- Why are we so much more familiar with Blackbeard than Zheng Yi Sao?
At the height of his power he commanded four or five ships depending on your source, whereas at the height of her power, Zheng Yi Sao had 1,200.
That's a difference of about 1,200.
Well, that raises a bigger topic of how our society has focused on men pirates allowing them to have complexity while women have been reduced to footnotes, anecdotes and generic archetypes.
But today we're gonna right the ship and explore the incredible and unsung stories of women pirates.
I'm Joel Cook, and this is "Rogue History."
[dramatic music] [bells tinkling] Society across time and space has always largely expected the same thing from women, stay at home and perform domestic labor, which needless to say is the exact opposite of what pirates do.
- Women pirates were not at home [laughs].
And usually they left their children behind.
Some of them took them with them.
They were also behaving in very unfeminine ways.
They were wearing pants and they were taking part in looting and pillaging and making money.
- There was also an old sailor superstition that women were bad luck.
It could spell disaster at sea.
- It's frightful bad luck to bring a woman aboard sir.
- When it comes to the maritime world, women were depicted in a sexual way as sirens and mermaids who are said to lure or seduce men in order to drown them.
And so this all kind of plays into the maritime narrative.
- Are you a mermaid?
- [laughs] I told you.
- I'm not a mermaid.
- And also what this is going to do is gonna signify that women who are going to sea aren't going to hold the same morals as women who stay on land and subscribe to their traditional gender roles.
- This attitude towards women led to them disguising themselves and sneaking onto ships.
Two of the most famous women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, both escaped from those structures of 18th century European femininity by dressing like men and joining up with pirate crews.
They ended up becoming two of the most famous and feared pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.
- Whereas Anne was only dressed as a man to hide her gender and her illegitimacy in the very beginning of her life, Mary spent a lot of her life dressed as a man.
- But while their womanhood was a source of vulnerability it was actually what temporarily saved their lives.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read both revealed they were pregnant during their trial, which resulted in their executions being delayed.
Mary Read ended up dying in prison and Anne Bonny disappeared from the records.
But not every female pirate escaped execution at least not Rachel Wall known as the first recorded American pirate.
She was hanged in Boston Common in 1789, after a successful career in piracy.
- [Presenter] She had an interesting scheme where she and her husband would tie their ship up and make it look like it had been wrecked.
And then when some ship would pull over to save her the rest of the crew would come out from the hold and take them over.
And then ironically lost her husband and the rest of her crew in a storm and was eventually marooned for real.
- But as exciting as some of these stories about women pirate anti-heroes are, they don't capture the complex experience of the most vulnerable women on board these vessels.
Black and indigenous women were often taken captive for their labor or to be sexually preyed upon.
So let's go back to the aforementioned Zheng Yi Sao.
Born in 1775 to humble origins in China, she worked as a sex worker until she married a pirate and she only accepted his marriage proposal on the condition that he give her half his fleet.
After he died, she took over the rest of his fleet becoming an incredibly powerful pirate in the South China Sea and commending an estimated 80,000 men.
- By every conceivable metric you can imagine, she was the most successful pirate who ever lived.
She had a bigger fleet, she had more people under her command, she had more money.
She was active for longer.
She managed to retire instead of on the short end of a noose.
One of the saddest things I think about the Zheng Yi Sao story is that we don't even know her real name.
Zheng Yi Sao is a translation of a wife of Zheng Yi.
So basically we know her as Mrs. Zheng.
- Some crimes are forgiven but vengeance is an exciting element of any tale especially a pirate one and a common thread of the motivating factor that drove women into piracy, like Sayyida al Hurra.
She and her family were expelled to Morocco from Spain during The Inquisition for being Muslim.
She got a very good education, married a governor and after he died, wait.... Am I the only one noticing a pattern of dead husbands?
- After her husband died she ended up commanding many fleets of ships.
And what she would do is she would order them to specifically attack Spanish ships.
And this was in retaliation for the way that she was kicked out because of The Inquisition.
So her goal was to go and destroy the Spanish fleet as much as possible.
Now, here's what's interesting.
The only sources we have that really detail Sayyida al Hurra in general are Spanish and Portuguese sources.
All the history we're getting about her is coming from these sources that of course are going to be depicting her in the most negative fashion possible.
- With piracy, the line often gets blurry between hero and criminal.
It always depends on the perspective.
Like in the 16th century there was Grace O'Malley called the Pirate Queen of Ireland.
To the Irish, she was a hero defending their territorial independence, to the English, she was a terror.
- And she was very successful at attacking loads of English merchant ships.
This is the time where England is practicing some of its first real examples of colonization.
And so many sailors, there were many pirates, who were happy to attack English ships.
Then her sons were all kidnapped and made hostages, and she had no choice but to go to England, and appeal to the Queen of England, Elizabeth.
- O'Malley's sons were released and in return she had to work as a pirate for Queen Elizabeth.
So her punishment for being a successful pirate was to become a privateer for her oppressor.
Another great pirate queen was Queen Teuta of Illyria.
She was married to King Agron, and watched him build up his fleet and then celebrate building up his fleet by drinking so much that he, you guessed it, died.
She then took over to rule Eastern European Illyrian tribes and often attacked the Roman Empire.
- The Romans had to send 200 ships and 20,000 infantry to actually finally defeat Queen Teuta.
And she did not die.
She then made a deal with the Romans to let her live and she promised that she would no longer go into piracy.
- But for every Renegade woman pirate we know about there's so many we don't.
There's no way to know about the thousands of pirates who were never caught or the women disguised as men without record.. We couldn't fit all of the impressive women pirates from history we came across into this episode, which makes it funny that many people might have trouble naming a single one.
So the question remains why do we focus on telling stories of men pirates?
When we do tell stories of women pirates why do we limit them to such a generic stereotype?
So the next time someone mentions Blackbeard bring up Zheng Yi Sao.
If they say Calico Jack Rackham, tell them about Sayyida al Hurra.
And if they [indistinct] Captain Morgan make them wave the white flag when you tell 'em about Rachel Wall.