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Jo Stanley: Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages

07 Jan 2013 · No Comments

A history of female pirates faces formidable challenges: career criminals tends to be systematically sensationalized and mythologized, pirates were overwhelmingly from a socio-economic class virtually ignored by traditional historians, and the doings — or even presence — of women is likewise ignored by many historical sources. A handful of female pirates left a verifiable history by being caught and tried, and perhaps just two — Grace O’Malley, the “Pirate Queen of Ireland” and Cheng I Sao — secured their place in the annals by commanding fleets simply too powerful to ignore. (Artemisia and Alfhild also had impressive military careers, but I don’t think Stanley made a good case for them as pirates per se — although exactly what constitutes of piracy is often in the eye of the forcibly boarded.)

Principal author Stanley addresses the paucity of solid information with some inventive, but not necessarily well-supported gambits: she assumes that the numbers of cross-dressed women passing as men apply equally to naval walks of life as to shore-based professions, and she further assumes that the gender demographics of pirate ships are comparable to other ships. She relates aspects of pirate life in general and muses speculatively on how female pirates would have participated in and/or reacted to them. I learned a lot that I didn’t know about pirates: I had always assumed that the officer/crew divide in a pirate ship would be even more brutal than in a merchant or military vessel, but Stanley establishes that they were likely far more egalitarian (and demographically broad) than their legitimate counterparts. Stanley also points out that women must have been a necessary part of the pirate economy (on- or off-board) as seamstresses, victualers, nurses, prostitutes, romantic partners, et cetera. Stanley acknowledges the unreliability of her sources, from Herodotus to Philip Gosse, but is forced to lean heavily on them, because there is nothing better available. I was particularly bothered by the stories of Lo Hon-Cho and Lai Choi Son in the early 20th century. The careers of both women sound suspiciously like that of Cheng I Sao, they are each supported by a solitary source, and both of those quoted sources use novelistic if not downright purple prose (I was reminded of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels).

Three experts in particular pirates provide chapters on their subjects. These seemed less speculative than the rest of the volume, and, interestingly, all three explicitly addressed the gap between authoritatively sourced or corroborated material and the evolution of the pirates’ stories beyond the original texts; I thought they were the strongest and most compelling chapters overall.

Anne Chambers spent four years researching the woman known as Grace O’Malley, Granuaile, Granny Imallye and other variants. The story that emerges from her labors is of a wily tactician and tenacious political presence. Granuaile illustrates the difficulty of labeling piracy as such: she often operated under state sponsorship, but thanks to complex tensions between England, Ireland, and Spain, not always of the same state. (Chambers also makes the case that the shift underway in Granuaile’s lifetime from Irish Brehon law to English common law was one of increasing sexism.)

Julie Wheelwright discusses the little about Ann Bonny and Mary Read that can be established from the court records of their trials and other reliable sources, and the gap between the facts and the myths that have arisen around them (starting with Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates). The women acquire aspects of dominatrices, with both their cruelty in battle and their sexuality (in various ways, depending on the time period in which the myth is being enlarged) exaggerated beyond anything in the historical record.

Dian H. Murray studies the two near-contemporaneous accounts of Cheng I Sao, who commanded a fleet of roughly 400 ships with as many as 60,000 crew operating off the coast of what is now Vietnam. The two works basically corroborate each other (although Murray has to make some allowances for the Englishman Richard Glasspoole not always understanding what he observes). Inaccuracies begin to enter the picture even in the first English translations of the other text: Charles Friedrich Neumann renders “Tung-hai Pa” as “Scourge of the Eastern Sea,” but he gets the wrong version of the character “pa”: “Uncle from Eastern Sea Village” would be more accurate. Further expansion of Cheng I Sao’s story follows a pattern very similar to Bonny and Reads: her bloodthirstiness and general hot-bloodedness, as well as her beauty, are increasingly emphasized.

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