Real Pirates: Closing Weekend!

Please note: due to weather conditions, the Museum will be closing at 3 pm today, and will be open from 10 am – 5 pm on Friday, Feb. 4. Normal hours will resume on Saturday, Feb. 5. Please check the Museum web site for the latest information. If you can make it here safely, we plan to be open during these hours and would love to see you for Real Pirates Closing Weekend!

Real Pirates is shipping out this Sunday, Feb 6. This is your last weekend to see it. Personally, I love the exhibit. From seeing the ship’s actual bell and cannons to the chance to touch real pirate treasure, this exhibition offers a unique experience. In addition to learning about the Whydah and the fate of its crew, the exhibit has taught me a lot about pirates.

I learned how pirates kept themselves entertained at sea, what objects they valued most, and how nations responded to the pirate threat. I think what interested me most though, was how democratic and progressive pirate crews could be. As opposed to nations’ navies, pirates were made up of multi-ethnic crews, consisting of North Americans, Indians, Europeans, and Africans. Did you know that Blackbeard’s crew was 60% black?

Pirates split their spoils fairly evenly: each crew member got 1 share regardless of their race or color. Officers got a 1 1/4 shares, but unlike the various navies of the time, pirates were allowed to elect their own officers. After signing the articles and becoming a pirate, pirates were given an equal vote on the ship. Oftentimes, the entire crew (including the captain) would sleep on the deck if there weren’t enough hammocks for everyone.

Too learn more about this, and whether or not pirates buried their treasure or made victims walk the plank or a dozen other things you never knew but always wanted to, make sure to visit Real Pirates this weekend.

Also, if you haven’t seen them already, make sure to read all of Ben’s posts on pirates of the past: the feared women of the seas, the Texan pirate Laffite, and how pirates became privateers.

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.

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!