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Argh, me maties! Does that song bring to mind Pirates of the Caribbean? I’d post the song here, but that would be like . . .pirating so it’s better I not. You’ll just have to hum the tune to yourself to catch the mood.

What is the fascination with pirates? We often have a romanticized vision of these bold raiders of the seas, and I admit in Pirate’s Proposal I made my pirate captain hero pretty yummy and my pirate captain heroine beautiful and brave.

Portrait of beautiful girl in pirate hat with pistol in handIn reality, though, pirating was a tough, dirty and dangerous life, likely fated with the unglamorous ending of swinging from a rope. And yet . . . there really were women pirates and sailors in days of old. What were they thinking?

Well, given the alternatives for gainful employment for women back in the 1700s, the heyday of pirating . . . hmm, let me think. Nope, not really many upwardly mobile career ladder opportunities existed for women.

You could be a seamstress (unless you’re like me and can’t sew a straight stitch) or a laundress, a cook, a housekeeper or maid, perhaps the most respectable occupations; or a barmaid, or turn to oldest form of self-employment: prostitution. In any case, you’re likely to end up as an unwilling wench in some man’s bed just to survive. And woe be to you if you should be unlucky enough to get pregnant.

One girl, after being seduced and abandoned by her lover, unable to live with the shame, ran off to sea. But she was not the only lass to make her home on a ship full of men. There were quite a handful of bold, daring women, lucky enough to be not-so-well endowed so they could wrap themselves and pass as a boy or very young man, who chose to sign up to go to sea. Some signed with the navy, some with merchant ships and some with pirates. Many survived a career as sailors and pirates, while a few were injured and their secret discovered. Some of the women who sailed in the service of their king or queen, when injured and could no longer sail, had the nerve to successfully petition their government for pensions. A couple of those who had been injured, though, had the wits to capitalize on their adventures and books were written about their exploits at sea. Books with such titles as: Surprising Adventures of Mary Anne Talbot in the Name of John Taylor, a Natural Daughter of the Late Earl Talbot. . . Related by Herself. (Aye, the titles were a mite long, right, mates?)

And how did these women take care of er . . . women business? The book I’m citing from, She Captains by Joan Druett, suggests that the work was so hard and many of the women had so little body fat that they were hardly bothered with a monthly cycle. And as for going to the bathroom, apparently some women perfected the art of going over the rail–I cannot figure that one out and really, don’t want to expend too much mental energy in trying to imagine. But if the woman couldn’t manage that mind-boggling feat, there were little holes in part of the ship where everything um . . . dropped into the ocean. Somehow or another these resourceful women survived.

There were also women who went to sea with their husbands and didn’t have to hide their identity as a woman. Some legitimate captains of merchant ships, or of naval or privateer vessels, took their families to sea and sometimes even to war. I can only imagine what it would be like to be on a ship with my kids below deck while my husband was on deck battling a heavily-armed opponent ship. Landlubber that I am, I’m sure I’d be scuttling back to port as fast as I could make my husband sail the ship.

And then there were quite a few husband and wife pirate teams who worked together to rob, murder and pillage. One particularly grisly pair used a small schooner, waiting until after a storm to sail into the English shipping lane. They would doctor their ship to make it appear storm-damaged and the woman would stand on deck in tattered clothes, appearing to be the lone survivor. When a merchant ship stopped to help, the husband and wife pirates would attack, slaughter the crew and make off with the goods.

Other husband and wife teams were equally as bloodthirsty and in more than one case, when they were caught, the husband hanged but the wife got off by claiming abuse and coercion.

And then there were the women who were actually captains of their own ships, like my heroine Gina Santini in Pirate’s Proposal. But that’s the subject of another blog post.

So what do you think? Is a pirate’s life for you?