In celebration of International Women’s Day we would like to share with you 3 of the most famous and notorious women during the Golden Age of Piracy; Cheng I Sao, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
All 3 going down in history for their bravery and exploits in a world that was dominated by men, yet they never let discrimination, prejudices and sexism stand in their way.
*Cheng I Sao
One of history’s most influential raiders began her career in a Chinese brothel. Cheng I Sao, formally known as Zheng Yi Sao, or Madame Ching, was a Cantonese former prostitute who married a powerful corsair named Cheng I in 1801. The husband and wife team soon raised one of China’s most formidable pirate armies. Their outfit boasted hundreds of ships and some 50,000 men, which preyed on the fishing vessels, supply junks and the coastal villages of Southern China with impunity. Upon her husband’s death in 1807, Mrs Cheng elbowed her way into power and partnered with a trusted lieutenant and lover named Chang Pao. Over the next few years, she plundered her way across Southeast Asia and assembled a fleet that rivalled many countries’ navies. She also penned a rigorous code of conduct for her pirates. Rape of female prisoners was punishable by beheading, and deserters had their ears lopped off. Mrs Cheng’s bloody reign made her public enemy number one of the Chinese government, and in 1810, the British and Portuguese navies were enlisted to bring her to justice. Rather than duking it out at sea, she shrewdly agreed to surrender her fleet and lay down her cutlass in exchange for the right to keep her ill-gotten riches. Mrs Cheng retired as one of history’s most successful pirates, and went on to run a gambling house until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.
The notorious pirate Anne Bonny began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish lawyer. In an effort to hide her dubious parentage, her father had her dress a boy and pose as his law clerk for part of her youth. She later moved to America, where she married a sailor in 1718 and journeyed to the pirate-infested island of New Providence in the Bahamas. There, she abandoned her husband and fell under the spell of ‘Calico' Jack Rackam, a flamboyant buccaneer who plied his trade in the Caribbean. Bonny had always been known for her “fierce and courageous temper” - according to one legend, she nearly beat a man to death when he tried to force himself on her - and she quickly showed she could guzzle rum, curse and wield a pistol and cutlass with the best of Calico Jack’s crew. She later forged a friendship with fellow female pirate Mary Read, and the pair played a leading role in a spree of raids against small fishing boats and trading sloops in the summer and fall of 1720. Bonny’s stint on the high seas was cut short that October, when Calico Jack’s ship was captured by a band of pirate-hunters. Calico Jack and several other men were executed, but Bonny and Read dodged the noose after they were both found to be pregnant.
Born in England in the late17th Century, Mary Read spent most of her youth disguised as her deceased half-brother so that her penniless mother could scam the boy’s grandmother. Hoping to quench her thirst for adventure, she later adopted the name Mark Read, and took on a succession of traditionally male jobs - first as a soldier and later as a merchant sailor. Read turned pirate in the late 1710s, after buccaneers attacked the ship she was working on and impressed her into their ranks. She later found her way aboard Calico Jack Rackam’s boat, where she met and befriended Anne Bonny and revealed herself to be a woman. Read only sailed with Calico Jack for a few months, but during that time she won a fearsome reputation. One of her most famous exploits came in October 1720, when she and Bonny fought like banshees during an attack by pirate-hunters. “If there’s a man among ye,” she supposedly screamed at the male buccaneers cowering below decks, “ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” Despite Read’s heroics, she and the rest of Calico Jack’s crew were captured and charged with piracy. Read avoided execution by admitting she was “quick with child,” but she later came down with a fever and died in prison.