Ryan Chartrand

Does the term “female pirate” call to mind Keira Knightly standing on a beach jumping up and down and screaming “Stop it!” at a dueling Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom? If so, it’s time to get your hands on a copy of “She Captains” by Joan Druett. It’s no secret that pirates are currently a hot topic, but aside from the ever-popular pirate wenches, the phenomena is strongly male-focused. Throughout history, however, more than a few women have violated social norms to hit the high seas in search of treasure. Despite the odiferous title, “She Captains” provides an intriguing look into not only female piracy, but female nautical involvement in general.

Druett’s book explores the stories of dozens of seafaring women stretching from ancient times to the early 20th century. Although it mainly looks at the European tradition of piracy, the book also includes information on female captains from Asia, the South Pacific, North America, Scandinavia, Africa and the Middle East. There’s the renowned Anne Bonny, born out of wedlock and raised as a boy by her lawyer-father to be his clerk. After she fell for the debonair pirate Calico Jack, Bonny became a full-fledged member of the crew, even assuming male dress. Unlike the men, when she was captured she was able to avoid execution because of pregnancy.

The book shines brightest when Druett discusses the social philosophy and stigmas of the times that often forced women to become pirates. The ability to wear nonrestrictive clothing and maintain power over a group of men must have been extremely liberating in an era when women were expected to stay home and control the domestic sphere. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always simply a lust for power or adventure that drove these women to become buccaneers. In most cases, extreme poverty also played a part. In Ireland, piracy was not only an alternative to scavenging for food (or even turning to cannibalism), but was also a way of exacting revenge on the bounty of England, their country’s oppressors. Women with no other viable means of employment or family support would often disguise themselves as cabin boys and join a crew.

Even more impressive are the ways these women not only kept up or surpassed their male counterparts in battle and strategy, but simultaneously used their femininity to their advantage. Rachel Wall worked as an equal with her pirate husband. They would camouflage their ship to look like a drifting wreck with Rachel posing as a lone survivor on deck, and when another ship approached to help, the rest of the crew would appear, slit their rescuers’ throats and help themselves to the cargo. In many cases, enemies were so flabbergasted to find their foe was a woman that it gave the women a chance to gain the upper hand.

Druett often doesn’t take advantage of the fact that she’s writing about such exciting subject matter. Instead of including as many fragmented details about as many people and events as she does, the book would benefit from fewer stories, but more fleshed-out accounts. Nonetheless, “She Captains” effortlessly accomplishes the difficult goal of being both informative and enjoyable.

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