Depending on where your fancies lie, the word pirate is either a verb or a noun. Pirate the verb has proliferated, thanks to the dynamic duo of the Internet and illegally copied digital files of music and movies. Pirate the noun has enjoyed a recent resurgence thanks to the Pirates of Caribbean movies and International Talk Like a Pirate Day, September 19.
As referents to persons, places, or things, nouns give us rich pictures. In the case of pirate, we see the Jolly Roger, black boots, and one-armed, one-eyed scallywags taking a swig off a bottle of rum before belching out, “Yo ho ho!” and launching into an R-rated sea chanty.
But the term female pirate does not fit into this comically fun stereotype. Female pirates, from the 3rd century BC to Elizabethan England, roamed the seas as rulers, marauders, and entrepreneurs. Although hailing and sailing from different cultures, the Jane Sparrows featured below made a different kind of splash into the annals of history.*
Teuta, Queen of Illyria, Took to the Seas in 232 B.C.
The Greek historian Polybius tells us that Teuta rose to power when her husband died. She immediately declared nautical war on the rest of the world, advising her minions to steal from anyone floating nearby. Because her fleet consisted of small, fast ships called lembi, sailors under her command attacked and raided coastal settlements along the Adriatic. In response, quaint and prosperous seaside towns moved inland, leaving the coasts in Illyrian hands.
Not content to just sit on the throne, Teuta often joined these looting expeditions. Within four years, an agitated Rome brought her marauding habits under control, and Teuta disbanded her fleet.
Alfhild of the Valkyries, Denmark, Born in the middle of 9th century
Separating myth from fact, especially when discussing the Vikings, is some task. The Vikings, who were not too worried about literacy, passed on their history orally through heroic tales of great warriors and seafarers. Case in point: Hundreds of years after she was born to King Siward of the Goths, the legend of the Valkyrie Alfhild was preserved by the twelfth century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.
Legend tells us that, like Eleanor of Aquitaine taking a group of women with her to the Crusades, Alfhild surrounded herself with a female entourage when she took to the seas instead of marrying the worthy Prince Alf.
Chastity intact, Alfhild donned her chain mail, took up her sword, and topped off her 9th century fashion statement with a horned helmet. To any passing longboat, Hagars, not Helgas, appeared to be rowing that longboat.
Alf and Alfhild meet again at sea, on Alfhild’s final voyage as a Valkyrie. Alfhild’s days of raiding were over, and her days as Alf’s wife began.
Grania na Maille (Grace O’Malley), Ireland, Born in 1530
Unlike Alfhild, the documented facts regarding this Irish queen abound. She was born into a politically strong seafaring family and married into a warrior family. After avenging her first husband’s death, O’Malley retreated, with recruits from her late husband’s clan, to her father’s land.
Then, she took to the seas, pirating along the trade routes between Scotland and England and the Continent. Her superior knowledge of the nooks and crannies along Ireland’s west coast meant she could hide from the pursuing, angry robbed.
Like the modern-day pirates from Somalia, O’Malley was able to capitalize on the lack of opportunities in Elizabethan Ireland for her recruiting. Hence, O’Malley’s followers included the destitute, the savage, and the fiercely loyal. Members of her crews were not only getting rich, they were also sticking it to "the man" – in this case, England.
As "the man" began cracking down on her piratical activities in the 1580s and 1590s, O’Malley did what any brazen Irish mother would do – she went to the (wo)man herself, Queen Elizabeth, to secure lands for her sons and ask for a pension for herself. Via letter, O’Malley promised in return to fight, with all her might, for her former enemy.
Guess what? The English sister granted the Irish sister her requests. And the Irish sister complied. Well, at least for a few years.
* The biographical sketches of each of these female pirates have been culled from Joan Druett’s She Captains (Simon & Schuster, 2000).