This article was originally published on July 22, 2022.

Pirates in our favorite books and movies are often portrayed in the same character type and style. Captain Hook of Peter Pan, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and Long John Silver of Treasure Island – to name a few – wore long-sleeved, puffy white shirts topped with jackets. They wore three-horned hats, gold earrings, and daggers on their hips. One of the characters was usually missing an appendage such as an arm, leg or eye. And the parrot is usually involved somewhere in the story.

Literary critics “pirate chic” has long been criticized for making these bandits seem like a European phenomenon. Pirates were a global problem and they terrorized waterways from the Caribbean to China. The aesthetic also neglected another key detail. Piracy was not just for men. For centuries, female pirates also commanded ships or served on the crew.

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Who are the most powerful female pirates in history? 4 mighty female pirates

Here are four fierce female pirates who strike fear into the hearts of sailors.

Mediterranean pirate: Sayyida al-Hura

(Credit: German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

Sayyida al-Hura a title given to women in power was born in the late 1400s at the time when the Muslim kingdom of Granada fell under the Spanish monarchy. Wealthy families, including Sayyida al-Hura, fled to North Africa to escape oppression and forced conversion to Christianity.

In the early 1500s, in present-day Morocco, she used her navy to exact revenge on the Spanish.

In North Africa, Sayyida al-Hura married the leader of the city-state, Tetouan, which had been sacked decades earlier by the Castilians. The power couple works to rebuild and repopulate the city.

Sayyida al-Hurra took full control when her husband died in 1515. With the region under her control, she turned to a privateer to learn how to take revenge on her Spanish enemies. For the next 20 years, she ruled the western Mediterranean as commander of a fearsome fleet of pirates.

Under her command, pirates plunder European ships. They also targeted the villages, took captives and enslaved them. Scholars aren’t sure if she ever sailed with her pirates, but they agree that she was their undisputed leader and a fierce female pirate.

Her piracy by proxy continued until she agreed to marry the Sultan. She was soon dethroned, probably by one of the sultan’s sons, and lost control of both her city and the pirate armada—much to the relief of her enemies.

Pirates of the Caribbean/ 4 mighty female pirates who ruled the seas


(Credit: German Vizulis/Shutterstock) Anne Bonny

In 1720 Ann Bonney and Mary Reed stood in a Jamaican courtroom. Both women were in their early twenties, pregnant and accused of serving “Calico Jack” Rackham, one of the most wanted pirates in the Caribbean.

Victims testified that women were vicious and worse than men when it came to robberies. One captain recalls how the women helped seize 50 rolls of tobacco and nine bags of pimento from his ship. He was held hostage for two days and complained about the women using foul language.

(Credit: German Vizulis/Shutterstock) Mary Reid

In 1720, a bounty hunter captured Ruckman and his crew. The bounty hunter told the court how the men appeared resigned to their fate but the women wanted to keep fighting and resisted arrest.

Ann Bonney and Mary Reid looked thick as thieves, but they had only met the year before on Ruckman’s ship. While Read pirated as a means of survival, Bonny was a thrill seeker. She was the daughter of a wealthy South Carolina merchant who ran off to the Caribbean with a penniless sailor and then dumped him for Ruckman.

Ruckman and many of his pirate crew received swift death sentences. However, the court stayed the execution of the women until they had delivered their babies. Bonnie was Ruckman’s lover and pregnant with his child; Reid was pregnant with another pirate’s baby.

No woman is hanged for her crimes. Reid died in prison of a fever and it is speculated that Bonnie’s wealthy father came to her rescue and brought her back to South Carolina in the early 1720s.

Pirate of the South China Sea: Cheng Yi Sao

(Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cheng I Sao is considered one of the most successful pirates in history and her legend lives on. Her name, which roughly translates as “wife of Cheng I”, does not reflect the cunning woman who left everyone at her mercy.

Historians believe she was born about 1775 in Canton and little is known about her life before she married Cheng I in 1801. He was already a famous pirate and his new wife helped make his navy even more ruthless.

After her husband died in 1807, Cheng I Sao took command of the family pirate business. She expanded her armada to 60,000 men, divided into six fleets. The fleets numbered around 400 ships and were organized into a color-coded flag system.

No fleet was able to stop Cheng I Sao, and her pirates mercilessly plundered merchant ships and raided rich villages. It also created “protection schemes” where fishing boats in intercoastal waters pay a fee to avoid harassment.

The Chinese government has been trying for years to bring down this unsinkable pirate queen. Eventually, they realized they could never defeat her, so they would have to buy her off. Cheng I Sao called her steep terms – an amnesty for all her pirates; ability to keep their looted wealth; Pensions; money to move and work for her new husband. The government agreed in 1810.

Her second husband died in 1822, and historians disagree about what happened to her. Some say she ran a lucrative gambling hall. Others say she made money as a brothel owner. It is also suggested that Cheng I Sao made his money smuggling opium. Either way, she seems to have died a rich woman.

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