Saturday, June 11, 2011

Women and the Jolly Roger

The Articles of Agreement that pirates swore an oath to uphold often included a ban on women aboard their ships. After all, "women were weak, feckless, hysterical beings who distracted men and brought bad luck to ships, calling forth supernatural winds that sank vessels and drowned men.” (Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women

Historical records provide evidence that women did go to sea -- sometimes as pirates or sailors. While Anne Bonny and Mary Read [illustrated here] were perhaps the most famous women pirates, others of equal or lesser renown included Alwida, Grace O'Malley and Cheng I Sao.

In order for a woman to succeed in her new persona, she had to do more than don a disguise. She had to adopt the mannerisms common to men ... fighting, carousing, swearing, walking and dressing as the men did. Getting aboard a ship disguised as a man wasn’t that difficult in the Age of Sail. A sailor’s clothes easily disguised a woman’s shape and mariners wore their hair long, tied in a pigtail and tarred.  Petticoat-breeches and the baggy shirt worn under a jacket easily hid her curves, especially if she bound her breasts. Sailors rarely removed their clothes and the only time a doctor insisted they undress was to treat their wounds.

Billy Bridle, a daring sailor who served aboard a vessel for two years, challenged a shipmate to climb the highest mast. The mate was reluctant, but finally agreed to the challenge. Soon after he climbed down, Billy followed, but burned his hands as he slid down the topgallant halyards.  Twenty feet above the deck, Billy lost his grip, fell to the deck and died. Not until the inquest did anyone discover Billy was actually Rachel Young.

Taking care of bodily functions posed a more challenging problem, but not an impossible one.  Some affixed a tube inside their breeches to appear to urinate as a man when they went to the head. Since many sailors contracted venereal diseases, they wouldn’t have thought anything strange about a sailor bleeding. It was a common complaint. As for having her period, there’s a good chance she ceased menstruating from the poor food and strenuous exercise of working aboard a wooden ship. Since she didn’t shave, men just assumed she hadn’t gone through puberty yet.

Furling and unfurling sails, working the pumps and capstan, rowing boats and a myriad of other tasks requiring hard labor wouldn’t have been a problem for most working-class women of the seventeen and eighteenth centuries. Even as women living ashore they worked long hours and did physically demanding chores. If she were strong and able, a woman was capable of doing sailors’ work.

It took a remarkable woman to assume a male persona and carry it off successfully. Why would any woman choose to do so? Perhaps because she wished to earn her way in life without prostituting herself and to keep her wages instead of having to relinquish them to her husband or father. She could learn a trade forbidden to women. As a man, she had rights, unlike a woman who had few if any rights under the law. As long as men believed her to be one of them, they treated her as a man. As soon as her true identity was discovered, she was no longer taken seriously and had to return home to mind her place.

While an untold number of accounts of male pirates and warriors exist, the same isn’t true of  women who donned male attire and changed their names. Many pirates were illiterate as were the majority of the lower classes. Women would have been doubly so, for educating them was seen as folly.

Pirates, who kept journals or diaries, rarely mention women, “except as victims of men.” In spite of this dearth of primary documentation, we know women became pirates, sailors and soldiers.  As Mary Livermore, a Sanitary Commission agent, wrote in 1888 about disguised women who fought in the Civil War:

“Some one has stated the number of women soldiers …as little less than four hundred. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced that a larger number of women disguised themselves and enlisted … than was dreamed of.  Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life; and extravagant and unreal as were many of the narrations, one always felt that they had a foundation in fact.”

The same was probably true of women pirates throughout history. Some disguised their sex.  Others did not. Some achieved notoriety in their lifetimes. Most, however, disappeared without anyone being the wiser. 

The list of women pirates numbers approximately 40. Some are real and others are of legend. But each seemed to have one real reason for becoming a pirate or privateer. Escape ... e
scape from prostitution, poverty, oppression, arranged marriages, servitude and more. Each was determined to live their lives the way they chose ... not by the laws, conventions and standards of their time.

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