I’ve touched on a couple of the famous “pirate queens” GraceO’Malley and Jeanne de Clisson , and more of these women existed, in places like China and Southeast Asia. Everyone knows the story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which has been covered in detail here.
But what about day-to-day living on a pirate ship? Were there ever more than two women who lived and worked on board ships as pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy?
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding YES!
Pirates didn’t often write things down, but as we have seen before, the day-to-day life of a working pirate aboard ship was not that different than that of any other sailor. So we can look at the lives of average sailors to see if females ever went to sea.
One source of very exact documentation is the Royal Navy. Naval ships keep detailed records of their day-to-day activities, and these records have been preserved. And while it was absolutely forbidden for women to serve as sailors on Navy ships, incidents of female sailors turn up regularly. Hannah Snell served as a marine aboard the Swallow for three years. She was wounded 11 times, including once in the groin, without being discovered. When she finally revealed her sex, she was honorably discharged and received a pension.
Elizabeth Bowden had been a member of the crew of the Hazard for only six weeks when she was discovered to be a woman. But she was kept on, as John Bowden, and given a separate place to sleep. She is notable for testifying in a sodomy trail, in which a lieutenant was accused of raping a cabin boy.
A black woman known only as William Brown served on warships for 12 years. It was acknowledged that she was a woman, but her skills were so superior (she was in charge of the work party that furled the very topmost sails) that she was kept on after she was revealed as female.
If these stories are any indication, female sailors were far more common than we suppose… remember that these were only the women who were revealed and whose stories have survived over hundreds of years. The pirate Mary Read had served twice in the Navy and during two separate tours of duty in the army, and was never caught.
Some of these women were forced to dress as men in order to support themselves. Others disguised themselves and followed husbands or sweethearts to sea. Some others may have been lesbians who felt out of place in a society where women had no real place outside of marriage. Some of the stories of women who went to sea include details of how they accompanied their male friends to taverns and took up with the local women. Several were pursued by girls who had fallen in love with them.
How did women avoid detection aboard ship? Sailor’s clothes at the time were baggy and often ill-fitting , so a woman’s figure would not necessarily be noticed. Some archaeological hints have also been found. For instance a leather funnel which would have allowed a woman to urinate while standing was recovered from a shipwreck.
But what about menstruation? In the days before modern sanitary products, how could a woman disguise this function?
Some historians believe that sickness was so rampant in the lower decks of wooden ships that discharge would not necessarily be remarked upon. A woman’s monthly cycle might be mistaken for venereal disease or other sickness. I personally, however, subscribe to a different theory, which states that, since a woman ceases to menstruate when her body fat drops below a certain level, many of these women simply had no cycles to disguise.
There is also a factor of privacy. Given the extreme crowding, it would seem that keeping a woman’s gender secret would be very difficult. But in some cases the reverse is true. Overcrowded men go to extreme lengths to avoid looking too closely at their crewmate’s bodies. This, coupled with the fact that 18th century working people rarely undressed fully, and it seems much less unbelievable that a woman could live undetected on a ship.
The same factors of low pay and humiliating working conditions that made men decide to be pirates would have acted on female sailors. And if a woman could do the work (as we have seen was common) and could hide her gender (as we have seen that they did) there is no reason why she would not have made a successful pirate.
The only problem is that, having hidden their identities so well from their shipmates, they have also hidden them from history.
If that seems just a little thin, I’ll offer one more piece of proof that women served on pirate ships. In the articles (ship’s rules) signed by all of Bartholomew Robert’s pirate crew, one of the very few such documents to have survived, section VI reads:
No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
Pirates didn’t write things down very often. They also didn’t make up laws for no reason. So if the law was on the books, that means there had been a problem with the behavior in the past.
It’s close enough to proof for me.