When you think of pirates, you’re likely picturing bearded buccaneers or peg-legged scalawags with names like Blackbeard, Barbarossa, and Calico Jack. While most pirates were men, there were women in these ranks of raiders who were just as merciless, notorious, and feared. Spanning the globe and centuries, we introduce you to the infamous she-pirates of the seven seas.
1. ANNE BONNY
Born Anne Cormac in 1698, this Irish lass with luscious red locks and a dangerous temper became an icon of The Golden Age of Piracy (1650s-1730s) after marrying small-time pirate James Bonny. Anne’s respectable father disowned her over the marriage, so she and her new husband moved to a portion of the Bahamas nicknamed the Pirates Republic, a sanctuary of sorts for scalawags. But the Bonnys were not happily married for long.
They divorced, and she took up with Calico Jack Rackham, first as his lover, then as his first mate of the ship Revenge. In October of 1720, she and the rest of Rackham’s crew were captured despite Bonny and her bosom buddy Mary Read’s valiant attempts to fight off the advancing English forces. Bonny blamed Rackham for their capture. Her last words to him in prison are recorded as, “Sorry to see you there, but if you’d fought like a man, you would not have been hang’d like a Dog.”
He was hanged, but Bonny’s pregnancy earned her a stay of execution. However, no historical record of her death sentence was found. Some speculate that her affluent father paid a handsome price to have her set free.
2. MARY READ
Best mate of Anne Bonny was Mary Read, an Englishwoman born the bastard of a sea captain’s widow. While Bonny was said to wear clothes that identified her as female, Read had a long history of masquerading as male that dates back to her youth. Her mother would dress Read as her late older brother to wheedle money from the dead boy’s paternal grandmother. Years later, she joined the British military as Mark Read. She found love with a Flemish soldier, but upon his untimely death Read headed to the West Indies. As fate would have it, her ship was taken by pirates, who pushed her to join their ranks.
Cross-dressing as a man, Read set sail with Anne Bonny and Calico Jack on the Revenge in 1720. Some stories suggest that only Bonny and Jack knew of Read’s womanhood, and only because the latter grew jealous when the former flirted with “Mark.” Later that year, a third in their crew would learn Read’s secret, and she claimed him as her husband.
When the Revenge was captured by pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet, Read joined Bonny in “pleading the belly.” But pregnancy from her unnamed husband would not save her. She died on April 28th 1721, from a violent fever in her prison cell. No record is made of the burial of a baby. Some suspect Read and the infant died during childbirth.
3. SADIE THE GOAT
American pirate of the 19th century, Sadie Farrell earned her unusual nickname for her violent modus operandi. On the streets of New York City, Sadie won a reputation as a merciless mugger by head-butting her victims. It’s said that Sadie was chased out of Manhattan when a fellow female tough, Gallus Mag, brawled with her, biting off Sadie’s ear.
To flee the city, she wrangled a new gang to steal a sloop in the spring of 1869. With a Jolly Roger flapping above them, Sadie and her crew became pirates that swept the Hudson and Harlem Rivers for booty. She’d lead raids on the farmhouses and posh mansions that dotted the river’s side, occasionally kidnapping folks for ransom. By the end of summer these raids became too risky as the farmers took to firing upon the sloop as it drew near. So, Sadie the Goat returned to the mainland, where she made peace with Gallus Mag, who returned to Sadie her lost ear which had been pickled for posterity.
Known now as “Queen of the Waterfront,” Sadie took her dismembered ear and placed it in a locket, which she wore around her neck for the rest of her days.
4. QUEEN TEUTA OF ILLYRIA
One the earliest recorded female pirates was actually a pirate queen. Once her husband Agron died in 231 BC, Teuta of Illyria became queen regent, as her stepson Pinnes was too young to rule. During her four years of reign over the Ardiaei tribe of what is now the Western Balkans, Teuta encouraged piracy as a means of fighting back against Illyria’s domineering neighbors. This not only meant the plundering of Roman ships, but also the capturing of Dyrrachium and Phoenice. Her pirates spread out from the Adriatic Sea into the Ionian Sea, terrorizing the trade route of Greece and Italy. While Teuta’s seafaring tribesman brought her kingdom great wealth and power, they also won her a great enemy.
Romans sent representatives to Teuta for a diplomatic meeting. She scoffed at their pleas, insisting that her tribe sees piracy as a part of lawful trade. From there diplomacy went out the window. It’s unknown what the Roman reps said next. But one ambassador was killed, while the other was imprisoned. So began a war between Rome and Illyria that lasted from 229 BC to 227 BC, when Teuta was forced to surrender on terms that cut down her power and forced her tribe to pay annual tribute to Rome.
Though she continued to rail against Roman rule, she lost her throne. The rest of her life was lost to history.
5. BACK FROM THE DEAD RED
Born the daughter of a Frenchman and a Haitian woman in 17th century, Jacquotte Delahayestole untold fortunes and captured the imaginations of many seafaring storytellers. This buccaneer lost her mother to childbirth and her brother was mentally handicapped, and once her father was murdered Delahaye was left alone to care for him. Legend has it that piracy is how she managed to do just that.
Her nickname comes from the most popular aspect of her story, which claims this red-haired pirate faked her own death to escape the government forces that were closing in on her in the 1660s. From there, she took up a new identity, living for several years as a man. Finally, when the heat died down she resurfaced with her catchy new moniker Back From the Dead Red.
6. THE LIONESS OF BRITTANY
Jeanne de Clisson’s tale is one of tragedy, revenge and the showmanship. As the wife of Olivier III de Clisson, Jeanne was a happily married mother of five, and a lady of Brittany, France. But when land wars between England and France led to her husband being charged with treason and punished with decapitation, she swore revenge on the France’s King Philip VI.
The widowed de Clisson sold all of her land to buy three warships, which she dubbed her Black Fleet. These were painted black, draped with blood red sails, and crewed with merciless privateers. From 1343-1356, the Lioness of Brittany sailed the English Channel, capturing the French King’s ships, cutting down his crew, and beheading with an axe any aristocrat who had the misfortune to be onboard. Remarkably, despite all her theft and bloodshed, de Clisson retired quietly. She even remarried, settling down with English lieutenant Sir Walter Bentley.
Believed to have died in 1359, some say she has since returned to de Clisson Castle in Brittany, where her grey ghost walks the halls.
7. ANNE DIEU-LE-VEUT
Also from Brittany was this French woman, whose name translates to Anne God-Wants, a title said to speak to her tenacious nature. She came to the Caribbean island of Tortuga in the late 1660s or early 1670s. From there she suffered some rocky years that made her a widow twice over, as well as a mother of two. But as fate would have it, her second husband was killed by the man who’d become her third. Dieu-le-Veut insisted on a duel with Laurens de Graaf, to avenge her late mate. The Dutch buccaneer was so taken by her courage that he refused to fight her, and instead offered her his hand. They married on July 28th, 1693, and had two more children.
Dieu-le-Veut set sail with de Graaf, which was considered odd as many seamen considered women on ships bad luck. Yet Dieu-le-Veut and de Graaf’s relationship has been compared to that of Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, in that they were inseparable partners who sneered at superstition. Like many pirates, their story is one that becomes fractured in its final chapter.
Dieu-le-Veut’s legend has this brassy broad taking over as captain when de Graaf was struck down by a cannonball blast. Others suggest that the couple fled to Mississippi around 1698, where they may or may not have continued to pirate. And still other tales claim that Dieu-le-Veut’s pugnacious spirit lived on in her daughter, who was said to raise eyebrows in Haiti by demanding a duel with a man.
8. SAYYIDA AL HURRA
A contemporary and ally of the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, Sayyida al-Hurra was a pirate queen and was the last woman awarded the title of al Hurra (Queen), following the death of her husband who had ruled Tétouan, Morocco. In fact, her real name is unknown. Sayyida al Hurra is a title that translates to “noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”
She ruled from 1515-1542, controlling the western Mediterranean Sea with her pirate fleet while Barbarossa roamed the eastern side. Al Hurra’s inspiration to take to piracy came from a wish for revenge against the “Christian enemy” she felt had wronged her years before when Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ran her Muslim family out of Granada. She was a feared figure for the Spanish and Portuguese, whose historical records are peppered with paperwork involving reports about her exploits and ransoms.
At the height of her power, al-Hurra remarried to the king of Morocco, yet refused to give up her seat of power in Tétouan. But in 1542, she was given no choice when her son-in-law overthrew her. The Yemen Times weighs in on her final chapter, writing, “She was stripped of her property and power and her subsequent fate is unknown.”
9. CHING SHIH
One of the most feared pirates of all time was this menace of the China Sea. Born in humble beginnings as Shi Xiang Gu, she was working as a prostitute when pirates captured her. In 1801, she married the notorious Chinese pirate Zheng Yi (a.k.a. Cheng I), who came from a long line of fearsome thieves. Yi’s Red Flag Fleet was immense, made up of 300 ships and somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 men. But all this was at risk of falling apart when he died on November 16th, 1807.
Gu became known as Ching Shih, which meant widow of Zheng. She was quick to seek the backing of her in-laws in her bid for leadership of the Red Flag Fleet. To help her maintain the day-to-day concerns of a sprawling pirate army, Ching Shih enlisted the help of Chang Pao, a fisherman’s son who had been adopted by Yi. They proved a great team, and by 1810 the Red Fleet is said to have grown to 1800 sailing vessels and 80,000 crew members. To manage so many, Ching Shih essentially set up her own government to establish laws and even taxes. Yet she was no soft touch. Breaking her laws lead to decapitation. She was revered and feared as far away as Great Britain.
In 1810, Ching Shih and her fleet considered getting out of the piracy business when amnesty was offered. However, to get it a pirate must bend the knee before government officials. This was considered a sign of shameful surrender, but Ching Shih found a clever way to compromise. With Pao and 17 women and children in tow, she marched into the office of official Zhang Bai Ling, and asked that he marry her and her first mate. He did, and the newlyweds knelt to thank him. Ching Shih retired with her dignity and all her ill-gotten loot, which some have suggested makes her the most successful pirate of all time. She lived to the age of 69.