Column: The Backstory: 3 Female Pirates Who Swashbuckled Their Way Into History

The Backstory is a column celebrating offbeat and overlooked history.

The open water, the thrill of danger, the excitement of adventure, the stress-relieving benefits of screaming “AAAARRRRR” when it’s totally irrelevant to the conversation: The public imagination has long been fascinated by pirates. Putting their murderous habits and less-than-ethical morals aside, pirates are just plain ol’ cool. Meet three little-known ladies who swashbuckled down to history town with their pirating prowess.


Princess Sela

So, we’ve already established that pirates are cool. But what else is cool? Vikings. And what’s cooler than pirates AND Vikings? A Viking princess-turned-pirate-to-get-revenge-on-her-brother-for-stealing-the-throne. That’s seriously cool. That’s Princess Sela cool. 

One of the first female pirates on recordsecond only to the also-cool, but not-quite-Viking-cool Teuta, Queen of IllyriaPrincess Sela sailed the North Atlantic from 400-420 CE. After her much-hated brother, Koller, was crowned king of Norway, she was like, “There’s Nor-way I’m letting you get away with that!” So, she took to the high seas for some ship-seizing and stuff-stealing. She dreamed of defeating Koller and taking his throne with the help of her new friend, Horwendill, a fellow pirate and the former king of nearby Jutland. But when Sela’s brother set out to kill Horwendill, failed, and ended up dead at Horwendill’s hands, Horwendill got a little trigger-happy and killed Sela, too. Moral of the story: pirates aren’t always the most loyal of friends. 


Sadie “The Goat” Farrell

It remains unclear whether she was an actual historical figure or mythicized folk hero, but with the perpetually classy job title of River Pirate and a nickname inspired by my personal favorite animal, it was hard not to include this headbutting heroine. 

Sadie The Goat began her legendary career as a thief and gang leader in the New York City of the 1860s. She earned her fantastic nickname with a signature move of headbutting unsuspecting victims in the stomach before stealing their money. Allegedly, she had an ongoing feud with Gallus Mag, a six-foot-tall female bouncer who ultimately bit off Sadie’s ear before driving her out of New York’s Fourth Ward district. Get an earful of that! 

Earless and fancy-free, Sadie The Goat settled into a quiet life of solitude and piracy hijacking sailboats along the Hudson River before accumulating a small following of fellow swashbucklers. Sadie and her crew sailed through the state, pillaging small farm towns and cargo ships along the way. Legend has it that she, older and wiser and more swashbuckle-y, later returned to the city’s Fourth Ward and made peace with her old ear-stealing enemy, who graciously retrieved the organ from a pickling jar andas everyone would naturally do in such a situationturned it into a necklace that Sadie would wear for the rest of her life. 


Ching Shih

When Cheng I married Ching Shih (born Shih Yang in 1775), he expected to live a happy, comfortable life with his three sons and the boatload of money he’d inherited from his pirate ancestors. He definitely didn’t anticipate that he’d die at 39in a boating accidentwhile his wife rose to fame as the single most successful pirate in history, but that’s exactly what happened. Sucks for you, Cheng I. 

After her husband’s death, Ching Shih wasted no time brushing the dust off her feet and taking over the empire she’d built with Cheng Ia 70,000-person coalition of formerly rivaling Cantonese pirates, with the fantastic name of the Red Flag Fleet. Under her charge, they took control of the South China Seas, where they raided, stole, and swashbuckled and all that good pirate-y stuff. They also beheaded a lot of people and sold a lot of others into slavery, which is less good, but equally pirate-y stuff. 

She ruled with an iron fisteveryone who disobeyed Ching Shih’s orders was beheaded on the spot, attractive female captives were forced to marry her crew members (the ones she deemed ugly were freed, as some sort of weird courtesy, I guess), and anyone who stole money (aside from the money they were supposed to be stealing, of course) was beaten. Life in the Red Flag Fleet must have been like a giant game of human whac-a-mole. 

Ching Shih and the Red Flag Fleet were so powerful, they conquered each of the Chinese military’s numerous attempts to take down their army, even refusing the royal titles offered to them in exchange for giving up piracy. But, deliriously happy with this success, the Red Flag Fleet made the fatal mistake of letting down their guard.  They ended up losing to the Portuguese in the epically-named Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth. The tides had turned (pirate pun!) and Ching Shih knew it was time to give in and surrender. But China was so relieved just to have Ching Shih under control, they let her keep all the stuff she stole. They also let her back into China, where she opened a gambling house, worked as a military advisor, and married her stepson. Not a bad tradeoff for a swashbuckling life of swindling. 

As it turns out, some of history’s most ruthless pirates were women! With all their plundering and violence, they may not be the world’s best role models, but you know what they sayto err is human; to “aaar” is pirate. Looting, marauding, and executing, these ladies made their memorableif somewhat morally dubiousmarks on history.