Ruling the Seas“Pirate Women” Celebrates the Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers History Has Left Behind

Book Reviews{ Chicago Review Press }
Released: April 1, 2017
Price: $26.99

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This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!

It makes sense that women throughout the ages would be drawn to piracy. After all, the pirate life is one of freedom from patriarchal society’s rules regarding what’s demanded and expected of them. Yet despite piracy seeming like a natural route to independence, very few stories of female pirates have been told, especially when compared with their male counterparts. The few women pirates we know from history are often briefly sketched side characters in male-driven stories, with so little concrete detail that it’s hard to determine whether they really existed. As Laura Sook Duncombe puts it in Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas, “Women pirates are often absent in historical discussion because their very existence is threatening to traditional male and female gender roles. Pirates live outside the laws of man, but women pirates live outside the laws of nature.”

Duncombe seeks to redress the wrongs of the many writers and historians who came before her by devoting her book to the largely untold stories of these “strange, wild, ungovernable” women, both the historical and the mythical—and quite a few who blur the lines between the two. These remarkable characters include Artemisia, a Mediterranean queen who betrayed the Persians for the Greeks in the heat of battle; Sayyida, a Moroccan ruler who controlled fleets of Barbary corsairs; Grace O’Malley, the fierce Irish pirate who negotiated her freedom with Queen Elizabeth I; and Cheng I Sao, the most successful pirate—male or female—of all time. Duncombe organizes Pirate Women by time period and region, and provides just the right amount of historical context for each era. One’s admiration of the infamous Anne Bonny may grow when one knows something of the politics of the colonial Caribbean (including the prevalence of rape and other violent crimes against women); likewise, it’s easier to wrap your mind around the impressiveness of Cheng I Sao’s feats when they’re properly placed in the timeline of Chinese history.

Unfortunately, as Duncombe tells us time and time again, very few verifiable facts about these women exist, which means that she often resorts to trying to fill in the blanks with her own imagination. While it’s disappointing to keep reading the same excuse for the lack of details about these intriguing women, it also drives home Duncombe’s point regarding the importance of intersectional storytelling. If men hold all the power to tell stories, then only stories about men—or, at least, stories filtered through a very male gaze—will be told. Pirate Women, while far too slim of a volume, is still a satisfying and necessary addition to the piratical pop culture canon.

This article was published in Invisibility Issue #75 | Summer 2017
by Lee Jutton
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Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. She previously reviewed new DVD and theatrical releases as a staff writer for Just Press Play and currently reviews television shows as a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on Medium for more film reviews and on Twitter for an excessive amount of opinions on German soccer.

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