Monday, March 24, 2014

Were There Female Pirates?

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.


  1. If there was a female pirate, disguised As a man, wouldn't there still be problems? As you have mentioned in another post that as a pirate, there was the possibility that he could marry another pirate (who is also male) if that it true what if a male pirate fell in love with another male pirate who was actually a woman? And if the crew kept her on, it was only a matter of time she would become pregnant, what would they do?let her give birth on the ship? Where everyone would witness the birth and might have to give a helping hand? What if a woman sneaked onto the ship to follow her lover but even he didn't know? What if a woman sneaked onto the pirate ship cuz she felt like it? If a woman joined the pirate crew and didn't know much, and her gender was discovered would the pirate crew keep her on and train her? (Concerning that they were not upper class, therefore their main concern is survival, they might not have cared what gender the person is as long as they contributed to help run the ship.) If a women were held captive by pirate what would happen to them? Would they come sex partners for the men? Would a meaningful relationship occur? Asit is questionable that high testosterone driven men would let female captives be untouched until they drop the women in port.
    Also given to zero privacy wouldn't pirates be well aware of the body of women and men? Or at least seen?

    1. Male pirates who married were presumably already having sex, in addition to hanging around off-ship, so a woman's disguise wouldn't survive THAT. Royal navy ships frequently allowed women on board, and yes, they gave birth right on the crew deck.
      It's pretty unlikely that a woman would go to all the trouble to sneak on a ship and not tell her lover. And it was always problematic... Pirates wanted experienced crew.
      It sounds like you have quite an imagination. Why don't you try to write some stories?