Real Pirates: Attackers, Thieves…Equal Opportunity Employers?

Though piracy is largely viewed as a masculine pastime, there have been some women who were not only able to survive but thrive in a pirate’s life.  History has recorded a number of notable cases of women pirates, though surely more have existed.

One of the earliest recorded is a Scandinavian tale of a woman pirate named Alwilda.  Legend has it that she was the daughter of a Scandinavian king in the fifth century AD.  Her father arranged a marriage between his daughter, Alwilda, and the King of Denmark’s son, Alf.  She was so opposed to this wedding that she and some of her friends dressed up as men and sailed away, later coming upon a company of pirates that had lost its captain.  Apparently her regal demeanor was enough to guarantee their loyalty, and her new company of pirates proceeded to raid throughout the Baltic Sea.  Understandably, the King of Denmark was not pleased and sent his son Alf to deal with them.  After a fierce battle, Alf and his men captured Alwilda and she was so impressed with his masculine ways that she married him and became Queen of Denmark.

The meeting of Grace O’Malley
and Queen Elizabeth I

Another early example of female piracy is the story of an Irish woman by the name of Grace O’Malley.  Grace was born to an Irish chieftain on Ireland’s west coast.  Her family, the O’Malley’s, maintained a small fleet of ships in the 1500s that were used for a variety of purposes, such as fishing, trading, and raiding.  It seems likely that she went to sea as a girl, was married by 16, and in a few years had three children.  After her husband died, Grace took over the O’Malley fleet.  As was the custom at the time, her fleet would make raids of opportunity on passing ships.  It did not matter if they belonged to far away merchants or some of the neighboring chieftains, as they were likely doing the same thing.  After a while, the raiding grew excessive and the English governor of the territory dispatched some men and ships to lay siege to her castle.   She marshaled her forces and they forced the governor’s men to flee.

Grace remarried and was widowed a second time.  This left her vulnerable to raids, as Irish custom did not allow a widow to inherit money or titles.  Thus, O’Malley was presented with two options:  to stay on the defensive and fight off would-be raiders or take the fight to them.  The latter is the path that Grace chose.  This of course caused the authorities to respond, as her raiding quickly got out of control.  The authorities impounded her entire fleet of ships, leaving her territories wide open to attack from rivals.  Fearing she had no recourse with the local government, Grace sought an audience with Queen Elizabeth, who forced the governor to grant her access to her late husband’s money so that she might live out her life in some comfort as a widow.  While this did not end the endemic raiding that was prevalent in the area, it did bring it down to a manageable level as Grace was no longer forced to be overly aggressive to her neighbors and was now a woman of some means with enough financial footing to protect her interests.

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

You can also meet several more female pirates in the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!

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