In the first-ever Seven Seas history of the world’s female buccaneers, Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas tells the story of women, both real and legendary, who through the ages sailed alongside—and sometimes in command of—their male counterparts. These women came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a desire for freedom. History has largely ignored these female swashbucklers, until now. Here are their stories, from ancient Norse princess Alfhild and warrior Rusla to Sayyida al-Hurra of the Barbary corsairs; from Grace O’Malley, who terrorized shipping operations around the British Isles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; to Cheng I Sao, who commanded a fleet of four hundred ships off China in the early nineteenth century.
Author Laura Sook Duncombe also looks beyond the stories to the storytellers and mythmakers. What biases and agendas motivated them? What did they leave out? Pirate Women explores why and how these stories are told and passed down, and how history changes depending on who is recording it. It’s the most comprehensive overview of women pirates in one volume and chock-full of swashbuckling adventures that pull these unique women from the shadows into the spotlight that they deserve.
Dawn of the Pirates
"Strangers, who are you? Where do you sail from? Are you traders, or do you sail the sea as pirates, with your hands against every man, and every man's hand against you?"
These lines come from Homer's Odyssey, one of the earliest existing texts. Piracy — one of the world's oldest professions — has been around even longer than the blind poet and also shares a birthplace with him: the Mediterranean. Since the late Bronze Age, this area has been a hotbed for piratical activity. In fact, the word pirate comes from the ancient Greek word piero, which means "to make an attempt." According to an Egyptian clay tablet from the period, the people of the eastern Mediterranean were attacking ships as early as the fourteenth century BCE, and it is not a big surprise given the geography of the area.
Greece is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, with a rugged terrain unsuitable for farming. Hence, civilizations sprang up only in flat pockets near the shore, where the mountain ranges tapered off, but even in these flatter areas, the rocky soil was of too poor quality to be hospitable to crops. Villages by necessity had to be small and humble — they could not grow large and prosperous because there was not enough arable land to grow food to feed a large village.
Since the ancients could not grow enough food to be profitable, they were forced to take up fishing as a way to make a living. In the water beyond their shores, food such as fish, squid, octopus, and shellfish flourished. An average able-bodied man would have had access to a boat for fishing. For him to be successful, he also needed navigation and sailing skills. Sailing in the ancient world bore little relation to the sailboats and speedboats enjoyed by sailors today. Without the modern inventions of GPS, sonar, power engines, and the National Weather Service, sailors had to be conscious every moment of the water depth, the weather conditions, and their position in the sea in order to avoid running aground, capsizing, or becoming lost. These skills, learned by necessity for fishing purposes, came in handy for the men and women who eventually turned to piracy.
The scarcity of good soil and natural resources naturally led to trade. Since it was virtually impossible to cross over any of the Greek mountains in those days (and moving stuff by sea is always easier anyway), the sea turned into the Greek "highway" system as the best and most efficient way to get around and conduct trade. One city-state would specialize in a particular good or crop and ship it to other city-states, selling their product and purchasing the products of other city-states. Over time, the best routes to navigate from city-state to city-state became well known and well used — and irresistible to pirates.
In fact, the very geography of the sea itself helped to foster piracy. The Mediterranean basin is essentially an obstacle course of small islands. Large trade ships were forced to sail in very narrow lanes between the islands and the shore in order to avoid shipwrecks. Before the advent of the steam engine, sailors were at the mercy of the currents and tides and unable to deviate from the courses nature charted. Ships could not sail in the winter or during rough weather. All these factors combined meant that large trade ships were likely to pass through only certain small areas and only under certain weather conditions. They were sitting ducks for the pirates, who had only to lie in wait among the many islands along the coast for a big ship to pass by.
Beyond the physical geography, political reasons helped piracy take off. The small, isolated villages that grew out of the landscape created independent settlements that were not easily governed by a single body. Greece was not one unified country as it is today but rather a collection of loosely connected groups who had their own governments, identities, and ways of life. These city-states were allied in name but were often rivals in practice; hostilities between city-states were not uncommon. Piracy easily sprang up between the city-states because it did not seem like stealing from one's own country. Capturing a merchant ship from another city-state was fair game in an area of scarce resources.
With all these factors in its favor, piracy was considered part of the rhythm of life during the late Bronze Age. Despite its happening all the time, everywhere, people did their best to thwart it whenever they could. The opening quote of this chapter demonstrates how Odysseus the sailor was greeted by the Cyclops after landing in his port. Outside of the Odyssey, newly arrived sailors to any port in the eastern Mediterranean could expect a similar greeting that tried to suss out whether the sailors had come for lawful or unlawful purposes. The fact that sailors were routinely asked whether or not they were pirates is a testament to just how ubiquitous piracy was in the region.
The Taurians, a group of early settlers of the Crimean Peninsula, used an even more extreme method to combat piracy. They had a custom of sacrificing all shipwrecked sailors who landed on their shores to their Virgin Goddess (similar to the Greek goddess Artemis). They would beat the unlucky shipwreck survivors in the head with a club and either throw the bodies off a cliff or bury them. Some scholars use this example to demonstrate how much the Taurians feared pirates and their wicked ways, but given Herodotus's account of the Taurians as "living by plundering and war," it seems possible that the Taurians were just eliminating the piratical competition.
A pirate ship needed the ability to sail into the maze of islands and shallow water where the larger ships could not follow. Merchant ships sailed on very specific routes and could not deviate from those paths, even when under attack, without risking shipwreck. The pirates knew this and used it to their advantage. They lay in wait for the larger ships among the natural coves and harbors along the coastline or in the hidden waters between the smaller islands — wherever they had a good view of the merchant ships' paths. When a large, slow ship sailed by, the pirates would spring into action and sail right up to it, attacking it and stripping it of its valuable cargo. The merchant ship was helpless as the pirates laid claim to whatever they liked. After the raid, the pirates reboarded their small ships and sailed quickly away, back to their hiding spots, where merchant ships could not reach them due to the shallow waters. For a long time, it was the perfect crime.
Historians agree that many pirates took advantage of this system and routinely attacked merchants. But while there is much evidence of piracy, there is very little historical documentation concerning specific pirates. The names of the ordinary men and women who took to the seas to raid and plunder are, for the most part, lost to history. There may have been scores of pirate women of low birth, but history has neglected to remember them. The pirates from this era who are known are generally either military commanders or rulers. This makes sense, given how history is usually recorded. Literate historians write most often about people in their own class — other wealthy people of high station. The legends from this era feature the larger-than-life characters of gods, demigods, monsters, and kings. Everyday citizens did not get starring roles in the epic poems of this era, unless they were victims of kidnapping by Zeus. The women pirates known from this era are no exception to the rule. All of them were queens as well as pirates.
* * *
The earliest known female pirate from the Mediterranean, and perhaps of all time, was Queen Artemisia I of Halicarnassus. Most of what is known about her comes from Herodotus's Histories and Polyaenus's Stratagems of War. Sometime in the fifth century BCE, she was born to a Carian father and a Cretan mother. Her childhood was spent in her father's gubernatorial land: Halicarnassus, a large coastal city-state in the region of Caria (modern-day Turkey). As the daughter of a government official, she was destined to marry well, and in 500 BCE, she married the king of Halicarnassus. (In a strange twist of fate, it is his name that is lost to history.) Before the king died, he and Artemisia had one son. The newly widowed Artemisia ascended to the throne of Caria and ruled in her dead husband's place. Herodotus notes that she had a grown son, and thus had no reason to go into battle herself, but she did so anyway. Whether he said this with pride or disgust is not certain.
At this point, it is vital to note that ancient Mediterranean piracy was not identical to the modern conception of piracy. These ancient pirates were not bands of outlaws who swore allegiance to no one; they were more like enemy powers who raided other city-states on both land and sea. Their methods, however, would be copied by more modern pirates — methods such as lying in wait for their prey, plundering large merchant ships, and using the geography of the area to their advantage. More important, these ancient pirates set the tone for more modern pirates, who would likewise follow their desire for riches to the sea and take them by any means necessary.
Piracy was more accepted in ancient times than it is today because it was more like intertribal warfare than nationless piracy. Acts of warfare, unlike acts of piracy, are generally accepted as legitimate in most times and countries. St. Augustine offers a provocative story in City of God that speaks to the delicate line between legitimate warfare and illegitimate piracy. As the story goes, Alexander the Great once captured a pirate and questioned him, asking, "How dare you molest the seas?" The pirate answered, "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor."
Part of Artemisia's queenly duties involved waging war against rival city-states. She took to this task with relish, not just commanding her fleet but actually taking the helm of her own ship. Caria had fallen under Persian control, so technically Artemisia sailed with the Persians. Some sources state that she secretly was in sympathy with the Greeks and hated Persia. Whatever her feelings were, Artemisia is known to have plundered both Greek and Persian ships, so it appears that she felt no particular loyalty to anyone save herself.
Her status as queen afforded Artemisia many freedoms not available to the lower-class women of Greece. In ancient Greece, women's rights varied from city-state to city-state, but in general women were considered less valuable than men. Most of the existing historical accounts come from Athens, but it is important to remember that Athens does not stand for all of Greece. Athens was one of the more severe city-states, where women were not allowed to vote or own property beyond minor gifts — which her guardian could dispose of without her consent. Legally, a woman did not have an existence independent from men. She was guarded by her father, then by her husband, and if her husband died before she did, she was either absorbed back into her father's guardianship or put under the care of her adult sons. All but the poorest Athenian women had slaves to take care of the domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning, so their only tasks were to bear children and be attractive. Pericles said, "The best reputation a woman can have is not to be spoken of among men for good or evil."
Only one type of woman besides royalty was afforded similar freedom, and that was the hetaera — the courtesan. These women were oddities in almost every way. They were educated, renowned for their achievements in dance and music, and they paid taxes. They were allowed to participate in the symposia, the drinking parties where philosophy was discussed and debated. They were single women who occasionally had sex with the men they spent time with, but they were not prostitutes. Their lives were a far cry from those of ordinary married female citizens in the stricter city-states. As Apollodorus explains in the case against Neaera, a legal case brought against a hetaera who tried to pass her children off as Athenian citizens, "We have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to take care of our day to day bodily needs, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be the loyal guardians of our households."
Some city-states, such as Sparta, were more relaxed in their attitudes about average women citizens. (However, not everything written about Sparta was written by Spartans, so that should be taken into account.) Like Athenian ladies, Spartan women had slaves to take care of their domestic tasks such as housework, but the similarities end there. Spartans were concerned chiefly with physical fitness above all else, so young girls as well as boys were athletically trained. Women were even able to race chariots during festivals. According to Pausanias, a woman named Cynisca won at four-horse chariot racing at the Panathenaic games, and a statue at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia commemorated her achievement.
Spartan women were not confined to the home as much as their Athenian sisters. Chastity was not held as sacred to a Spartan woman as it was to an Athenian, and so women were not forced to stay indoors in the women's quarters of the house. Their short tunics led other city-states to derisively call them "thigh-showers." Spartan women had to be the head of the household when the men were in training and away at war. Military duties kept men away full-time until their late thirties and part-time after that. In return for their management skills, Spartan women were allowed to inherit wealth from their families and were permitted to seek a divorce as well. Plutarch said in his Life of Agis that "the men of Sparta always obeyed their wives, and allowed them to intervene in public affairs more than they themselves were allowed to intervene in private ones."
Most ancient city-states fell somewhere between these two extremes. Even in Sparta, however, women were relegated to duties that were second best. The tasks left to them were considerably more interesting than what Athenian women were called on to perform, but they were still tasks that the men deemed unimportant. No city-state placed women first or elevated their status as equal to men.
Little information exists on exactly what day-to-day life would have looked like for the women of Artemisia's home city-state, Halicarnassus. After Artemisia's time, Queen Artemisia II of Halicarnassus (often confused with her piratical predecessor) ruled side by side with her husband, and the pair issued joint decrees, which indicates a relatively elevated status of women — or at least of queens. A Halicarnassian marble relief sculpture from the first to second century CE, currently on display at the British Museum, offers a compelling peek into Artemisia's society. This sculpture portrays two female gladiators locked in combat, demonstrating a notion of feminine power outside the domestic sphere. Rather than depicting women washing dishes or lying around in perfumed robes, the Halicarnassian artist presented women as warriors. We can extrapolate, based on this tableau, that Halicarnassian women were not confined solely to the home and that they enjoyed rights more similar to Spartan women than Athenian ones.
Artemisia's pirating career before the Battle of Salamis is not well documented. Her first pirating adventure is unknown, as is exactly when she started pirating. Polyaenus's Stratagems describes an early exploit of hers, when she sacked the city of Latmus using a cunning trick. She and her men camped right outside the city walls and staged a full-blown festival, complete with dancers and music. When the curious people of Latmus came outside to see what all the fuss was about, Artemisia and her crew stormed through the open gates and took the city.
Excerpted from Pirate Women by Laura Sook Duncombe. Copyright © 2017 Laura Sook Duncombe. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Laura Sook Duncombe is an author and feminist who loves all things science fiction, Broadway, and Sherlock Holmes. She lives with her wonderful husband and son in Virginia. Visit her at laurasookduncombe.com.
Hillary Huber is a multiple Audie Award finalist, an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, and an AudioFile Best Voice. She has recorded close to three hundred titles, spanning many genres.
Get it by Tuesday, July 25 , Order now and choose Expedited Delivery during checkout.
Same Day delivery in Manhattan. Details