The Pirate Queen.
Recently we had another rerun of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” on BBC television which of course gave everybody the chance to lust after the gorgeous Keira Knightly swashbuckling her way through the movie in the character of Elizabeth Swann. I was interested to read an interview with Knightly where she describes her character as a 21st century girl trapped in an 18th century world. She seemed of the opinion that only 21st century girls were kick ass enough to be the resourceful pirate queen that Elizabeth Swann becomes. How wrong she is!
In fact women have taken up the ancient occupation of piracy throughout history and some of their stories rival even the fantasy saga of Elizabeth Swann’s fictional career under the banner of the Jolly Roger. Right back in antiquity female pirates were known to rampage around the seas of the world. China (always a fertile breeding ground for piracy) had the partly mythical figure of Ch’iao K’uo Fuu Jeen terrorising the China Seas as early as 600 BC and in the Mediterranean basin there were such notables as Queen Teuta of Illyria in the 3rd century BC and the formidable Queen Dido of Carthage (c356 to 260 BC) who were not above a little skulduggery on the high seas.
The Viking era from the 4th to 9th century AD saw a number of notable Scandinavian women burning and pillaging their way around the Baltic and North Seas; Rusila, Stikla, Princess Sela, Alvid, Wigbiorg, Hetha and Wisna of Norway; Alfhild of Sweden and Lagerda of Denmark while early Anglo Saxon England had its own pirate lady in Alfred the Great’s eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, who took to the seas to rid England of Viking raiders in the early years of the 10th century.
One extraordinary female pirate was France’s Jeanne-Louise de Belleville in the 14th century. She took to piracy after the French authorities executed her beloved husband Olivier III de Clisson for treason during the Hundred Years War with England. His execution so outraged the grieving Jeanne-Louise that she defected to the English cause and bought several ships with which to attack French ships. Known as the “Lioness of Brittany”, Jeanne-Louise was a ruthless scourge of French shipping and effectively cleared Northern France and the Channel of all French ships. Her fleet was painted black and carried red sails and was a terror to all French ships. She would massacre all the crews on the ships apart from one or two who she would send back alive to tell the French king that she had struck again and when there were no pickings afloat she would terrorise the coastline of Normandy to pass the time. She particularly liked hunting down the ships of French noblemen and when she captured them would personally behead them with an axe and chuck their bodies overboard. This was one very pissed off lady!
The 16th century saw some little beauties as well. Ireland had its very own Grainne Ni Mhaille (1530-1603), the Queen of Urnail and often called the “Sea Queen of Connaught” whose story is an important one in Irish folklore and well worth looking up. Even the Islamic world had a piratical lady in Sayyida al Hurra who at one point controlled the entire western Mediterranean Sea with her fleet of corsairs. The 16th was also the century when English pirate ladies begin to make their mark with such notable little hellcats as Veronica the “Red Lady”, Lady Mary Killigrew and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew who are often confused with each other.
The period between 1650 and 1730 is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Piracy” and there are certainly more famous pirates from this era than in any other comparable period in history. The fairer sex is well represented in this period with the likes of Maria Lindsey operating out of Newfoundland, Maria Cobham, Ingela Gathelheim from Sweden, the villainous duo of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Mary Crickett, Flora Burn, Jacquotte Delahaye and Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Lizzy Swann would have had some serious rivals!
There is however one historical pirate lady that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ching Shih is my choice to bear the crown of the greatest pirate queen in history. Born in 1755 in Canton her early career was not particularly noteworthy for she was a Cantonese prostitute. In 1801 however she was captured by pirates under the command of the pirate leader Zheng Yi and her career really began to take off. She married Zheng and inherited command of his pirate fleets upon his death in 1807. Under her command the Red Fleet grew to be the most formidable naval f***e in all Asia. At its zenith there were some 1800 ships and over 80,000 men and women under Ching Shih’s command and her fleet essentially ruled the entire coast of China from Macau to Canton, establishing virtual hegemony over the coastal provinces and even raising its own taxes from the population. In truth the region was probably better ruled than most of the rest of China under Imperial Government.
This little hellcat was not a girl to be taken lightly. She could be utterly ruthless yet she commanded total loyalty among the people who served under her. She had some morals as well. Her fleets could be murderous to be sure but Ching Shih hated the abuse of women. Any man under her command who violated a woman she would take personal care of.... by castrating them with her own knife! You didn’t piss with Madame Ching!
So powerful was her fleet that not even the combined efforts of the fleets of Imperial China, Portugal and Great Britain could do a damn thing about her. Eventually her pirating days came to an end in 1810. The Imperial Chinese government fell back on an old Chinese tactic to end her scourging of the seas; where f***e and coercion fail, try bribery! She was offered an amnesty in 1810 and the opportunity to retire with the fruits of her years of piracy. It was too good an offer to turn down and our girl took full advantage. She married her second in command and her adoptive son as well (she‘s a gem this girl!) and opened up a gambling house on the mainland where she proceeded to live in luxury on the loot of her ill gotten gains for the rest of her days until her death in 1844. This was the true pirate queen of the high seas!
The gallery I’ve posted on pirate ladies therefore, while being a bit of swashbuckling fun, does have some historical back story to it and a number of the pictures in it are artistic representations of real pirate women including the image of the great Ching Shih herself. Ching Shih is represented in the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies by the character “Mistress Ching” who appears in the film “At World’s End”. I do hope you enjoy the gallery and raise a tot of rum to the memory of the incomparable Ching Shih.