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.

8 thoughts on “Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger: Historical Book Review and Recipes!

  1. After arguing against a guy yesterday who blogged that women should not be cops (from a biblical perspective, of course), I felt pretty depressed about the state of the world, and all of the cuckoo people out there. But today, your blog post made me happy, and was the complete antithesis of all that bigotry. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I needed this. Throughout history, women never accomplished anything by being nice, quiet, and diminutive. In fact, those three traits (that were encouraged so much in women), were a great recipe for simply being controlled. This looks like an interesting book about women who took charge and led swashbuckling lives. The life of an outsider is dangerous, but has it’s rewards.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Lauren! I’m so glad this post helped lift your spirits. Sometimes it does seem like women will never be able to escape being controlled by outdated religious mores — I’ve been feeling down myself due to the recent news reports on women’s status in Middle Eastern countries. I definitely admire those women who rebelled, such as these pirate ladies as well as the feminists and suffragettes who fought for women’s rights later on.

  2. “…nowadays as the centuries have softened the rough edges of their robbing and pillaging”

    I think that you love pirates as much as I love medieval mercenaries, for the very reason quoted above.

    As for the “molecular but by no means molar” comment, well, scurvy was a common condition back then.

    • I tried to look up the meanings of “molar,” and I think the authors basically meant that pirates were individualists rather than group-minded beings. But it’s likely many of them had issues with their molar teeth as well.

      Hope your studies in mercenary lore are going well! 🙂

  3. Very interesting indeed Sonya, I’ve always wondered about real women pirates, though I always imagined them to be less glamorous than portrayed in films, just like men. It must have been tough going. Great post.

  4. Yes, I think in some ways their life was quite difficult. But I also read that Anne Bonny and Mary Read wore dresses while hanging around on the ship and not engaged in combat. Also many of the pirates wore expensive upper-class clothing that they had won in their raids, so at least in this way they were glamorous.

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