About Ben

Graduating with a Master's in History from Texas Tech University, Ben Pfeiffer first developed a love of maritime history as an intern at the Battleship Texas. Currently, he is the Assistant Director of the Houston Maritime Museum where he is involved in educational programming, membership and volunteer coordination, exhibit design, and curatorial work. Ben will be contributing a series of posts in conjunction with the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS.

Piracy in the Far East: A Family Affair [Women Pirates, Part 2]

If you missed part 1 of my women pirates blog, fear not: you can still read it here.

Compared to the West, the Far East was much more accommodating toward women on ships. In fact, it was noted that pirate communities in the Far East had no settled residences on land. Rather, they lived constantly on their ships with their entire families. Thus, it was not uncommon for women to take an active role in handling ships and sailing them into raids.

Ching Shih: History’s Most Successful Pirate

It was against this backdrop that Ching Shih started life as a prostitute in Canton before marrying the leader of a pirate band named Cheng I. When her husband died in 1807, she positioned herself well among her relatives and assumed command of the pirate navy. She assigned her husband’s adopted son, whom she later married, to command the primary pirate fleet.

She was, for all intents and purposes, the pirate community’s CEO, concerned with long term strategic planning and policy. Her second husband, Chang Pao, was the Chief Operating Officer, concerned with the day-to-day running of the community. Between the two of them, they put in place a strict code of conduct that beheaded anyone caught stealing from the common treasure, and even dealt with the issue of rape by beheading, which is unusual for a pirate community.

A Pirate Armada

For three years, the pirates fought off all government attempts to bring them to justice with the final result being the loss of 63 government vessels. At the height of its power, the pirates had some 200 ocean going junks with 20 to 30 cannons apiece. There were a number of smaller, river-going vessels as well that ensured that coastal communities paid for the pirates’ “protection.”

It was not until Chinese officials enlisted the help of English and Portuguese warships, combined with an ever-increasing number of Chinese naval ships, that Ching Shih took the initiative to meet with the emperor and amnesty was offered. As she was negotiating from a position of strength, she was able to ensure that her sailors were able to keep all of their plunder and join the military as experienced fighters once they gave up their ships and weapons. Based on this agreement, her husband joined the military at the rank of Lieutenant and eventually rose to the rank of Colonel before his death at the age of 36.

After her career as a pirate, Mrs. Cheng led a peaceful life running a gambling house until she passed away at the age of 69 in 1844.

This is my final post for the HMNS blog on Pirates!

Check out previous posts to read up on pirate history and lore – and come see me at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

How To Rule the Sea: A Guide For Privateers 1500s – 1800s
Jean Laffite: Texas Pirate
Pirates: Romance vs. Reality
Real Pirates: Attackers, Thieves…Equal Opportunity Employers?
Women Pirates – Scourges of the High Seas! [Part 1]

Real Pirates is in its final weeks! Preview this stunning exhibit in the slideshow below. Click here to view if it loads slowly.

Women Pirates – Scourges of the High Seas! [Part 1]

Though we most often associate piracy with men, we know that there were circumstances where there were women pirates.

Famous Female Pirates

In the West, the two most famous were Anne Bonny A.K.A. Anne Talbot A.K.A. Ann Fulford and Mary Read.  Meanwhile in the Far East there was a woman pirate who is arguably one of the most successful pirates man or woman to ever exist, Ching Shih.  Though separated by thousands of miles and nearly 100 years, these women pirates excelled in their raiding and serve as interesting counterpoints to what is traditionally associated as a largely male domain.

The Pirate Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny: Raised As A Boy

The story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read follow along similar lines.  Both were essentially raised as boys.  Anne was the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer who was having an affair with his maid in Ireland.  To hide Anne from nosy neighbors and prevent a scandal, the father dressed her up as a boy and began to train her as a legal clerk.  Unfortunately for Anne, the lawyer’s wife found out about the affair and child and he was forced to move to America, as his practice was ruined once his affair and duplicitous life were discovered by the community.

Anne and her father ended up in the Carolinas and Anne grew up to be quite the headstrong young woman.  Counter to her father’s approval she ran away with a penniless neer-do-well sailor whom she quickly discarded for the pirate captain Calico Jack.  Once she bore him a child, she dressed as a man and joined him on ship – where she met up with Mary Read.

Mary Read: Man-Of-War Maiden

Like Anne, Mary spent much of her life working alongside men.  In fact at the age of thirteen she was a footman to a French lady.  Being a youth, she grew tired of waiting after pampered ladies of high society so she went and dressed as a man again and worked on a man-of-war.

She later joined the army in Flanders where she married a soldier whom she was sharing a tent with.  Leaving the military behind, the couple opened a bar that soon became insolvent when her husband died.  After that she took a series of jobs on ships including one that was captured by pirates, where she grew accustomed to the lifestyle, and eventually joined the crew of Calico Jack.

The Fate of Anne and Mary

Calico Jack

Captain Calico Jack and the two women primarily focused on raiding small fishing boats until a privateer caught up with their ship. After a long chase and a brief firefight that left the pirate ship disabled, they were forced to surrender. The prisoners pled not guilty, but were quickly condemned, as the evidence against them was substantial. They were all sentenced to death.

However, it was at the sentencing that both Mary and Anne declared they were pregnant. After an examination, it was determined that they were and their sentence was delayed. What is known is that Mary Read passed away from disease shortly after the trial. As for Anne and her unborn child, little is known about their fate.

What is certain is that both women’s celebrity has far outstretched the notoriety of much more successful pirates and that they will continue to be an interesting chapter in the history of piracy.

Coming Soon! Piracy in the Far East: A Family Affair, Part 2 of our series on Women Pirates! Learn about Ching Shih, one of the most successful pirates in history, man or woman!

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 in its final weeks!

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!

Pirates: Romance Versus Reality

When we think of pirates, many of us think of phrases like “walk the plank” or books and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island.  Hardly ever do we think of the real people and circumstances that gave rise to such stories.  This leaves us wondering just who these fanciful pirates were in reality.  The answer may surprise you.

In order to understand what pirates mean to us today, we must first examine various portrayals of pirates and what they mean to the modern person.

The first type of pirate is the lovable rogue.  This can be seen in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series where the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow serves as a humorously dishonest ruffian who plays by his own rules, but is still an honorable compatriot for the movie’s hero and heroine.  For many, this is the most iconic and memorable view of pirates not because of its accuracy, but because it appeals to today’s sense of harmless fun and adventure that is a far cry from the dreary boardrooms and boring meetings that many of us face on a daily basis.  In our culture, the very idea of a pirate conjures up visions of a person that plays by their own rules and is not bound to the powers that be.  This is an incredibly attractive proposition for modern audiences, especially when this character is combined with exotic locations and exciting situations.

The next type of portrayal is the villainous pirate.  This character is both dastardly and devious, though not necessarily brutal.  Usually, these are the characters that serve as a foil against which a hero must strive.  These pirates will not hesitate to use cunning to get what they want, and are seen in a variety of sources like Peter Pan and Treasure Island.  In both stories, the villains use tricks to trip up the heroes until the heroes themselves use deception as a means to outwit the evil pirates.  For today’s audience, the villainous pirate is little more than a plot device to take the viewer to exotic locales and interesting situations.  In this way, pirates serve as a means of escapism that is fun for the family, not frightening or brutal in the least.

The next type of common pirate portrayal is the romantic rogue, which commonly adorns the covers of harlequin novels.  These are the tall, strapping, muscular pirates that whisk women away and expose them to the world of love and adventure that they were missing in their otherwise mundane lives.  Again, the common theme here is clearly escapism from the drudgery of real life that we all face, like doing the laundry and going to work.

While these various portrayals of pirates in their own way are interesting and worthy of an afternoon’s diversion, the real life stories of pirates far exceed any drama on the silver screen or hidden away in the pages of fiction.

For example, compared to the romance novel’s tall, handsome pirate, real pirates were often in their early to mid-20s.  So far so good.  However, they were usually malnourished due to the terrible nature of their diets, which made for a number of pirates with missing teeth.  Additionally, though estimates vary, their average height was considered to be about 5 foot, 5 inches.   Rarely did these rangy young men come from the upper echelons of society.  Instead, they were usually ex-sailors that had either fallen into a thuggish lifestyle of hard living or they were captured by pirates and forced to help man the ship.  In short, pirates were the inner city gangsters of their day.

Creative Commons License photo credit:

As mentioned previously, we commonly think of pirates forcing people to “walk the plank.” However, they rarely indulged in such ceremonious ways of killing someone.  Instead, if an example had to be made, pirates simply made it in the most brutally effective way possible.  Perhaps the best example of this was written by a Miss Lucretia Parker, who was briefly captured in 1825.  She described the event in a letter to her brother George, who lived in New York:

“Having first divested them of every article of clothing but their shirt and trousers… they fell on the unfortunate crew… with the ferocity of cannibals!… In vain did poor Capt. S. attempt to touch their feelings and to move them to pity by representing to them the situation of his innocent family-that he had a wife and three small children at home… but alas, the poor man entreated in vain!  His appeal was to monsters possessing hearts callous to the feelings of humanity!  Having received a heavy blow from one with an axe, he snapped the cords with which he was bound, and attempted to escape by flight, but was met by another of the ruffians, who plunged a knife or dirk to his heart!  I stood near to him… and was covered with his blood.”

Luckily, Miss Parker was saved when a British warship appeared on the horizon and the pirates fled.  However, the story illustrates a brutality of piracy that is never shown to modern audiences. 

It is also interesting to note that life onboard ships during the age of piracy was far from glamorous.  It was crowded, dirty and yes, many times monotonous.  The food and scenery rarely changed, and the work was very difficult.  For example, one of the jobs that pirates had to perform was scraping barnacles off of the boat when the pirate ship was in a safe harbor.  Another common job was keeping the decks clean by rubbing the wooden decks down with a heavy abrasive stone.

In the end, while it may be fun to escape into the world of adventure and excitement that pirates represent to us, it is important to remember that in many ways conditions today are vastly preferable to those commonly endured on pirate ships of the past.

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.

Also be sure to check out the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!