Women in piracy

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Anne Bonny (1697–unknown, possibly 1733). Engraving from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1st Dutch edition 1725).

While piracy was predominantly a male occupation, a few pirates were women.[1]

On many ships, women (as well as young boys) were prohibited by the ship's contract, which all crew members were required to sign.[2] Because of the resistance to allowing women on board, many female pirates did not identify themselves as such and disguised themselves as men; examples include Anne Bonny, associated with Captain Calico Jack's ship,[2] and Mary Read. A notable female pirate who commanded as a woman was Ching Shih.

This article contains a list of female pirates who are recognized by historians, listed in the time period they were active.

Early pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Queen Teuta of Illyria 232–228 BC Illyrian Active in the Adriatic Sea[3]

Viking Age and medieval pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Rusla Norwegian Fought against her brother Thrond for the thrones of both Denmark and Norway. Possibly fictional. Recorded in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes). Johannes Steenstrup linked her to the Ingean Ruadh (Red Maid) of Irish folklore.[4]
Stikla Norwegian Sister of Rusla. Became a pirate to avoid marriage.[4] Recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Princess Sela c. 420 A.D. Norwegian Sister of Koller, king of Norway. Horwendil (later to be father of Amleth/Hamlet) was King of Jutland but gave up the throne to become a pirate. Koller "deemed it would be a handsome deed" to kill the pirate and sailed to find the pirate fleet. Horwendil killed Koller and later killed Sela, who was a skilled warrior and experienced pirate, to end the war.[4] Recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Alvid Norwegian Leader of a group of male and female pirates.[4] Also recorded in the Gesta Danorum.
Wigbiorg, Hetha and Wisna c. 8th century A.D. Norwegian All three are listed in the Gesta Danorum as sea captains. Wigbiorg died in battle, Hetha became queen of Zealand, and Wisna lost a hand in a duel.[4]
Alfhild a.k.a. Ælfhild, Alwilda, Alvilda, Awilda post-850 A.D. Swedish Existence is disputed. Often wrongly dated to the 5th century.[4]
Ladgerda c. 870 A.D. Norwegian Ladgerda is the inspiration for Hermintrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet.[4]
Æthelflæd A.K.A. The Lady of the Mercians 872–918 911–918 English Eldest daughter of Alfred the Great of England. Became the military leader of the Anglo-Saxons after her husband's death in battle against the Danes in 911. Took command of the fleets to rid the seas of the Viking raiders.[5]
Jeanne de Clisson 1300–1359 1343–1356 Breton The "Lioness of Brittany". A Breton woman who became a pirate to avenge the execution of her husband. Attacked only French vessels.[citation needed]
Elise Eskilsdotter d. 1483 1460s–1470s Norwegian A Norwegian noble who became a pirate to avenge the assassination of her husband and son. She operated outside the sea of the city of Bergen.[6]

16th-century pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Grace O'Malley, "The Sea Queen of Connaught" 1530–1603 Irish Grace O'Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó'Máille clan and a pirate in 16th century Ireland. She is an important figure in Irish folklore, and a historical figure in 16th century Irish history, and is sometimes known as "The Sea Queen Of Connaught". Biographies of her have been written primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries by historian Anne Chambers.[7]
Sayyida al Hurra
(full name Sayyida al-Hurra ibn Banu Rashid al-Mandri al-Wattasi Hakima Tatwan)
1510–1542 Moroccan Allied with the Turkish corsair Barbaros of Algiers. Al-Hurra controlled the western Mediterranean Sea while Barbaros controlled the eastern. Also prefect of Tétouan. Due to Reconquista on the Iberian peninsula, her family fled from Granada to Morocco in her youth.[8] This involuntary displacement motivated her later piracy, a form of vengeance against the Christians. She grew up in the tutelage of scholars and married the governor of Tétouan at a young age.[9] In 1515 she became the last person in Islamic history to legitimately hold the title of "al Hurra" or Queen, as she continued to act as ruler even following the death of her husband who ruled Tétouan. She later married the King of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi, but refused to leave Tétouan to do so. This marriage is the only time in Moroccan history a king has married away from the capital Fez.[10][11]
*al Hurra is also the name of an American Arab language pirate radio station used as a counter to al Jazeera.
Lady Mary Killigrew 1530–1570 English Mary was the daughter of a former Suffolk pirate. Mary's husband Sir Henry Killigrew, a former pirate himself, was made a Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I and tasked with suppressing piracy. Whenever her husband went to sea, Mary engaged in piracy using the staff of her castle (Arwenack Castle in Cornwall) as crew and possibly with the Queen's knowledge. In 1570, she captured a German merchant ship off Falmouth and her crew sailed it to Ireland to sell. However, the owner of this ship was a friend of Queen Elizabeth, who then had Lady Mary arrested and brought to trial at the Launceston assizes. Some sources say she was sentenced to death and then pardoned by the Queen. Other sources say her family either bribed the jurors and she was acquitted, or Queen Elizabeth arranged a short jail sentence. Whatever transpired, she gave up piracy and took up fencing stolen goods until she died several years later.[12]

17th-century pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Elizabetha Patrickson 1634 English Indicted with her husband William on piracy, robbery, and murder charges on 10 March 1634 in an English court. She was tortured into a confession. She was hanged presumably in the same year.[13]
Jacquotte Delahaye 1650s-1660s French Haitian Caribbean pirate. Most likely a fictional character. Also known as "Back from the Dead Red" due to her red hair and return to piracy after faking her own death and hiding dressed as a man for several years.[14]
Christina Anna Skytte 1643-1677 1650s-1660s Swedish She actively participated in the secret piracy conducted by her brother and spouse in the Baltic sea.[15]
Anne Dieu-le-Veut A.K.A. Marie-Anne and Marianne 1661-1710 1690s-1704 French Caribbean pirate and later based in Mississippi after Tortuga was closed down. Dieu-Le-Veut was a nickname meaning "God wills it" and given to her as it seemed anything she wanted God gave her. Married to a pirate, Anne challenged pirate Laurens de Graaf to a duel after he killed her husband in 1683. He refused and she became his common-law wife, fighting by his side and sharing command.[16]

Female interaction with pirates in the 18th century[edit]

Business interactions[edit]

During the Golden Age of Piracy, many men had to leave home to find employment or set sail for economic reasons.[2]: 283  This left women with the jobs and responsibilities traditionally held by men. The need for women to fill these roles led them to be granted rights that were historically exclusive to men. Women were allowed to trade, own ships, and work as retailers.[citation needed] Often they were innkeepers or ran alehouses. In some seaside towns, laws were written to allow widows to keep their husbands' responsibilities and property. This was important to local economies, as alehouses and other such establishments were centers of commerce, where pirates would congregate and trade with each other and with the people onshore.[citation needed]

As heads of these establishments, women had a considerable amount of freedom in business. They boarded and fed pirates, bought illegally pirated goods, acted as pawnbrokers for pirates, and even gave out loans – something many men, let alone women, viewed with great caution in that time.[2]: 284  Sometimes, female business owners hid their clients when authorities came to arrest them for piracy.[citation needed]

Mary Read (1690–1721) Engraving from General History of the Pyrates 1725


Some women chose to marry pirates. These men were often wealthy, but their wives tended not to gain wealth as a result of their marriages, as it was difficult for pirates to send home wages and loot earned overseas. These women's houses and establishments were often used as safe havens for pirates, who were considered enemies of all nations.[2]: 289–290 


Women sometimes became pirates themselves, though they typically had to disguise themselves as men in order to do so. Male pirates rarely allowed women onto their ships. Additionally, women were often regarded as bad luck among pirates, and it was feared that the male members of the crew would argue and fight over the women. On many ships, women (and young boys) were prohibited by the ship's contract, which all crew members were required to sign.[2]: 303 

Because of the resistance to allowing women on board, many female pirates did not identify themselves as such. Anne Bonny, for example, dressed and acted as a man while on Captain Calico Jack's ship.[2]: 285  She and Mary Read, another female pirate, are often identified as being unique in this regard. However, many women pretended to be pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy in an effort to take advantage of the many rights, privileges, and freedoms that were exclusive to men.[citation needed]

18th-century pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Maria Lindsey Early 1700s English The wife of Captain Eric Cobham and possibly fictional. Pirates operating on the Canadian east coast.[17]
Maria Cobham Early 1700s English Often listed separately in lists of pirates, but is likely to be Maria Lindsey (see above).[18]
Ingela Gathenhielm 1692–1729 1710–1721 Swedish Baltic pirate. Wife and partner of legendary pirate Lars Gathenhielm. Took sole control following his death in 1718.[19]
Anne Bonny born Anne Cormac, aliases Ann Bonn and Ann Fulford, possibly also Sarah Bonny 1698–1721 (disappeared) 1718-1720 Irish Caribbean pirate. Married to pirate James Bonny, had an affair with pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, and later joined his crew. Avoided execution after Rackham's capture by claiming pregnancy. No confirmed record of her fate afterward exists.[20]
Mary Read, alias Mark Read c. 1690–1721 1718–1720 English Caribbean pirate. As a man, Mary went to sea and later joined the British army, fighting in the War Of The Spanish Succession. Mary married and settled down as a woman, but returned to male dress following the death of her husband, later boarding a ship bound for the West Indies. Captured by "Calico" Jack Rackham, Mary joined his crew. In 1721, she died in prison.[21]
Mary Farley, alias Mary / Martha Farlee / Harley / Harvey 1725–1726 Irish In 1725, Mary Harvey and her husband Thomas were transported to the Province of Carolina as felons. In 1726, Mary and three men were tried for piracy. Two of the men were hanged (their leader John Vidal was convicted and later pardoned), but Mary was released. Her husband Thomas was never caught.[22]
Mary Crickett (or Critchett / Crichett) 1728 English In 1728, Mary Crickett and Edmund Williams were transported to the colony of Virginia together as felons. In 1729, along with four other men, both were convicted of piracy and hanged.[23]
Flora Burn 1751 English Operated on the East Coast of North America.[24]
Rachel Wall 1760–1789 1770s American Married George Wall, a former privateer who served in the Revolutionary War, when she was sixteen years old. Operated on the New England coast. Thought to be the first American female pirate. In 1782, George and the rest of his crew were drowned in a storm. She was accused of robbery in 1789 and confessed to being a pirate. She was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. She was the last woman to be hanged in the state of Massachusetts.[25]
Charlotte de Berry 1700s English Historical accounts vary on de Berry's history. Possibly fictional.[25][26]

19th-century pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Ching Shih 1775–1844 1801–1810 Chinese She was a prostitute who married a pirate and rose to prominence after his death. Regarded as one of the most powerful pirates in human history, she commanded her husband's fleet after his death. While the fleet she inherited was already large, she further increased the number of ships and crew. At its height, her fleet was composed of more than 1,500 ships and 80,000 sailors. She controlled much of the waters of the South China Sea. After years of piracy during which she defeated several attempts to capture her, the Qing government offered her peace in 1810 and she was able to retire. She married her second-in-command.[27]
Margaret Croke (Margaret Jordan) 1809 Canadian Following a dispute with investors over his schooner The Three Sisters, Edward Jordan was on his way to Halifax to sort it out. Wrongly assuming his family was being sent to debtors' prison, he killed two crewman then threw the captain overboard before commandeering the vessel with the help of the remaining crewman. The marooned captain survived and testified against Jordan claiming Margaret, who was aboard with her son and three young daughters, was also involved. Margaret admitted hitting the captain after he had hit her husband during an argument in her cabin before he decided to commandeer the vessel; the other crew member testified she was actually in fear for her life from her violent husband and had attempted to escape. Edward was hanged for piracy and murder, Margaret was discharged[28]
Johanna Hård 1789–1851 1823 Swedish Sweden's last pirate; in 1823, the recently widowed Hård, a farm owner on Vrångö Island, was arrested along with her farmhand Anders Andersson, farmer Christen Andersson, and one of Christen's farmhands Carl Börjesson and boatman Johan Andersson Flatås of Göteborg for piracy after the Danish ship Frau Mette was found beached and plundered with a murdered crew. Evidence was presented that the five had followed the Frau Mette on the Flatås' fishing vessel, the Styrsö, and requested water. After boarding her they killed the crew. Johan Andersson Flatås, Anders Andersson, and Christen Andersson were sentenced to death and beheaded. Carl Börjesson was imprisoned in Karlstens fortress, where he died in 1853. The evidence against Johanna Hård was insufficient and she was released and subsequently disappeared.[29][30][31]
Sadie the Goat 1869 American Possibly fictional. Operated around the state of New York as a member of the Charlton Street Gang. Named for her habit of headbutting her victims before taking their money.[32]

20th-century pirates[edit]

Name Life Years Active Culture Comments
Lo Hon-cho alias Hon-cho Lo 1920s Chinese Took command of 64 ships after her husband’s death in 1921. Youthful and reported to be pretty, she gained the reputation of being the most ruthless of all of China's pirates. Lo Hon-cho's fleet attacked villages and fishing fleets in the seas around Beihai, taking young women as prisoners and later selling them into slavery. In 1922, a Chinese warship intercepted the fleet, destroying 40 vessels. Despite escaping, Lo Hon-cho was later handed to authorities by the remaining pirates in exchange for clemency.[33]
Lai Sho Sz’en alias Lai Choi San 1922–1939 Chinese Operated in the South China Sea. Commanded 12 ships.[34]
P’en Ch’ih Ch’iko 1936 Chinese Supposedly commanded 100 pirates in 1936.[35]
Ki Ming Chinese Possibly an alias for P’en Ch’ih Ch’iko[36]
Huang P’ei-mei 1937–1950s Chinese Led 50,000 pirates.[37]
Cheng Chui Ping

(nicknamed "Sister Ping")

1970s–1990s Chinese Operated in the South China Sea, smuggling thousands of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and Europe. Was convicted in the U.S. and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Died in 2014.[38]

In fiction[edit]

While most fictional and dramatic depictions of pirates have been male, some notable female pirates have been depicted.



  • The Dragon Lady depicted in Milton Caniff's comic series Terry and the Pirates was inspired by Lai Choi San
  • Janme Dark from Aoike Yasuko's Sons of Eve manga series.
  • Black Boots from Mary Hanson-Roberts' graphic novel Here Comes a Candle.
  • Marquise Spinneret Mindfang from the webcomic Homestuck.

Film and television[edit]


Arthur Ransome's novel Missee Lee (1941), about a Chinese female pirate. The book, part of a series of children's books, is set in 1930s China. (dustjacket is shown)



Video games[edit]

Multiple media and other depictions[edit]

  • Multiple fictional depictions of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
  • Elena Dugan (Lady Galbraith) in The Seas of Fionnghuala.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Were there really woman pirates?". Archived from the original on 2015-04-28. Retrieved 2009-04-01.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Pennell, C. R. 2001. Bandits at sea: A pirates reader. New York: New York University Press.
  3. ^ John Wilkes, The Illyrians, The Peoples of Europe (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 158.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Grammaticus, Saxo (November 11, 2006). The Danish History, Books I–IX. Project Gutenberg. Archived from the original on 2008-04-07. Retrieved 2008-07-02.
  5. ^ Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, eds., Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources (London: Penguin Classics, 1983), 11–2.
  6. ^ Triggs, Danielle (2017-05-31). "Famous Female Outlaws: Elise Eskilsdotter". Girl Museum. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  7. ^ Anne Chambers, Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley c. 1530–1603 (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2003).
  8. ^ Mourtada-Sabbah, Nada; Gully, Adrian (2003). "'I Am, by God, Fit for High Positions': On the Political Role of Women in al-Andalus". British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 30 (2): 183–209. doi:10.1080/1353019032000126527. ISSN 1353-0194. JSTOR 3593222. S2CID 154937981.
  9. ^ Lebbady, Hasna; ﺍﻟﻠﺒﺎﺩﻱ, ﺣﺴﻨﺎﺀ (2012). "Women in Northern Morocco: Between the Documentary and the Imaginary / النساء في شمال المغرب: بين ﺍﻟﺘﺴﺠﻴﻠﻲ ﻭﺍﻟﺘﺨﻴﻴﻠﻲ". Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics (32): 127–150. ISSN 1110-8673. JSTOR 41850741.
  10. ^ Heads of State of Morocco Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership
  11. ^ Sayyida al Hurra Archived 2008-08-08 at the Wayback Machine Ottoman biographies
  12. ^ "The Killigrews of Falmouth". Archived from the original on 2008-09-15. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  13. ^ Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and Hellions on the Sea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 52–3.
  14. ^ Erika Owen, Lawbreaking Ladies: 50 Tales of Daring, Defiant, and Dangerous Women from History (New York: Tiller Press, 2021) 6–7.
  15. ^ "Gustaf Drake - Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon". sok.riksarkivet.se. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  16. ^ Framsida Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meiefnzerin, and Gabriel Kuhn, Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger (Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1997), 168.
  17. ^ Butts, Edward (14 December 2013). "Eric Cobham | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  18. ^ List of Known Women Pirates
  19. ^ Sjöberg, Maria (3 August 2018). "skbl.se - Ingela Olofsdotter Gathenhielm". skbl.se. Translated by Alexia Grosjean. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  20. ^ "Anne Bonny - Famous Pirate - The Way of the Pirates". www.thewayofthepirates.com. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  21. ^ Woodward, Colin (2020-01-04). "Mary Read Biography - The Republic of Pirates". web.archive.org. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  22. ^ Laura Duncombe, Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2017).
  23. ^ Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader C. R. Pennell 2000 p. 304 ISBN 0-8147-6678-1
  24. ^ "About Facts Net". archive.ph. 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  25. ^ a b "Pirates & Privateers: the History of Maritime Piracy - Women and the Jolly Roger". www.cindyvallar.com. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  26. ^ "Wayback Machine". web.archive.org. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  27. ^ "Vincent Cheng Talkasia Transcript". CNN. October 7, 2005. Archived from the original on 2013-03-02. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
  28. ^ Uncertain Justice: Canadian Women and Capital Punishment 1754–1953. Frank Murray Greenwood, Beverley Boissery pp. 61–79, ISBN 1-55002-344-6
  29. ^ Västergötaland executions
  30. ^ History of Vrångö
  31. ^ "Swedish Pirates". Archived from the original on 2017-06-20. Retrieved 2008-08-21.
  32. ^ English, T.J. Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 19.
  33. ^ Lady Pirate Chief, Beauty, Betrayed Copy of December 15, 1922 newspaper article
  34. ^ Lilius, Aleko E. (1931). I sailed with Chinese pirates. New York: Appleton.
  35. ^ "Pirates of the Caribbean: Female Pirates". Archived from the original on 2011-05-13. Retrieved 2009-04-01.
  36. ^ "Maktaaq".
  37. ^ "Women in power 1900-1940". www.guide2womenleaders.com. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  38. ^ "The Case of the Snakehead Queen". FBI. Retrieved 2022-07-29.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cordingly, David. Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives
  • Driscoll, Sally (2009). Anne Bonny: "revenge". Great Neck Publishing.
  • Druett, Joan (2000). She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. Simon & Schuster.
  • Lorimer, Sara (2002). Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas. Chronicle Books.