10 of History's Most Fascinating Female Pirates

Sayyida al Hurra. Women of History

Sayyida al Hurra, Moroccan Pirate Queen

Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al Alami, better known to history as Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – 1561), which means “free and independent noblewoman” in Arabic, was the ruler of Tetouan in today’s Morocco. She was also a pirate queen who terrorized the waters of Iberia and North Africa. Islamic records are oddly silent about her, but she was a powerful figure of the era, and an equal ally of the famous corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa, who dominated the Mediterranean in the 16th century.

She was born into a prominent Muslim family in Granada, but when that kingdom fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, her family fled to Morocco. The Moroccan sultan granted Sayyida and her husband, and their Reconquista refugee followers, the ruins of Tetouan, a city destroyed by Spaniards. The couple and their followers rebuilt and restored Tetouan, and after her husband’s death in 1515, Sayyida became its queen – the last queen in Islamic history to rule independently.

After years of widowhood, Sayyida remarried, wedding the sultan of Morocco. But to emphasize her independence, and to demonstrate that she had no intention to giving up her power and position, the pirate queen refused to leave Tetouan for the wedding. The sultan had to come to her – the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan married outside his capital.

In the meantime, from her base in Tetouan, spurred on by bitter memories of her exile from Granada, Sayyida conducted a ruthless campaign of piracy against the Spaniards. She allied with Heyreddin Barbarossa, the era’s most prominent corsair, who rose to become the Ottoman Empire’s most successful admiral. With Barbarossa controlling the Eastern Mediterranean and Sayyida controlling the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Iberia, the duo went to work.

Leading her own fleet, Sayyida prowled Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes, and became the undisputed pirate leader of the region. She amassed vast riches from booty, and raised fabulous sums from ransoms to free her captives. Indeed, during her piratical career, she was viewed by Europeans as the go-to contact in negotiations to release Christian captives. It is to those negotiations, and the records thereof, that history is most indebted for our knowledge of Sayyida al Hurra.

The pirate queen’s reign eventually ended as she neared her 60s. After three decades of striking terror into the hearts of captains and crews in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Sayyida’s downfall came at the hands of her son in law, who ousted her in a palace coup. She was stripped of power, and her fate thereafter is lost to history.