Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger: Historical Book Review and Recipes!


Many readers of my blog are sleep-deprived. They spend hours tossing and turning, wondering where to find a good book about women pirates. Well, no longer do you have to be sleep-deprived, my friends. For I have found a good book. It does have its drawbacks, which I’ll explain later, but overall it is a fascinating look at female pirates through the ages.

When we think of women pirates, most of us draw a blank. Or, those of us who spend much more time thinking about pirates than is healthy, will come up with names such as Anne Bonny or Grace O’Malley. While these two were indeed formidable pirates, it seems there is a whole undiscovered multitude of female pirates swaggering and cursing across the pages of this book.

It begins with the highly organized Lady Ch’ing Yih Szaou, who commanded a whole fleet of ships manned by 70,000 people and terrorized the Sea of China. Then we are transported to the Mediterranean to meet the pirate queen Elissa (aka Dido), the founder of the city of Carthage, and other formidable female pirates such as Teuta, who was not afraid to provoke the Roman Empire.

And of course, the authors recount the adventures of women pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy, when the Carribean was home to countless rebels and vagabonds who abandoned the ways of “civilized” society to live a life of freedom.

Anne Bonny’s many adventures and close escapes are described in detail. While Bonny is usually mentioned in connection to Calico Jack Rackham, the authors of Women Pirates proclaim Bonny to be the real leader of her crew, with Jack merely the figurehead. She was in fact a formidable pirate and strategist in her own right, so it’s great to have an account focused on Anne Bonny rather than her significant other.

And most interestingly, the authors theorise that one of the most successful pirates ever, Bartholomew Roberts was actually a woman!

anne bonny

Anne Bonny

There is something humorous about feminist scholars asserting that women were just as competent as men at pillaging and plundering. But if there’s something we could always use more of it’s female action heroes, and I guess that’s what those pirates are to us nowadays as the centuries have softened the rough edges of their robbing and pillaging.

I remember growing up with action movies from the ’80s and ’90s in which female characters would scream and run away or wait to be rescued when the action began. Great was my excitement when the first Tomb Raider movie came out. Here finally was a female heroine who didn’t scream with fear, but neither did she have to pretend to be a man or act manly. She could simply be herself and do what she did best — raiding tombs —  and still the other characters in the movie took her seriously and considered her a dangerous opponent or a powerful ally.

If there’s one criticism I have regarding Women Pirates it’s that it lacks the Tomb Raider’s calm poise. It comes across as shrill and desperate, as if the authors were trying to overcompensate for the lack of attention previously given to female pirates by declaring that women made the best pirates ever, and that all the best and most fearsome pirates in the world without exception were women. And — and — and that male pirates weren’t even nearly as good as women pirates. So there.

Women Pirates also strays off topic a few times, as it discusses other women who were not pirates and their position in society. Still, I didn’t mind this since it was pretty interesting. According to the authors, there were probably many other women disguised as men doing “men’s jobs” in all walks of life, but history tells us mostly of the pirates and seafarers because these are the venues in which women were most likely to be discovered due to the complete lack of privacy on board ship.

The Weird Introduction

It’s safe to skip the introduction altogether. It’s much too academic, and talks about how women have a natural connection with the sea because of our femininity and so on. The mind-boggling conclusion once again reverts to the academic. Here, the authors refer to pirates as being “molecular but by no means molar.” No, I’m not making this up.

The Recipes

This is one of my favorite parts of the book. Authentic pirate recipes from ancient Roman times to the Golden Age of piracy are provided, complete with cooking instructions. I haven’t dared to try any of these in real life yet, but if I do, I will certainly blog about it!

This fourteenth-century Viking recipe serves about 30 pirates:

Fish Stew

viking Woman cooking


6 kg ship’s biscuits2.5 kg salted veal
25 onions
20 garlic sprouts
30 herring filets
20 sour pickles
1 kg red beets
0.5 kg pork lard for frying 

Cook the meat and onions in a big pot until tender, then chop them finely. crush the biscuits and stir into the stock from the meat. Coarsely chop the garlic sprouts, pickles, herrings, and red beets. Melt the lard in a large pot and add everything. Bring once to a boil, stirring constantly. Spice with pepper.


New Feature: Sonya’s Soapbox

Once in a while, I like to vent on a non-swashbuckling topic, so I’ve created a new category on my site that will allow my readers to catch up on my latest rantings.

I will rant only about very important things such a justice and liberty for all, which is in fact a swashbuckling concept… Stay tuned!



Dryad Characters: Captain Roger de St Amour

roger de st amour pirateCaptain Roger de St Amour is a gentleman pirate and the scourge of the Spanish colonies. He is very ruthless and devious but also highly educated, which makes him even more ruthless and devious.

He may look something like the fellow pictured to the right, but in fact, he looks exactly like Rodney Love, except he has black hair while Rodney Love is blonde. How can this be?


What is your occupation?

I am Captain of the Belle Catherine, a two-masted brig. As a flibustier, a privateer of the French navy, I pillage and sink any Spanish ships I come across.

What are your hobbies and interests?

Pillaging, mostly. I also like to read ancient philosophers. I was educated at the Sorbonne, you know. Though right now I have read all the books in my collection and since I have been sailing the waters of the Atlantic round about the coast of South America for the last three years, there has not been a chance to find new books as of late.

Who is your best friend?

Hahaha! Wait, ‘ere you ask another question, I must finish laughing. Hahaha! What say you? “Friend?” I am the Captain! It would not do for me to go around having friends. But I have some loyal crewmen, never fear.

Do you see yourself as the villain of this story?

Nay! Who calls me a villain? Point out the scoundrel that I may dispatch him. I rather see myself as the knights of old. I go on quests and journeys, and sometimes I do some pillaging. How else can one make a name for himself?

What is your opinion of Rodney Love?

That colonial interloper? I think he’s hardly a worthy adversary for me. He claims to be my descendant, but I am ashamed to have such dull offspring. He’s all too easily fooled. In fact, I don’t think he is my descendant at all.

You’ve got to admit he got the best of you once or twice?

I haven’t the time to talk anymore, and I don’t wish to continue this interview! Time for me to go off and do some pillaging.


“Get out of my head, Charles Dickens!” A Tale of Two Cities and Other Annoying 19th Century Things

Ever notice how 19th century novels consist of extremely long sentences that seem to drag on interminably as the author demonstrates his or her skill in the use of subordinate clauses or timely semicolons in prolonging these unwieldly monstrosities while at the same time flaunting his or her unscrupulous avariciousness, keeping in mind that writers in those days were paid by the line?

I’ve always enjoyed reading 19th century literature, so it’s no surprize that some of that long-sentency style rubs off on me. Not only do I write in long sentences, but sometimes I even have that Charles Dickens narrator voice following me around in my daily life and narrating everything I do in an English accent, much like Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction.


Stranger than Fiction

This is perhaps cause for concern, especially since the novel I’ve just finished reading, A Tale of Two Cities, is one of the most boring and confounding sagas ever set down in writing.

First, there are many problems with the characters. Lucie Manette, a beautiful blond, blue-eyed young lady is portrayed as having a strange aberration plaguing her forehead. Professor VJ Duke of the Punchy Lands often points out less-than-skillfully executed descriptions by classic writers in his ripping book reviews. Usually, these blunders are quite subtle and hard to spot, but the one in Tale of Two Cities is a glaring example of grotesqueness:

…a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions…

So it seems her special super power is to make her forehead look older than it is as well as to convey this complicated expression through its walnut-like patterns. Later on, when Lucie receive some shocking news, we are informed that Lucie was

perfectly still and silent… with that last expression looking as if it were carved or branded into her forehead.

So the reader is forced to imagine some hideous aberration that makes this otherwise lovely young woman permanently look like a Klingon.

Aside from her weird forehead, Lucie is a very boring character. She has literally nothing to do but look and act angelic, as opposed to the evil Madame Defarge who is perfectly wicked and bad.

But if Dickens makes the female characters oversimplified, he compensates by making one of the leading male characters complicated beyond understanding. Who is this alcoholic lawyer creeping around and complaining about his own lack of achievement? Sydney Carton is the sort of character that would have been very appealing to my teenage self. He is quite mysterious, melancholy, and misunderstood. Instead of achieving great things in the profession of law, he chooses rather to help his friend, a particularly obtuse lawyer, rise to greatness. Nobody, perhaps not even Carton himself, knows why he is so messed up.

Indeed, he is almost as annoying as Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights…


Comic strip from Hark, a Vagrant!

Instead of pursuing the angelic Lucie, whom he loves, he mopes around, while the highly accomplished Charles Darnay swoops in and steals her heart. Darnay is a former french aristocrat, but he wants to give up that life of spoiled indulgence, so he moves to England. He earns his living as a language tutor, just like me, so I would have liked for him to be the main character, but alas he is just a pawn in this political game…

[Spoiler alert!]

When Darnay nobly saunters off to Paris in order to save his former servant from the revolutionary hordes, he is immediately captured and is threatened with execution. Who will save him?

Of course, the brooding Carton now chooses this as a good time to cease brooding and start acting. Though the way he resolves the problem of the novel shows that he hasn’t changed one bit. He is still the same old Carton, willing to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing for the sake of others. When Charles Darnay is imprisoned, Carton devises an ingenious plan to free him. But ironically, his self-sacrifice will finally earn him some recognition.

In typical Carton fashion, instead of snatching Darnay from the Guillotine Scarlet Pimpernel-style, he enters the jail and takes Darnay’s place, thereby sacrificing himself and of course, forever ensuring that his memory lives on in his beloved Lucie’s heart. Isn’t that a bit manipulative?

ronald-colman-sydney-carton-tale-of-two-cities-1936Okay, so it is a very remarkable and moving ending. It almost justifies having to slog through the entire saga of Lucie’s angelic life. I have to admit, the book may have seemed extremely boring to me due to the fact that I had already seen the movie. This 1935 cinematic version was much more exciting and fast-paced as movies tend to be. Carton seemed like a nice, debonair sort of fellow who maybe had a bit of a drinking problem, but was otherwise very charming. Although the movie made everything more cute and bland, I think I prefer it to the original work.

So the final verdict? We shall not give Dickens the chop. Perhaps he can get away this time with a stern reprimand.

Since Dickens’ work inspired me to write this really long blog post complaining about how lame it is, I suppose he must have some merit as a writer. In fact, I regard one of his other books, Great Expectations, very highly. And now that I’ve recognized his genius, the least thing he could do is stop narrating my life!