The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas
Laura Sook Duncombe
Chicago Review Press, 2017, Cloth, 264 pp, $26.99, Kindle $12.63
If you love history, women's studies and pirates, you'll want to pick up this book. Extremely well researched, from the ancient Norse to the twentieth century, Duncombe investigates and explains the histories and motivations of these rarely documented women.
It seems that Duncombe's definition of piracy is basically taking something away from someone, and as simple as this may sound, interestingly enough, it also includes in the act of taking yourself away from someone. In the case of many women pirates saving themselves from kidnapping, servitude and/or becoming a concubine is in itself an act of piracy. Duncombe's book is full of swashbuckling stories of women taking over ships and ruling with or oftentimes over men. One such woman is Cheng I Sao of China, in the nineteenth century she amassed around "four hundred ships and somewhere between forty thousand and sixty thousand pirates under her command".
A constant and interesting theme through "Pirate Women" is that the histories themselves are more often than not written by men. Duncombe peppers the book with caveats, reminding the reader that her research has been written by the men of their particular century and could have that bias. Indeed even the tales that are fiction have a theme that though a female pirate is interesting or even titillating, she more often than not comes to a tragic end by murder, suicide, incarceration or hanging, thereby putting balance back in the universe. A woman free of the constraints of a home, family and her motherly duty is fascinating, but ultimately untenable during most of these eras and cultures.
Another ending to most of these tales while not seemingly as tragic, depending on your point of view, is that the women, after having their fun on the seas, return home to marry and have babies. Duncombe writes "this type of story is perennially popular with male historians as a way of diminishing the power of a warrior woman's legend." And it is entirely likely that the reason why there are so few documented stories of these "warrior women" is because of these biases. Diminishing the pirate women in the stories is just one step down from not writing the stories at all.
Clearly Duncombe is writing from a feminist point of view; however that is only one aspect of this densely and well written history of these incredible women. She deftly crafts the background of the era of each pirate tale. From the Spartans to the many wars between England and Spain, she brings the reader right into the time and circumstances in which these women chose or had their path chosen for them. She begins with Queens, of whom things are documented by virtue of their position, to the legends and tales of prostitutes who are lesser known. Some of the tales are literally fiction, but fascinating because of what they indicate during the times they are written. It is as much a historical education as well as an exciting read.
Duncombe's final chapter is about the pirates in the silver screen. She hilariously writes of the badly panned movie "Cutthroat Island", starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine. After describing the plot she says "Yet 'Cutthroat Island' behind the awful jokes and the strange plot, offers something sorely missing in the Hollywood pantheon: a female action hero". Duncombe also goes on to describe "Thelma and Louise" another of Geena Davis' movies, I imagine included in this book because of Duncombe's definition of piracy. Thelma and Louise go on the run after killing an attempted rapist, and end up driving over a cliff rather than being caught. Thereby the women take themselves away from those who want to keep them. Taking something away from someone who wants it; pirating themselves. She also goes on to discuss the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise and has an interesting take on that as well. I found this whole book a very engrossing read, whether for just the pirate tales, the interesting history or for fun.