Female sailors during the Great Age of Sail

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

In the 1700s, most seafaring females in the West were neither captains nor pirates, but everyday sailors. In fact, upon closer inspection it turns out that for hundreds of years, a small percentage of the Royal Navy and Merchant Fleets were “manned” by women disguised as teenage boys. Several of them became among their ships’ finest sailors. For example, Mary Anne Arnold sailed as a boy on the ship Robert Small until finally discovered by her captain. He lamented her loss, saying that she was the best sailor on his ship: “I have seen Miss Arnold among the first aloft to reef the top gallant mizzen sail during a heavy gale in the Bay of Biscay.”

Another discovered female sailor, Hannah Snell, refused to quit sailing. Whenever she was accused of not being masculine enough to remain, she challenged her accuser to a test of any shipboard task, his choice. She never lost and so was kept on as crew.

While the Gulf of Mexico had its fair share of piracy, including the well-known Jean Lafitte and John Gomez, historical records indicating female pirates here have yet to be uncovered.

Nevertheless, considering the number of women who, over the course of hundreds of years managed to disguise themselves as teenage boys and work as sailors aboard merchantmen, navies, and yes, pirate ships, there seems little doubt that the history of the Age of Piracy along Tampa Bay must have included a least a few adventurous women, too!

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