10 of the World's Most Famous Female Pirates

One of the many castles of Grace O'Malley, located at Kildavnet, Achill Island, Mayo, Ireland.
One of the many castles of Grace O'Malley, located at Kildavnet, Achill Island, Mayo, Ireland.

By definition, a pirate is an individual who commits a robbery or an act of violence by boat or ship on another ship that usually has valuable cargo. Historically, pirates have been in existence since the 14th century BCE during the age of the ocean raiders known as the Sea Peoples. Piracy is best accomplished in narrow waters where a ship can be herded to a position where its defenses are rendered useless. Despite being a field dominated by men, there have been some famous women in history who have made their way into the history books. The reason for a low number of women was a document that was known as the ship’s contract, which prevented women from becoming part of a ship’s crew. Due to these restrictions, most female pirates did not go by the designation of “pirate” even though their actions were synonymous to piracy. Some female pirates, such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read, decided to dress up and act like men.

10. Æthelflæd

Also known as the Lady of Mercians, Æthelflæd lived between c. 870 and June 12, 918. Daughter to the king of the kingdom of Wessex (Alfred the Great) and Ealhswith, this woman ruled Mercia from 911 until she passed away. Æthelflæd was born in a time when the vikings were at the height of their attacks on England. In the 890s, Æthelflæd, together with her husband, played a key part in rebuffing viking attacks. After her husband became ill, she assumed most of the leadership roles of running the kingdom.

9. Jeanne de Clisson

Also known as the Lioness of Brittany and Jeanne de Belleville, Jeanne de Clisson was a Breton privateer who lived between 1300 and 1359 and was a pirate for 13 years. Born in Belleville-sur-Vie in the Vendee, this woman plied the waters in the English Channel hunting down French ships with a fleet of three ships that was known as the Black Fleet. Her fleet would murder almost everyone leaving few survivors to spread the news. Initially, her allegiances were French but those changed after the French King murdered her husband.

8. Elise Eskilsdotter

Elise Eskilsdotter was a Norwegian noble who died in 1483. Elise’s parents were Eskild Ågesen (a knight) and Elisabeth Jakobsdatter Hegle. Later on, around 1420, she got married to Olav Nilsson. Her husband was part of Norway’s ruling council that was known as the Riksråd. After his country made peace with the Germans in 1453, he continued attacking their ships against the king’s desires, which was why he was dismissed in the same year. In 1455, he was assassinated together with his son and other people, which led to Elise taking up arms against the German merchants. She was also against Danish rule, which was why the Danish King took her fief from her in 1468.

7. Grace O'Malley

Also known as Gráinne O'Malley, Grace O'Malley was born around c. 1530 and died around c. 1603. As a child, Grace shaved her head and dressed as a boy to sneak aboard her father's ships. Later, Grace took up the position as the lord of the Ó Máille dynasty when her father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, passed away. She was an active leader who took over matters to do with both sea and land. Although twice married, Grace was regarded as a Queen with castles, ships, and followers of her own.

6. Sayyida al Hurra

Born with the name Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, Hakimat Titwan, Sayyida al Hurra was a Tétouan queen between 1515 and 1542. In the early stages of the 16th century, she became a pirate queen. Sayyida lived from 1485 until her death on July 14, 1561. Most historians agree that she is one of the most crucial women in Islamic history. Her pirate life was carried out in the Mediterranean Sea where she had an alliance with the Turkish corsair Barbarossa of Algiers.

5. Jacquotte Delahaye

This woman was a pirate who plied her trade in the Caribbean Sea in the 17th century. Jacquotte is an important figure in history because she was among the few women who carried our piracy at that time. However, some debate still exists over whether or not she existed. The only account of her activities comes from a French fiction writer known as Leon Treich.

4. Anne Bonny

Anne was an Irish pirate who plied the Caribbean. Interestingly, for one of the most famous female pirates in the word, her dates of birth and death are unclear. However, historians estimate that she lived between 1697 and April 1782. What little information we know about her is contained in the book titled “A General History of the Pyrates,” which was written by Captain Charles Johnson. Bonny is said to have been born in Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland. She married pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham and became a member of his crew. Later, she met and befriended Mary Read (see below). In October 1720, she was captured and sentenced to death although her punishment was stayed due to pregnancy. Eventually, she was released after giving birth.

3. Mary Read

Born in 1685, Mary also went by the name Mark Read. Together with Anne Bonny above, these two are arguably the most famous female pirates. Read spent her childhood disguised as a boy working on ships. She married a Flemish solider and upon his early death, she once again took up her male clothing and headed to the West Indies. When the ship was attacked by pirates, Read willingly joined. She later met Anne Bonny and her husband Calico Jack and the three joined together. The two were later arrested and Mary died on April 28, 1721 while in prison.

2. Ching Shih

Also called Cheng I Sao, Ching Shih was a pirate who once plied the China Sea during the time of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. History books state that she was once in command of 300 Chinese ships and a sizeable number of pirates (between 20,000 and 40,000). The pirate army consisted of several kinds of people including men, children, and women. Ching was born in 1775 and died in 1844 at an age of 68 or 69. During her time, she fought major nations like Portugal and England.

1. Charlotte Badger

Charlotte was born in 1778 in Bromsgrove, England and died in 1818 (or after). She was born to Thomas and Anny Badger (a poor family) and was baptized on July 31, 1778. To make ends meet, she used to engage in criminal activities, which was why she was caught and sentenced to seven years’ worth of penal servitude in Australia. While in Australia, she and another woman staged a mutiny aboard a ship. She apparently settled in a Maori village in New Zealand with her daughter. She is remembered as being one of the first white women to settle in New Zealand and the first female Australian pirate.


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