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!

New Blogger! Meet Ben, the Maritime Man [Real Pirates]

Our Real Pirates exhibition opens Friday! It’s the first exhibition of an authentic pirate shipwreck – ever. I got a chance to check it out this morning, and it’s pretty amazing – everything from real pirates’ booty to a walk-through recreation of The Whydah, a slave ship that was captured by pirates before sinking in 1717.

There’s a ton to explore in the exhibit, and so I’m super-excited to introduce you to our newest blogger! Ben, Assistant Director of the Houston Maritime Museum, is going to be sharing his knowledge of ships – a fairly essential piece of the pirate lifestyle –  with us throughout the run of the xhibition here on the blog. We asked him to tell us a little about himself – check back Friday for his first post!

Tell us a little bit about your background.  Since you work at the Houston Maritime Museum, I’m assuming you like ships.

Well , it all started with a summer internship that I did on board the Battleship Texas.  I worked alongside their then curator Susan Smyer and loved every minute of it.  At that point, I decided that if I wanted to work in museums, I would need to further my education.  My wife and I then traveled all the way up to windswept Lubbock,  Texas where I attended Texas Tech University for two years to get a Master’s degree in History with a minor in Museum Science.

After that, I worked as an Educational and Maintenance Assistant at Varner Hogg Plantation and as the Educational Assistant and  Bookstore Manager at the Brazoria County Historical Museum.  I loved both jobs immensely.  For me, the most rewarding aspect of working in the museum field is bringing science, and history to life for kids of all ages and letting them experience the past, as well as learning in general in fun, hands-on ways.

This year,  I landed my dream job at the Houston Maritime Museum and I have been enjoying it ever since.  Honestly, I enjoy learning about maritime history in general,  but pirates just happen to be the icing on the cake.  I think the reason I like maritime history so much is because I grew up in Baytown near the Ship Channel, so I was never far from the water and large boats.  That combined  with my many visits to maritime museums like the Battleship Texas and the Nimitz Museum just made me feel right at home in the field.

Learn more about the Real Pirates
exhibition on the exhibit web site!

What is the most fascinating thing on display at the Maritime Museum?

Everyone has their favorites, but I would have to say that the model we have of the Chinese Junk is my personal favorite at the moment.  Although it is a fairly unassuming model, once you get into the history of some of the people that sailed the Junks, their stories are pretty amazing.  I actually wrote a blog about a Mrs. Cheng (coming soon!) who was arguably one of the most successful pirates east or west to ever live.  The story has everything from awkward family drama to murder and mayhem on the high seas.  I don’t want to give away too much here,  so you will have to read my blogs to get the whole scoop.

What do you hope people will learn from your upcoming posts on the HMNS blog?

I hope that everyone who reads our blogs will become  interested enough in maritime history that they will want to visit our museum and learn more about both the maritime industry and the history that surrounds it.

People tend to think of pirates from a very specific time period.  Is there a broader context?

Absolutely!  There have been pirates as long as there have been boats.  Really, when you boil it all down, piracy is just robbery on water.  Piracy can be something as mundane as a fisherman stealing another fisherman’s catch for the day or something as extreme as the raids of Blackbeard and others like him.  In reality piracy was not limited to just the Caribbean (which movies such as the one Johnny Depp stars in might lead you to believe).  The Far East sometimes had incredibly powerful pirate navies that defeated the national navies that were sent to kill or capture them.

Who is your favorite pirate?

Don’t tell my wife, but I still have a crush on Mrs. Cheng even though she’s some 200 years older than me.   I think we could make it work.  She has one of the most exciting and well-documented female pirate stories on record, but again, I don’t want to give too much away.