Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about Renaissance women, Medieval women, and 18th-century women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.
Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – c. 1542)
Sayyida was legitimately a pirate queen, being both a pirate and an actual queen. She was born in Granada, but fled to Morocco when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered it in 1492. By the time she was 16, she had been married off incredibly well to the Governor of Tétouan (who was 30 years her senior), and the two forged a partnership with Sayyida taking an active role in their business dealings. Widowed in 1515, she then married Ahmed al-Wattasi, the King of Fes. The one abiding passion in her life, however, was seeking revenge on Spain for the conquering of her native Granada. So, she did the logical thing and turned to piracy, striking an alliance with the powerful Turkish corsair Barbarossa of Algiers in which they raided Spanish ships, took Spanish prisoners for ransom, and generally made life as miserable as they could for Spain.
Despite having won respect from both her people and the world at large, Sayyida’s life ends on a tragic note. After a successful 30 year rule as Governor of Tétouan, her son overthrew her and stripped her of her lands and titles and … Well, we don’t really know. For someone who was so highly regarded during her lifetime, her death went unrecorded. Wouldn’t it be cool to give her back some of that fame by making a movie about her?
Gráinne Ní Mháille (c. 1530 – c. 1603)
Also known as Grace O’Malley, she was a highly educated and independently wealthy 16th-century Irishwoman who inherited her father’s shipping business, and by that I mean “piracy business.” Gráinne is a major Irish folk hero, so it’s kind of surprising that no one has made a movie about her yet (although several acclaimed plays have been written about her).
Most of what we know about her is based in the myths and legends that sprang up during her lifetime and well after her death, but one rare example of a documentable exploit can be found in the story of Gráinne negotiating with Queen Elizabeth I for the release of her two sons and half-brother, who had been captured by the English — a meeting that took place entirely in Latin, btw, since Elizabeth didn’t speak Gaelic and Gráinne didn’t speak English.
Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew (c. 1525 – c. 1582)
Ok, full confession, that portrait isn’t actually of Lady Killigrew, Pirate. But since there’s no portraits of her, I figured this one would do since it’s the correct era and she’s got a parrot on her shoulder. Anyway…
Mary Wolverston has the distinction of being considered a pirate, even though there’s very little evidence she ever set foot on a pirate ship. She was the daughter of a wealthy “gentleman pirate” and married Sir John IV Killigrew, who as luck would have it, happened to own a bit of land that King Henry VIII wanted to build Pendennis Castle on. As a thank you to the Killigrews, Henry bestowed the Governorship of Pendennis Castle on her father-in-law; the office then passed to Mary’s husband, and with it, the control of the Carrick Roads harbor, one of the major harbors in England at that time. Sir John exploited this by routinely picking off plum bits of cargo from ships that passed through his harbor and because of the teensy issue of legality surrounding the this sort of activity, the Killigrews both paid enormous sums to local officials to turn a blind eye to the operation. The piracy continued unabated until the 1580s, when the couple got wind of treasure aboard a Spanish ship that was moored in Carrick Roads harbor; Mary ordered the ship seized and raided, but the plan didn’t go smoothly. The Killigrew property was searched and stolen goods connected to the Spanish ship were found in their possession, so everyone was rounded up and arrested, including Mary, who was sentenced to death. She eventually received a pardon by Queen Elizabeth I and apparently faded away into obscurity, dying at some point thereafter.
Anne Bonny (c. 1700 – c. 1721/1782) & Mary Read (c. 1690 – 1721)
Go with me here: I know there’s a few old films about these two and Anne appears as a character in the show Black Sails, but I really want to see a modern film staring these two as the central characters.
Anne was a the illegitimate daughter of an Irish serving girl and an English lawyer. Her father took off to Ireland to avoid his wife’s relatives (who were probably not pleased with the whole lovechild thing), dressing Anne as a boy and calling her “Andy.” He later hightailed it to the Carolinas in search of better prospects, and apparently Anne resumed life as a female from that point on. Anne, who was described as a striking redhead, was considered a good marriage prospect until her temper got the better of her. She was disowned by her father after she married a poor pirate named James Bonny, and legend has it that she burned down her father’s plantation in retaliation.
Mary Read was also an illegitimate daughter who was also disguised as a boy as a child in order to continue receiving financial support meant to go to her deceased elder brother, Mark. Unlike Anne, Mary continued to pass as a man well into adulthood, joining the British Army and distinguishing herself in battle. Everything seemed cool, even after she fell in love with a Flemish soldier and was revealed to be a woman. After her husband’s death, she took up the male persona again and joined the Dutch Army, but peace was not as lucrative as war, so Mary hopped on a ship bound for the New World, where the stories of both women converge.
Mary’s ship was attacked by pirates whilst en route to the West Indies and Mary apparently found this lifestyle more to her liking, so, still passing as a man, she joined the pirates. John “Calico Jack” Rackham, notorious pirate and Anne Bonny’s lover, took Mary captive and eventually she became part of the crew of Jack’s ship Revenge. Both Anne and Mary apparently thought that the other was a man, so there was a bit of a mix-up when Anne developed a crush on Mary, and Mary was forced to reveal her true gender. Since turn about is fair play, Anne felt compelled to reveal that she, too, was a woman. Hilarity, no doubt, ensued. Calico Jack, meanwhile, didn’t get the memo right away and believed that Mary was a man who had designs on his Anne, but a bloodbath was averted when Anne revealed that Mary was a woman and everyone probably had a good laugh and/or a threesome.
Anne and Mary became forces to be reckoned with aboard the Revenge. When Calico Jack’s crew were too shit-faced to fight off pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet who had attacked the ship during a night of drunken partying, Anne and Mary single handedly (or double handedly?) attempted to defend the Revenge. Ultimately Barnet overwhelmed them and the crew was taken prisoner. Both women then “pleaded their bellies” in court in order to obtain a temporary stay of execution, since only barbarians would dream of executing a pregnant woman (a non-pregnant woman, however, was definitely killable). It’s believed that Mary died in childbirth while in prison; Anne’s whereabouts after her arrest and stay of execution is open to debate. Some say she was ultimately executed, while others believe she was ransomed by her father and given a new identity before being married off to a Jamaican official, subsequently dying of old age in her 80s.
Who’s your favorite female pirate? Tell us in the comments!
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were the subject of a story in an issue of the ’70s alternative comic “Wimmen’s Comix” (later “Wimmin’s Comix”) published by Last Gasp, probably #7, the “Outlaws” issue.
The art was a bit crude, but the story covered all the bases you do here, including the gender reveal– and yes, hilarity and a three-way ensued.
“Wimmen’s Comix” also did a few other historical-themed stories, including a great one on Victoria Woodhull and another one on Harriet Tubman, both probably in #6, the “Bicentennial” issue.
A trade paperback collecting the entire run– which included a few stories dealing with family history, such as Sharon Kahn Rudahl’s account of her grandmother’s emigration from Russia, “Die Bubbeh”– was published earlier this year.
“Wimmen’s/Wimmin’s Comix” was a collective that allowed women writers and artists a chance to publish outside the mainstream comics industry. Overall, the work was a mixed bag throughout its run, but it’s well worth checking out.
Grainne O’Malley is one of my heroines. There is a terrific biography, GRANUAILE by Anne Chambers. I have visited several sites related to Grainne, including Westport, where there was a small museum about her (don’t know if it’s still there). I also have a pastel portrait of her in my house. One time when my friends and I went to Ireland, we took our Elizabethan-era Irish garb (what Grainne would have worn) and attended a “period” feast at Bunratty Castle. Great fun and I could relate more to the Pirate Queen of County Mayo. She was quite a lady — contemporary of Elizabeth I and every bit as much a “queen.” She also died at a ripe old age.
And there was an opera written by Shaun Dave based on that biography and with the same title. I don’t think it ever went further than the concept album.
I forgot about that. I have the concept album too.
My favourite’s gotta be Ching Shih–she isn’t from the golden age but she was 100% amazing.
Yes yes a thousand times yes.
“Anne of the Indies” was on TV recently. Typical 50’s Hollywood, but it’s a start. There is a book floating around called “Bold In Her Breeches” which covers many of them.
Actually, right now Anne Bonney is being portrayed by Clara Paget on Black Sails and she is doing a wonderful job with the role she is given. There was supposed to be a Grace O’ Malley movie about 2010 but it is caught in pre production hell. Perhaps the success of the pirates franchise and Black sails will revive the project.
Grainne Ni Mhaille is my choice. A woman with wit and intellgence who held her own against Elizabeth I.
Whose portrait is that under Mary Wolverston, then? Because I sort of lust that dress and I have fabric just the color of that overdress.
Wonderful stories; any of these would be a joy to watch. As a girl, one of my favourite books was Jade by Sally Watson, a novel that had both Anne Bonney and Mary Read as characters alongside a fiercely uncompromising, sword-fighting, argumentative heroine who ran away from her restrictive life as a proper young lady in Colonial America and who was an early inspiration to me. The book is hard to find now, but worth a read if you can locate a copy. That would be wonderful to watch too – we all need some inspiration right now!
Sayyida al Hurra isn’t the one portrayed in the picture below.That’s Laskarina Bouboulina, a remarkable woman possesing a naval fleet and the only woman given the title Admiral in world naval history nonetheless.
What about Jeanne De Clisson (1300–1359), the Lioness of Brittany?
The Hundred Years’ War seems to focus on Henry V or Edward III on the English side, or Joan of Arc on the French side- there were clearly other players, considering how long the bloody thing went on for; Jeanne’s story is no less interesting than Joan’s: She married 4 times, first at age 12 (squicky, I know) & she had 2 children- her 2nd marriage (possibly made to protect her children’s inheritance) was subject to some political factioning, & resulted in an annulment- her 3rd marriage to Olivier De Clisson is where things get really interesting; their first child of 5 was born some 5 years before they actually married (so that’s something to be looked into) – then, in the Breton War of Succession, they took the French side, over the English- but it was a choice that not everyone in the De Clisson family agreed with (Olivier’s brother had embraced the English De Montfort party).
After 4 tries, English captured the Clisson home town, Vannes. Olivier & another commander were taken prisoner- because only Olivier was later released in exchange for a high-ranking prisoner of the French, & for a surprisingly low sum; this led to Olivier being subsequently suspected of not having defended the city to his fullest, & was alleged by Charles de Blois to be a traitor. He was later tricked & executed with several others; the nobility were shocked, as the evidence of guilt was not publicly demonstrated, & exposing a body was reserved for low-class criminals. It was judged harshly by contemporary historians.
Jeanne then actually took her two young sons, Olivier & Guillaume to show them the head of their father. She swore retribution against French King, Philip VI, & Charles de Blois, considering their actions a cowardly murder.
Jeanne then sold the de Clisson estates, raised a force of loyal men & started attacking French forces in Brittany; she was said to have attacked 3 castle/ garrisons, massacring the entire garrison with the exception of one individual in the case of the second.
With the English king’s assistance & Breton sympathizers, Jeanne outfitted 3 warships, painted black & sails dyed red. The flagship was named My Revenge. The ships of this ‘Black Fleet’ then patrolled the English Channel hunting down French ships, whereupon her force would kill entire crews, leaving only a few witnesses to transmit the news to the French King. This earned Jeanne the moniker “The Lioness of Brittany”.
Jeanne continued her piracy in the Channel for another 13 years. Jeanne is also said to have attacked coastal villages in Normandy & have put several to sword & fire. In 1346, during the famous Battle of Crecy, Jeanne used her ships to supply the English forces.
After the sinking of her flagship, Jeanne with her 2 sons were adrift for 5 days; her son Guillaume died of exposure. Jeanne & Olivier were finally rescued & taken to Morlaix by Montfort supporters. Her fourth husband was a deputy of Edward III, & had previously won the battle of Mauron on 4 August 1352 – she finally settled at a castle, near a port town on the Brittany coast, which was in the territory of her de Montfort allies, where she died.