Contrary to popular belief, not all pirates hobbled on peg-legs with talking parrots perched on their shoulders, patches covering their eyes, and broad West Country accents sharpening their vowels. One of the most important, fascinating, and relatively forgotten pirates was actually a woman, known to history as the so-called "Pirate Queen."
There have been other lady pirates in history, but perhaps none as significant as Gráinne Ní Mháille, better known by the Anglicized version of her Irish name, Grace O'Malley. She was born in western Ireland around 1530. Though brought up in a life of relative privilege and wealth, she also faced limitations on her ambitions. The Ireland of her birth was one of eroding independence, as England sought to exert more and more influence over the island to its west. Though all pirates are political to some extent, O'Malley was especially so: the politics of Ireland and Tudor England became tangled up in her business. Today she is even remembered as a rebel and symbol of Irish resistance and independence in the face of English colonization.
By the time of her death in around 1603, she had become one of the most significant and powerful women in all of Ireland. This female pirate was chieftain of her clan, captain of her ships, and badass extraordinaire. She wasn't just history's most important woman pirate; she was also a mother, wife, lover, political actor, business manager, and folk hero at various points in her long and colorful life.
She Became A Chieftain In Her Own RightPhoto: Keith Salvesen / via Wikimedia Commons
When her father died, she took over - a rare feat in an era when there were comparatively few female leaders. She became the chieftain of the O'Malley clan and took over her father's ships. But Grace's influence was not just limited to her own family and business. When she married at the age of 15 or 16 to Donal O'Flaherty in 1546, she gained a crucial family alliance. So deeply was she respected by her first husband's men that many of them continued to fight for her even after Donal's death.
She Opposed The English Tax System By Imposing Her Own Pirate "Taxes"Photo: Thomas Buttersworth / via Wikimedia Commons
The business that O'Malley inherited as head of the clan included a form of piracy, but she became more overt in her activities in response to English interference in Ireland. As the English increased taxes on goods her company traded, O'Malley attempted to make up for it by in turn imposing her own sea tax on passing ships. Her coastal castles were strategic points from which she could monitor the seas. She would then lead her ships to overtake passing ones, demanding payment for safe passage. If the ship refused, it would be raided.
Grace was an equal opportunity attacker. Irish, English, Spanish, and even Turkish ships fell prey to her raids.
She Was Way More Educated Than Your Typical, Run-Of-The-Mill PiratePhoto: Lucas de Heere / via Wikimedia Commons
Her position in life meant that she had access to education and learning - something that probably could not be said for the sailors who went to sea with her. Historians agree that she had some formal education and counted Latin as a second language. Whether or not she spoke English is unknown.
She Met With Queen Elizabeth I, Who Gave In To Her DemandsPhoto: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
In 1593, O'Malley went to London to have an audience with Queen Elizabeth I of England. She traveled across the Irish Sea to petition the queen to help her. Her problems with Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of western Ireland, had mounted, since he suspected O'Malley of attempting to resist English rule. In the wake of a rebellion in western Ireland in the 1580s, he had confiscated some of O'Malley's property and even imprisoned her. The final straw came in 1593, when Bingham took her sons as captives.
The meeting between O'Malley and the English queen was said to have taken place in Latin, a language which both women spoke fluently. It is worth noting that O'Malley did not bow down to the English queen, whose authority she did not recognize.
The Queen granted O'Malley her requests, provided she promised not tot rebel against the crown.