Pirate women – Laura Sook Duncombe
“Where are all the female pirates?” For American writer Laura Sook Duncombe, it started with a simple question which became a quest to dig up and share the incredible stories of ‘the princesses, prostitutes, and privateers who ruled the seven seas’. The result: the ultimate guide to swashbuckling women throughout the ages. “It’s a myth that pirates buried their loot. Their stories are their real treasure.”
Marlies: Laura, first of all, thank you writing the first and only ‘bible’* of female pirates! It really helped me bring these formidable women to life through my collections and on these pages. How did a lawyer become obsessed with blood-thirsty pirates?
Laura: Thank you, Marlies! I have actually always liked pirates. As a kid, I loved watching Peter Pan’s pirates have such a marvelous time doing whatever they liked and answering to no one. Looking back as an adult, I realized it was their freedom that spoke to me, their complete disregard for what was expected of them and who they had to be. But where were all the female pirates? I started researching and found out that they were tucked away inside other people’s stories. Like, ‘wife of’ – insert male pirate – ‘was also arrested’ or ‘was a thief’. But they were seldom called female pirates!
Marlies: They were never the main character.
Laura: Exactly. Which I thought was a real shame. These women, who throughout history had been expected to become either a wife or a prostitute, were able to conceptualize a life beyond what society told them they could have. They decided: “You know what? I’ll take this other option; I’m going to sea and support myself as a pirate.” It’s nothing short of revolutionary!
Marlies: It’s mind-blowing! When did you decide to fully dedicate yourself to writing these women’s histories?
Laura: I was looking for a new job when I started researching a formidable Chinese pirate called Cheng I Sao.
Marlies: I’m obsessed with her; the most successful pirate of all time, male or female!
Laura: Yes, she’s amazing! The more I learned about her, the angrier I became that she was still so unknown. I mean, this is a woman who brought the Chinese government to its knees. She was just so cunning and powerful and unapologetic. One day, girls should dress up like her and grudgingly allow their brothers to join them, saying: “Okay, yes, maybe boys can be pirate too.” I said to myself: “Someone’s going to have to tell her story, and I guess it’s going to be me.” So, I gave up my legal job search and became a full-time pirate researcher instead.
Marlies: Why do you think history has largely ignored female pirates?
Laura: People see what they want to see. For so long, the sea has been the domain of men. And so, when people encountered a woman at sea who had bound her breasts, cut her hair and lowered her voice, it was easier for them to believe that she was a man than making the mental leap that this was actually a woman in disguise. But perhaps more importantly, women never had the platform to tell their own life stories, let alone women of color and other underrepresented minorities. Even now, in Hollywood, they are making remake after remake instead of telling these remarkable women’s life stories. It’s criminal, really. In my book alone, there are so many biographies that could all be made into amazing movies!
Marlies: Wow, that’s exactly what I am doing with my collections and this magazine: tell women’s stories from a woman’s perspective. How did you manage to unearth these stories?
Laura: ‘Unearth’ is the right word. One of the biggest myths about pirates is that they used to bury their treasure. In reality, they spent their loot as fast as they could; they didn’t have time to hide it in the ground. The real treasure hunt is digging up their stories, which have been passed down mostly by oral tradition and are tucked away in legends and accounts of historical events. Being a life-long pirate fan, I had been scooping up anything vaguely pirate related during my travels. If you visit a souvenir shop in the Caribbean, for example, there’s always one dusty bookshelf with three books on it, right? And you wonder: who would ever buy these books? Well, I’m the one!
Marlies: Aha, now I know! (laughs). You describe yourself as a feminist. What is the link between modern-day feminists and the pirates in your book? What can we learn from them?
Laura: A pirate is someone who takes something that doesn’t belong to them. Any woman who tries to exist in a sphere that is traditionally dominated by men and who says: “I have a place at this table”, is in essence taking something that many believe shouldn’t belong to them. So at heart, every feminist is a pirate. From politics to the business world, there are still so many places women are told they shouldn’t be, so many things they shouldn’t do. To strive to do them anyway like the pirates did, even in the face of overwhelming odds, is incredibly brave and inspiring.
Marlies: You have already mentioned Cheng I Sao. What other two pirates do you find particularly inspiring?
Laura: Sayyida Al Hurra was a Muslim pirate in the mid-1500s. She was the sole ruler of her province in Morocco and the pirate queen of the Mediterranean. With her pirating, she did some real out of the box thinking to take care of her people, which I think is just amazing. I believe that in Western cultures we have lot of ideas of how a Muslim woman behaves and looks. Sayyida turns all those stereotypes on their head and I love her for it.
Marlies: She does! Who else?
Laura: Irish pirate Grace O’Malley. Not only because we share the same heritage – Irish – but also because she was a working-mother pirate! There is a story about her laying in bed right after giving birth when her ship was overtaken by a rival pirate band. Her crew was losing and started calling down: “Grace, Grace, we need you!”. She dragged herself up the stairs, cut everybody down, then turned around and said: “May you be seven times as cursed as you were yesterday for failing to do this by yourself!”. As a mom of two little boys I totally understand the exhaustion. Balancing work and motherhood is challenging in any circumstance, let alone on a pirate ship! I just love the idea of Grace holding a baby on her hip with one hand and wielding a sword with the other.
Marlies: Such a powerful image indeed! How did researching and writing your book affect you? Did it change you in any way?
Laura: Wow, that is such a good question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that. I found out that I sold the book in the same week that I was pregnant with my first child. So, it was like two dreams coming true at the same time. The whole time that I was writing about pirates, I was thinking about the world that I was bringing my child into. And I felt such a strong connection with all the women throughout the ages that were able to dream for something of their own, even when the world insisted that they had no power. I don’t condone breaking the law, but I look at pirates as role models for their bravery, not for their job description.
Marlies: You relate to their desire to be free.
Laura: Everybody has a different idea of what freedom looks like, but these pirate women, for better or worse, heard the call and answered it. And I feel so blessed to be able to spread these stories so that other people can be inspired to reach for their own idea of freedom. I cannot think of a better thing to do – except maybe designing beautiful, empowering lingerie for women like you do!
Marlies: Thank you so much, Laura!
fall|winter 20 preview
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