Female Pirates on the High Seas: Mary Read, Alwilda and Granuaile (Grace O’Malley)

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The traditional "Jolly Roger" of piracy

A common factor among most female pirates was a desire to escape the shackles of convention or to defy male authority– or both.

An Irish Female Tomboy Pirate Queen and Daughter of a Clan Chieftain Is Born

Granuaile (1530-1603), known as the “Pirate Queen of Connacht” in Ireland, was the only tomboy daughter of noblewoman Margaret O’Malley and clan chieftain Dudara (“Black Oak”) O’Malley, who also doubled as a sea captain in his time.

As with most pirates, female or otherwise, she had a hankering from an early age to go to sea. Either Granuaile was a strong-willed spirit in her youth or else her family was progressive by 16th-century standards, because they openly tolerated her tomboy ways and her short-boy-hair-style-wearing ways.

Have a Problem with an English Boarding Party? No Problem. Granuaile Will Leap on Your Attackers’ Backs and Save You

Granuaile (also known as “Gráinne Mhaol” or “Bald Grace”) had her first taste of pirate-like action in her teens. Travelling from Spain back to Ireland with her father on board his ship, they were attacked by an English vessel. Her old man ordered her to remain below deck during the fighting. It was just as well or better than well for him that she didn’t remain below deck, because just when it looked like he was about to be run through, Granuaile leapt on the back of his attacker, thus creating a diversion which, in turn, led to a turning of the battle against the English and the saving of the day and pats on her shoulder for her skillful back-leaping ability which had heretofore been an unknown talent.

At the unripe-flower age of 15 Granuaile married Donal-an-Coghaidh, who was more beast than man. His clan-leading abilities left something to be desired. People in his dominion were beginning to starve. Into– as usual– the fray leapt Granuaile, who became the unofficial clan leader. Later she would more than once lead her clan to victory in land battles against other rival clans as well as the despised English.

Not long after the death of Donal, who died at the hands of a rival clan, Granuaile decided to assemble a crew of about 200 men and set sail. With her natural ship smarts and leadership skills, she was able to attack ships along the coast from her base on Clare Island and make a pretty penny in the process.

After several years of continuing attacks on shipping and a successful resistance to the English on land, Granuaile was finally captured by the English in 1586. However, she appealed to Queen Elizabeth I and was able to persuade the queen to have her released.

Granuaile lived until 1603.

To Make It in a Man’s World, It Helps to Dress and Act Like a Man. Or, How to Scam Your Granny and Others

Mary Read had a habit of dressing as a man so that she could seek gainful or piratical employment. She first dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex when she was a child. Her mother told her mother-in-law that she’d had a boy by her husband, who was deceased by the time Mary came into the world. The scheme worked. Granny didn’t notice anything amiss when she met her “grandson” Mary. She pronounced her a strapping young lad, and the allowance flowed forth (which would not have been forthcoming had Mary dressed as a girl).

Mary Read next used her cross-dressing scamming skills when she sought and successfully got a job as a footboy. But the life of a footboy proved too dull for the high-spirited, adventure-loving Mary. She eventually joined the Flemish army and fought as an infantryman; and still later she went to sea as a seaman but was captured by noted pirate Calico Jack Rackham. Joining his crew, she went on to pursue a piratical life at sea, learning all the necessary tricks of the trade, such as how to “swear and shoot as well as any man.”

Unlike her fellow swashbuckling companion Anne Bonny, Mary Read met with a bad end. She was captured and put in prison, where she died of unknown causes.

Alwilda Is Invited to Fill a Newly Vacant Captain’s Position on a Pirate Ship

There is speculation among scholars and rambling old historians in history retirement homes as to whether the story of Alwilda is legend or not. At any rate, she was the daughter of a 5th-century Scandinavian king who, not bothering to know what her daughter wanted, married her off to the prince of Denmark.

Alwilda balked and, with some other female cohorts of hers, donned male clothing and launched a ship into the Baltic Sea. There they encountered a pirate ship which had lately lost its captain. Impressed with her commanding presence, the crew invited Alwilda to be their new pirate captain.

It’s the Old Disney Plot: Boy Meets Girl. Girl Hates Boy. Boy and Girl Meet Again on a Pirate Ship. Boy and Girl Now Fall in Love and Live Happily Ever After

Alwilda enjoyed a successful and satisfying pirate stint. The king of Denmark, however, was decidedly dissatisfied and sent his son Prince Alf and all his best king’s men to put a stop to Alwilda’s good-times pirate party. The pirate ship was boarded and, after the customary close-quarter, pitched battle, the pirates surrendered.

However, it seems that during the sword fighting, Alwilda’s eyes must have strayed toward Alf, who, she noticed, knew how to handle a sword and thus was not the pantywaist she had thought him to be.

Love was in the air, which led to the ringing of wedding bells once they were on dry land again and Alwilda becoming Queen Alwilda of Denmark.

The happy couple would probably have been delighted to know that their story will one day make a great full-length Disney animation film.