Women Pirates

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13056

You've probably heard of a corsair, privateer, pirate, and buccaneer. But what about the corsaira, privateera, piratess, and buccanneera? Are those real words? No, but there were real women pirates!



learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Did you know that seafaring people — like sailors, fisherman, and pirates — have had some very strange superstitions?

For example, here are some of the things pirates may have thought would bring bad luck to a ship:

  1. Bananas. Yes, you read that right! Sailors thought bananas would bring bad luck. What if they had a cargo of bananas to deliver? Oh, no! That would really "shiver their timbers"!
  2. Passing a salt shaker around. They would have to put the shaker down, and let the other person pick it up.
  3. Stirring tea with a fork or a knife. Better use your spoon!
  4. Redheads. But you could lessen the bad luck brought by these people by speaking to them before they spoke to you!
  5. Whistling. Whistling was thought to bring storms!
  6. Saying any of the following:
    • Goodbye
    • Good luck
    • drowned
  7. Someone losing a hat. Losing a hat was a sign that you were going to have a long voyage.
  8. Finally, women. It was thought to be bad luck to have women aboard. They would distract the men, and this would anger the sea, resulting in bad sailing conditions.

Women were especially not allowed to join pirate ships during the Golden Age of Piracy. They were not allowed to sign the Articles of Agreement. So, how did some women become pirates?

Though most of the pirates through history have been men, there have been some memorable women pirates, too! Let's get to know a few of them.

Grace O'Malley

Statue of Grainne Mhaol Ni Mhaille (Grace O'Malley), the Irish Pirate

Image by Suzanne Mischyshyn [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

This Irish queen was born around 1530 into a ruling family on the west coast of Ireland. Her family traded with France and Spain and plundered ships along the coastline. When her father died, she took over the family "business." She was as feared as any male pirate and had hundreds of men and many ships serving under her.

She is said to have been in a battle at sea only a day after giving birth to a child. The story says that a corsair from Turkey attacked her ship, and she jumped up out of bed with two guns and killed their officers and then took their ship!

When Queen Elizabeth I came to power in 1588, the English queen wanted to take control of Ireland and set out to rid the seas of this pesky Irish pirate empire. She sent ships and an army to attack O'Malley's castle. Grace was able to defend her castle, but she was not able to keep it for long. The British killed one of her sons and put the other in prison. Then, they took her castle and all her lands and possessions, and captured her fleet.

Grace decided to meet with Queen Elizabeth in person to ask for the release of her son and her ships, so she could continue her trading business. The Queen agreed, in exchange for Grace promising to help fight England's enemies.

But it seems that Grace may not have kept her part of the bargain; some say her fleet continued to attack English ships until she died at the age of 70!

  • Do you think she should have kept up her end of the agreement?

Cheng I Sao

Cheng I Sao

Image from "Pirates: An Illustrated History of Privateers, Buccaneers & Pirates from the Sixteenth Century to the Present," via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Cheng I Sao was probably the most powerful female pirate in history. She married a "pirate king," Cheng I (her name means "Wife of Cheng I"), and shared as an equal partner in the business. In the early 1800s, they built up a pirate fleet of over 400 ships and over 70,000 sailors called the Red Flag Fleet.

When Cheng I died, Cheng I Sao took over the fleet and led many raids across southeast Asia. She wrote a very strict code for the fleet to follow. For example, if anyone disobeyed a superior, they were to be immediately beheaded! This code allowed Cheng I Sao to have tight control of her pirate realm. They not only attacked other ships but raided towns along the Chinese coast.

The Chinese government tried to destroy the fleet, but Cheng I Sao ended up capturing the government vessels also. And "pirate hunters" hired by the government also had little luck against the Red Flag Fleet.

Finally, the Chinese government got so desperate to stop the pirates that they asked the English and Portuguese navies to help. Faced with fighting two well-armed navies, Cheng I Sao surrendered. But she proved a clever businesswoman to the end. She agreed to surrender only if she would be allowed to keep her loot!

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

In the previous Related Lesson in this Pirates series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned about Caribbean pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham and how he took two female pirates into his crew. These two, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, are the most famous female pirates of the Golden Age.

Anne Bonny

Image by Anushka.Holding, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland but went to America as a child and later joined a pirate crew dressed as a man. She had red hair and a quick temper and quickly learned how to handle weapons and defend herself in a fight. She traveled to the Bahamas, where she met and married Jack Rackham and joined his crew. She continued to dress as a man, and only Rackham knew that she was a woman. But when Mary Read joined the crew, Anne revealed her identity to her as well.

Mary Read

Image by George S. Harris & Sons for Allen & Ginter, via Wikimedia Commons, is from The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is licensed under the CC0 1.0 public domain dedication.

Mary Read was born in England. Her father was a sailor who went off to sea and never returned. Needing help to support herself and her child, Mary's mother dressed Mary as a boy and sent her to her husband's mother, asking for help. She thought that the grandmother would be more likely to help if she thought she had a grandson rather than a granddaughter! She was right, and the old lady offered to give Mary some money every week as long as she lived.

When her grandmother died, Mary had to find a way to support herself. Since she was able to convince people that she was a boy, she decided to join the British army. There she proved to be very brave and was well-liked by the officers. Although she dressed like a man, she was still a young woman with a romantic heart. When she met a very kind and handsome Dutch soldier, she fell in love with him. She revealed to him her true identity, and later they were married. They set up as innkeepers in the Netherlands, but Mary's husband died soon after, and she decided to return to a life of adventure.

She joined a Dutch ship sailing for the Caribbean. This ship was captured by English pirates. Since Mary was the only English-speaking person on board, they decided to keep her as part of the crew. When this crew broke up, Mary enlisted on a privateering ship. As soon as the ship left harbor, the crew mutinied and turned it into a pirate ship. It seemed Mary could not get away from being a pirate, even if she wanted to!

Around this time, Mary met up with "Calico Jack" Rackham and Anne Bonny. Rackham took her on as part of the crew, with only he and Anne knowing that Mary was actually a woman. Mary again proved herself a hard worker and brave in battle, but her womanly heart still sought the happiness of love and marriage. She fell in love with a young craftsman (maybe a carpenter or sail-maker) who was forced to join the crew when his vessel was overtaken. The young man returned her love and wanted to marry her.

But in the meantime, the young man had insulted one of the pirate crew and was challenged to a duel. Mary knew he was not good with a gun and not likely to win; so she herself picked a fight with the pirate, knowing he would challenge her to a duel, and she would have a better chance of killing him. She met him at dawn on a little island with Calico Jack shouting, "Ready, Aim, Fire!"

Mary, now an expert shot, hit the pirate in the throat and then rammed him through the middle with her sword.

Mary Read killing her antagonist

Image from "The Pirates Own Book," via Wikimedia Commons, is available from the United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs division (ID cph.3a00980) and is in the public domain.

Soon after, Mary and the young man were married. But the Age of Piracy was coming to an end, and Rackham was easily captured as you read in the previous Related Lesson.

"Calico Jack" failed to be a brave man, or even a good friend, because he testified against Mary at her trial hoping to save himself. He and the other pirates testified that Mary Read and Anne Bonny were as tough and fearless in a fight as any man. Mary admitted that she learned to be brave in a fight from serving in the army but stated that, if the court would release her, she would settle down with her husband and live a normal life.

The court found both Mary Read and Anne Bonny guilty of piracy and sentenced them to be hanged. However, since they were both going to have babies; they were let go. Mary took ill and died before the baby was born. No one knows what happened to Anne Bonny. When Rackham was executed with most of his crew, Anne had this to say about him: "I am sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog!"

  • Do you think that Anne and Mary acted more bravely than "Calico Jack"?

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll summarize what you learned about each of these female pirates and draw a cartoon about one!

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