While most pirates were men, there were women in these ranks of raiders who were just as merciless, notorious, and feared. Spanning the globe and centuries, I will introduce you to the infamous she-pirates of the seven seas.
Back From the Dead Red
Born the daughter of a Frenchman and a Haitian woman in 17th century, Jacquotte Delahaye stole untold fortunes and captured the imaginations of many seafaring storytellers. This buccaneer lost her mother to childbirth and her brother was mentally handicapped, and once her father was murdered Delahaye was left alone to care for him. Legend has it that piracy is how she managed to do just that.
Her nickname comes from the most popular aspect of her story, which claims this red-haired pirate faked her own death to escape the government forces that were closing in on her in the 1660s. From there, she took up a new identity, living for several years as a man. Finally, when the heat died down she resurfaced with her catchy new moniker Back From the Dead Red.
The Lioness Of Brittany
Jeanne de Clisson’s tale is one of tragedy, revenge and the showmanship. As the wife of Olivier III de Clisson, Jeanne was a happily married mother of five, and a lady of Brittany, France. But when land wars between England and France led to her husband being charged with treason and punished with decapitation, she swore revenge on the France’s King Philip VI.
The widowed de Clisson sold all of her land to buy three warships, which she dubbed her Black Fleet. These were painted black, draped with blood red sails, and crewed with merciless privateers. From 1343-1356, the Lioness of Brittany sailed the English Channel, capturing the French King’s ships, cutting down his crew, and beheading with an axe any aristocrat who had the misfortune to be onboard. Remarkably, despite all her theft and bloodshed, de Clisson retired quietly. She even remarried, settling down with English lieutenant Sir Walter Bentley.
Believed to have died in 1359, some say she has since returned to de Clisson Castle in Brittany, where her grey ghost walks the halls.
One of the most feared pirates of all time was this menace of the China Sea. Born in humble beginnings as Shi Xiang Gu, she was working as a prostitute when pirates captured her. In 1801, she married the notorious Chinese pirate Zheng Yi (a.k.a. Cheng I), who came from a long line of fearsome thieves. Yi’s Red Flag Fleet was immense, made up of 300 ships and somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 men. But all this was at risk of falling apart when he died on November 16th, 1807.
Gu became known as Ching Shih, which meant widow of Zheng. She was quick to seek the backing of her in-laws in her bid for leadership of the Red Flag Fleet. To help her maintain the day-to-day concerns of a sprawling pirate army, Ching Shih enlisted the help of Chang Pao, a fisherman’s son who had been adopted by Yi. They proved a great team, and by 1810 the Red Fleet is said to have grown to 1800 sailing vessels and 80,000 crew members. To manage so many, Ching Shih essentially set up her own government to establish laws and even taxes. Yet she was no soft touch. Breaking her laws lead to decapitation. She was revered and feared as far away as Great Britain.
In 1810, Ching Shih and her fleet considered getting out of the piracy business when amnesty was offered. However, to get it a pirate must bend the knee before government officials. This was considered a sign of shameful surrender, but Ching Shih found a clever way to compromise. With Pao and 17 women and children in tow, she marched into the office of official Zhang Bai Ling, and asked that he marry her and her first mate. He did, and the newlyweds knelt to thank him. Ching Shih retired with her dignity and all her ill-gotten loot, which some have suggested makes her the most successful pirate of all time. She lived to the age of 69.