Female Pirates during the Great Age of Sail: Alwida, Grace O’Malley and Mrs. Cheng

Did you know it was a superstition that a woman on board a sailing ship would brings bad luck? Most of the women pretended to be men and wore men’s clothing. Otherwise, they were seen as prostitutes.

Females pirates weren’t just found off the coast of the Americans or around the West Indies. The Scandinavian pirate Alwida, the Irishwoman Grace O’Malley and the Chinese pirate leader Mrs. Cheng are chief among them.


Alwida was the daughter of a Scandinavian king during the fifth century AD, so we’re talking Viking here. Alwida’s father arranged for her to marry Prince Alf, son of the King of the Danes. However, Alwida was so averse to the idea that she and several of her female colleagues dressed as men, stole a longship and sailed away into the Baltic Sea.

Alwida’s crew eventually happened upon a pirate crew that was mourning the recent loss of their captain. The pirates were so impressed with Alwida’s regal air that they unanimously elected her their new captain. Under Alwida’s command her pirates became such a threat that Prince Alf himself was sent to find and destroy them. He found their ship in the Gulf of Finland and a terrible sea battle ensued. Prince Alf boarded the pirate ship, killed most of the crew and took Alwida prisoner. The story goes that Alwida was so wowed by Prince Alf’s sailing and fighting abilities that she changed her mind about him, and they were married aboard ship. The former female pirate captain Alwida eventually became the Queen of Denmark.

Grace O’Malley

Anyone who has ever visited an Irish pub is probably familiar with the name “Grace O’Malley,” and with good reason. Her exploits are well documented in the State Papers of Ireland. She was born in 1530 in Connaught on the west coast of Ireland. As the daughter of a chieftain whose family had for centuries ruled the seas around Clew Bay, the O’Malleys owned several castles in the area as well as a fleet of ships used for fishing, trading and piratical raids to subdue the surrounding territories. Grace took to the sea at a young age with her father, and that is undoubtedly where she learned her outstanding leadership and sailing skills.

She soon earned a reputation as a daring and courageous sea captain. She commanded a fleet of up to 20 ships, including a galley, the only known such vessel in the British Isles. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, she was wooed by and eventually married another local chieftain Richard Burke in 1566. She moved to the Burke family’s Rockfleet Castle in County Mayo and turned it into her seafaring base of operations for the next 37 years.

Mrs. Cheng

Another female pirate fleet commander was the greatly feared “Mrs. Cheng.” She is also known as “Ching Yih Saou.” Regardless, she commanded a fleet of pirate ships – junks – in the South China Sea during the early part of the 19th century. By 1801, her and her husband commanded a navy of over 50,000 pirates and hundreds of ships. After her husband died in 1807, she quickly moved to consolidate power with one of her husband’s relatives and increased the size of their pirate navy. They ruled the waters from Batavia to Malaysia.

In 1808, the Chinese Navy engaged in all out war, however, the pirate forces prevailed. By 1809 Mrs. Cheng was at the height of her power and had a pirate navy that dwarfed any governmental navy in the world. Needless to say, the size of the pirate activities in the South China Sea made all piracy in the Caribbean Sea pale in significance.

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