her husband died in 1807, Ching Shih took power, partnering with her trusted lieutenant and lover, Chang Pao. Over the following years, they plundered their way across Southeast Asia, assembling an impressive fleet of around 300 Chinese ships and a pirate army numbering between 20,000 and 40,000 men, women and children.
Ching Shih fought major naval powers including Portugal and England, and kept a strict code of conduct among her army. Raping female prisoners was punishable by beheading, for example, and deserters had their ears chopped off.
10. Rachel Wall
Having left her family in Pennsylvania, Rachel and her husband George, a fisherman, settled in Boston in the mid to late 18th century. Yet the growing threat of poverty soon forced them to seek a new source of income.
In 1781, the Walls procured a small boat and teamed up with several shady mariners to prey on ships off the coast of New England. Whenever a storm passed nearby they disguised their boat to look like it had been damaged by the rough seas. Rachel stood on deck pleading for aid from passing ships who, when they came near, were boarded, robbed and murdered.
The Walls’ luck began to run dry after 1782 when a real storm destroyed their boat and killed George. Rachel was then arrested in 1789 and became the last woman to be executed in Massachusetts on 8 October.