The Fascinating History of Female Pirates

Female Pirates Anne Bonny & Mary Read
Engraving of female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Some of the fiercest pirates in history were women. Their power was immense and their crimes were serious, but their stories are not always well-known. From Mary Read and Anne Bonny to Rachel Wall, discover the lives and legends of these fascinating female pirates.

Jacquotte Delahaye

Jacquotte Delahaye is believed to have been born in Saint-Domingue in 1630. She was the daughter of a French father and a Haitian mother. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father was murdered when she was a child, so Jacquotte took to piracy as a young woman.

Jacquotte was said to be fairly ruthless and earned plenty of enemies. At one point, she faked her own death and pretended to be a man. At age 26, she and her crew took over a small Caribbean island. Interestingly, there are no period sources detailing her exploits; stories about her emerged after her supposed death in a shootout on her island in 1663. Some scholars believe she may not have existed at all.

ANNE BONNY
Fototeca Storica Nazionale. / Getty Images

Anne Bonny is one of the best-known female pirates in history. Born around 1698 in Ireland, Anne was the product of an affair between a barrister (her father) and his family's maid (her mother). After Anne was born, her father dressed her as a boy and claimed she was the child of a relative. Eventually, she and her parents emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, where she began to get into trouble for her ferocious temper. Her father disowned her when she married sailor James Bonny, and the couple set off for the Caribbean.

Anne frequented saloons, and she soon began an affair with notorious pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham. Along with Mary Read, Anne sailed with Rackham during the golden age of piracy, dressed as a man. In 1720, Anne, Mary, and their crew were arrested and sentenced to hang, but both women were able to escape the noose because they were pregnant by Rackham. Anne disappeared from records after that. Some accounts say that she escaped, gave up piracy, got married, and lived a long life. Other legends have her simply vanishing into the night.

MARY READ
Fototeca Storica Nazionale. / Getty Images

Mary Read was born around 1690. Her mother was a widow who dressed Mary as a boy in order to collect money from the family of her dead husband (who, the story goes, was not actually Mary's father). Mary was comfortable in boys' clothing, and eventually ran off to become a soldier in the British Army. She married a fellow soldier who knew that she was in disguise, but when he died, Mary found herself nearly penniless. She decided to take off for the high seas.

Eventually, Mary found herself on board Calico Jack Rackham's ship alongside Anne Bonny. According to legend, Mary became the lover of both Calico Jack and Anne. When the three were captured in 1720, Mary and Anne were able to postpone the hanging because both were pregnant. However, Mary soon fell ill, and she died in prison in 1721.

Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley Statue at Westport House, County Mayo

Suzanne Mischyshyn/Westport House (cc-by-sa/2.0) Creative Commons License

Also known by her traditional Irish name, Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace O'Malley was born around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, a clan chieftain from County Mayo. The O'Malleys were a well-known seafaring dynasty. When young Grace wanted to join her father on a trading expedition, he told her that her long hair would get caught in the ship's rigging—so she chopped it all off.

At 16, Grace married Dónal an Chogaidh, the heir to the O'Flaherty clan; when he died a few years later, she inherited his ships and castle. After Grace's father passed away, she took over as the clan chieftain and began launching surprise attacks upon English ships along the Irish coastline. It wasn't until 1584 that the English were able to subdue Grace. Sir Richard Bingham and his brother executed her eldest son and threw the youngest in prison.

Grace petitioned for an audience with Queen Elizabeth to request a pardon for her son. The two women met, speaking in Latin (which indicates Grace was most likely formally educated). Elizabeth was so impressed that she ordered the return of Grace's lands and the release of her son. In exchange, Grace stopped her pirate attacks on English ships and agreed to help fight Elizabeth's enemies at sea. 

Ching Shih

Mrs Ching widow of pirate Adminiral Ching
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Also known as Cheng Sao, or Widow of Cheng, Shih was a former prostitute who became a pirate leader. Born in Guangdong, China, around 1775, Shih spent part of her early life working in a brothel. In 1801, however, she sailed away with the pirate commander Zheng Yi on his Red Flag Fleet. Shih demanded an equal partnership in leadership, as well as half of any future profits claimed when the pirates took prizes. Yi seems to have been amenable to these requests, as the two of them sailed together, accumulating ships and wealth, until Yi's death in 1807.

Shih took on the official rule of the pirate fleet and enacted a strict disciplinary model. Her crews, which numbered in the hundreds, were required to register any bounty collected before distribution. Sexual misconduct was punishable by whipping or death. She allowed her men to keep wives or concubines aboard, but demanded they treat their women with respect.

At one point, Shih was responsible for over three hundred ships and as many as 40,000 men and women. She and her Red Flag Fleet robbed towns and villages up and down the Chinese coast and sank dozens of government ships. By 1810, the Portuguese navy stepped in, and Shih suffered several defeats. Shih and her crew were offered pardons if they renounced their life of piracy. Ultimately, Shih retired to Guangdong, operating a gambling house until her death in 1844.

Rachel Wall

Rachel Wall was born in the then-colony of Pennsylvania in 1760. Her parents were strict and pious Presbyterians. Despite her family's objections, young Rachel spent a lot of time on the local docks, where she met a sailor named George Wall. They married, and the two of them moved to Boston. 

George went off to sea, and when he returned, he brought with him a group of companions. Once they had gambled and drunk away their money, someone in the group decided it might be profitable if they all turned to piracy. Their scheme was a simple one. They sailed their schooner along the New Hampshire coast, and after a storm, Rachel would stand on the deck screaming for help. When passing ships stopped to render aid, the rest of the crew would emerge from hiding and kill the sailors, stealing their goods and vessels. In the course of just two years, Rachel Wall and the rest of the pirates stole a dozen boats and killed over twenty sailors.

Eventually, the crew got lost at sea, and Rachel returned to Boston and took work as a servant. However, that wasn't the end of Rachel's life of crime. She later attempted to steal a bonnet from a young woman on the docks and was arrested for robbery. She was convicted, and hanged in October 1789, making her the last woman to be hanged in Massachusetts.

Sources

  • Abbott, Karen. “If There's a Man Among Ye: The Tale of Pirate Queens Anne Bonny and Mary Read.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Aug. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/if-theres-a-man-among-ye-the-tale-of-pirate-queens-anne-bonny-and-mary-read-45576461/.
  • Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Swashbuckling History of Women Pirates.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Apr. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/swashbuckling-history-women-pirates-180962874/.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Beacon Press, 2004.
  • Vallar, Cindy. Pirates & Privateers: the History of Maritime Piracy - Women and the Jolly Roger, www.cindyvallar.com/womenpirates.html.