During the 3rd century BC, piracy flourished among the Illyrian tribes dwelling along the coasts of today’s Croatia and Albania. Piracy had been suppressed during the Classical period, when the powerful navies of Athens and Rhodes kept the waters around the Greek world relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep them in check, the Illyrians took full advantage of the many hidden inlets along their coastlines, and turned to piracy as a way of life.
That eventually led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic. Rome became a dominant Mediterranean naval power for the first time after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). However, that newly won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula, most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, and their queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC).
Teuta had inherited the Ardiaei kingdom following the death of her husband, king Agron, in 231 BC. She continued her husband’s expansionist policies, pushing her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, while encouraging and supporting her subjects’ piratical activities. The trouble with Rome started when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels.
When the merchants complained to the Roman Senate, it tried to handle the problem with diplomacy at first, and so two envoys were sent to Teuta’s court to complain. Teuta responded that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and her government had no right to interfere with the private enterprise of its citizens. When the Roman diplomats retorted that Rome would then have no choice but to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic. She ordered one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.
The outraged Romans declared war in 229 BC. A fleet of 200 warships was sent to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 men and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to harry Teuta’s kingdom by land. Despite her fierce resistance, Teuta’s kingdom was no match for the might of Rome, and in 227 BC, she was forced to surrender. The Romans made her to sign a humiliating peace treaty. She was allowed to keep her throne, but as a de facto Roman vassal, paying annual tribute, and ruling over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.
Anne Bonny (1697 – 1781) was one of history most famous female pirates. Her fame even rubbed off on others, making otherwise forgettable historical figures famous as well. Best example of that being Anne’s lover, John Rackham, better known as Calico Jack (1682 – 1720). He is one of the best known pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, but not because he was much good at being a pirate. Instead, much of his fame is owed to the fact that his crew included two of history’s most famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and her friend Mary Read.
Anne Bonny was born in Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer and his housemaid. When she was a child, her father moved to London, and took Anne with him. But to conceal her from his wife, who supported him financially, Anne’s father dressed her as a boy, and called her “Andy”. His wife found out, however, and cut off his allowance. So he moved to South Carolina, taking Anne with him, and there, he eventually prospered as a businessman.
Anne was problem child from early on, and at age 13, she stabbed a servant with a knife. Soon thereafter, she met and married a scheming sailor and minor pirate, who had an eye on her father’s estate. Anne’s father responded by kicking her out of his house and disowning her. In retaliation, she reportedly set fire to her father’s plantation. She and her husband eventually moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, a notorious pirate haven at the time. There, Anne’s husband made money snitching on the pirates to the British authorities, to his wife’s disapproval.
While in Nassau, Anne met the pirate Calico Jack Rackham, became his lover, and left her husband to go pirating with her new beau. She disguised herself as a man aboard ship, with only Rackham and her friend Mary Read knowing the truth. She performed all the duties of the male crew members, and earned a reputation as a brave fighter, but the truth about her gender became evident when she got pregnant. She was landed on Cuba, where she gave birth to a son, before rejoining Rackham and Mary Read.
The trio resumed their piracy, and specialized in plundering small vessels engaged in coastal trade, but fell upon larger ships when the opportunity presented itself. In October of 1720, a pirate hunter chanced upon their ship at anchor. Rackham and most of his men were too drunk to fight, and the only resistance was offered by Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who fought ferociously before they were finally subdued. The captured pirates were taken to Jamaica, where they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.
Anne was spared the noose after “pleading her belly” – she was pregnant, and under English common law, that entitled her to a stay of execution until she gave birth. She had little sympathy for her lover when he grew maudlin while bidding her goodbye before his execution, and reportedly sneered: “if you had fought like a man, you would not hang now like a dog!” After giving birth, Anne Bonny disappears from history. She was not executed, but what her ultimate fate was, is unknown.
Artemisia I (flourished in the 400s BC) was ruler of Halicarnassus in Caria – a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire in southwestern Anatolia. A pirate queen and naval commander, she fought for Persia’s king Xerxes during his invasion of Greece. She was most famous for her role in the naval Battle of Salamis in 480s, which her side lost, but during which she distinguished herself.
Artemisia was the daughter of the king of Halicarnassus, who named her after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. She married the satrap of Caria, and after his death, she assumed the Carian throne as regent for her underage son. Ancient reports depict her as a courageous and clever commander of men and ships, who preyed upon Greek shipping during the Greco-Persian conflict.
When the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece, Artemisia distinguished herself as a commander and a tactician in the naval battle of Artemisium, which was fought simultaneously with the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. She caused the Greeks so much trouble that they put a bounty on her head, offering 10,000 drachmas to whoever killed or captured her. None managed to collect the bounty.
In the even greater naval Battle of Salamis soon thereafter, Herodotus describes Artemisia as the only commander on the Persian side worthy of mention: ” I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so“.
Artemisia escorted Xerxes’ sons to safety after the Battle of Salamis, then faded from recorded history. Legend has it that her end came after she fell madly in love with a man who ignored her. So she blinded him in his sleep. However, her passion continued to burn hot despite his disfigurement. To rid herself of her feelings for him, she decided to leap from a tall rock that reportedly held magical powers, such that jumping off it would snap the bonds of love. Instead, she fell down and snapped her neck.
Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) was a 16th century Irish heroine, who fought the English on land and preyed upon their shipping at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists would later lionize her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.
There were two Irelands in the 16th century, with two distinct cultures. There was Dublin and its surrounding counties, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland comprising the rest of Ireland. That rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English, whom the English viewed as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence.
Grace O’Malley was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, and belonged to that “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories. Its rulers and inhabitants frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, offering tribute in exchange for protection.
The O’Malleys were Irish nobility with clients of their own, who looked to them for protection. They were, in turn, clients of another, even more powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on shipping passing through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy. For protection, the O’Malleys built a row of castles facing the sea.
Grace was married in 1546, and bore three children before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s misogynistic laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property, so she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. She started off with three galleys and a number of smaller boats, and began her career in piracy, preying on shipping and raiding coastal targets.
While seething over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, and building up her pirate fleet, Grace consoled herself by taking as a lover a shipwrecked sailor. When her lover was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of Grace O’Malley’s ferocity, To avenge her lover, she attacked Doona castle, where her lover’s murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “Dark Lady of Doona“.
She remarried in 1566, but still mad at her sailor lover’s murder, she had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle, and seized it by surprising the garrison while they were praying. Around that time, she also went after a thief who stole something from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. So she surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, offering him the choice of starvation of surrender. He chose a third option, by digging a tunnel and escaping.
Grace became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on shipping and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea. While expanding her control, she personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. To commemorate her courage in capturing it, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle.
After defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were able to focus on consolidating their grip on Ireland, and fighting Irish piracy and pirates such as Grace O’Malley. To resist that English expansion, O’Malley allied with Irish lords rebelling against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother, so Grace sailed to England, to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release.
She met the English Queen at Greenwich Castle, where Grace reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth extracted O’Malley a promise to cease assisting Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, however, so Grace O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.