Why shouldn’t women be singing “A pirate’s life for me!” right alongside the men? Laura Sook Duncombe’s exquisite Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled The Seven Seas certainly proves that women have always had the skill and determination to sail and plunder. Many answered the siren call of the sea. Men have tried to write them out of history, but good evidence for pirate women exists, and Laura found plenty of it.
Pirates are for many of us, an inherently fascinating subject. Tales of famous pirates both historical and fictional abound. We dress like them for Halloween, talk like them on one special September day, and flock to movies about them. But outside of a few notable exceptions, most of those pirates we encounter in song, story, and screen are dudes. So many dudes.
Laura uncovers a world full of lady pirates from around the world.
She begins in Ancient Greece with Queen Artemisia I, who helmed her own ship despite having a grown son who could’ve done the deed. She likely wasn’t the only pirate woman of the ancient Mediterranean, but men have mucked up their stories.
Norse history records many women who likely went a Viking alongside the menfolk. And there’s the sex-trafficked Norsewomen who, hearing about Ragnar of Denmark coming to rescue them, save themselves by breaking out and joining his army. One of them, Ladgerda, ends up having his children, saving his ass with her warships, killing him for being a skirt-chasing dick, and takes his throne. Don’t mess with Viking pirate ladies!
The book isn’t Eurocentric, either. We meet a Barbary corsair from North Africa named Sayyida al-Hurra. She was a fierce politician, and an even fiercer enemy of the Christians who had driven her Muslim parents from Spain. She rose to become “the ‘undisputed leader of the pirates of the western Mediterranean.'”
Later on, we spend a chapter with The Most Successful Pirate of All Time,Chen I Sao, the Qing Dynasty pirate woman who commanded up to 70,000 pirates. Like many pirate women, she began her career by marrying a powerful man – in her case, a pirate – and ruled by his side until his death. She took charge of his pirate confederation and built it into the most formidable pirate force the world has ever seen.
The book is full of such enterprising, adventerous, and tough women, spanning the globe and human history. Laura does a marvelous job placing each woman in her historical context. We learn about so much more than just pirates: each region and age is explored, with its political and social features deftly sketched.
Writing about women that history would prefer to ignore, forget, or romanticize is hard, but Laura teases fact from fiction and finds evidence hidden beneath ages of obfuscation, legend, and myth. In the end, we have a healthy collection of women who, by desire, chance, or necessity, ended up successfully living the pirate’s life. You’ll love the time you spend sailing with them. This is a book to savor – and should give women and girls some kick-ass ideas for pirate costumes come Halloween!
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