Who Was the Pirate Queen?

Quck answer

The Pirate Queen was Grace O’Malley, an Irish pirate and chieftain in the late 16th century. She was known for her fierce leadership and seafaring skills, commanding a fleet of ships and engaging in piracy and trade. Grace O’Malley challenged the traditional gender roles of the time, leading her clan in battles and negotiating with English officials. She became a symbol of resistance against English colonization in Ireland and was feared by many. Despite facing numerous obstacles, she proved herself as a formidable leader and remains a legendary figure in Irish history.


When the term “queen” is mentioned, one might envision lavish castles, elegant gowns, and dazzling jewelry. However, today’s Wonder of the Day is centered around a different kind of queen. This queen traded her precious gemstones for a sword, her royal residence for a ship, and her regal attire for buccaneer pants. Yes, we are referring to the pirate queen!

Which pirate queen are we discussing? Well, there were actually multiple ones! To delve into the earliest known pirate queen in the world, we must travel back to 231 B.C.E. during a time when Roman ships held significant control over the Mediterranean Sea. However, another power posed a challenge to Rome.

Illyrian pirates clashed with Roman ships in the northern part of the Mediterranean, which is referred to as the Adriatic Sea. The leader of the Illyrians was Queen Teuta, who assumed control after the death of her husband, King Agron. Queen Teuta led the pirates in a confrontation against Rome in the First Illyrian War, which ultimately resulted in the Illyrians’ defeat. Subsequently, Queen Teuta was compelled to leave Illyria, and historical records are unclear about her fate.

Centuries later, another formidable pirate queen emerged, this time from the western coast of Ireland. Grace O’Malley was born on Clare Island in 1530. Her family, the O’Malley clan, had a long history of involvement in piracy. When O’Malley was a child, her father refused to take her on a sea voyage due to her gender. According to legend, O’Malley cut off her hair and disguised herself as a boy to secretly board the ship. However, she was discovered and forced to disembark.

Nevertheless, O’Malley’s determination persisted into adulthood. Following the death of her first husband, she embraced piracy, which became a lifelong pursuit. Although she remarried, O’Malley swiftly divorced her second husband and retained ownership of his castle. Consequently, O’Malley ruled from two castles—located on Clare Island and Clew Bay—as well as the sea. It is for this reason that many bestowed upon her the title of “pirate queen.”

Grace O’Malley primarily engaged English ships in combat, as the feud between England and Ireland was already well underway. When her son was captured by the English, she negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for his release. In exchange for her son’s freedom, O’Malley agreed to fight against Elizabeth I’s adversaries. This decision angered many of O’Malley’s own people, who viewed her as a traitor to Ireland.

Nonetheless, Grace O’Malley persisted in ruling as a pirate queen. The final recorded instance of her piracy involved an encounter with an English ship in 1701, when she would have been 71 years old. A century later, another pirate queen commenced her reign.

Ching Shih (also known as Cheng I Sao) entered the realm of piracy when she married Cheng I, a pirate commander, in 1801. Together, they governed the waters along the southern coast of China. Following Cheng I’s demise in 1807, Ching Shih continued to lead their fleet consisting of 1,800 ships. She commanded an estimated 80,000 pirates.

Ruling over 80,000 pirates was certainly no easy task. To aid her in this endeavor, Ching Shih established a set of laws. These laws were a strict code of conduct, and any pirate who deviated from it would face punishment. Ching Shih’s laws were particularly protective of female captives, stipulating that pirates could be executed for harming a captive woman. Nevertheless, Ching Shih’s fleet respected her laws and largely adhered to the code.

Ching Shih posed a threat to the Qing Dynasty of China, as well as the Portuguese navy and East India Company. In 1810, she struck a deal with the Qing Dynasty and retired from piracy. The terms of the agreement included amnesty for all the pirates in her fleet, ensuring Ching Shih’s safety from arrest, and allowing her to keep the riches she had plundered. Her immense wealth earned her the nickname “pirate queen.” Ching Shih lived a quiet life until her death in 1844.

Would you have enjoyed being a pirate queen or king? While it may seem exciting, life on a ship can be challenging. Nevertheless, the allure of sailing the seas in search of treasures is appealing to many. What are your thoughts? Do you think the pirate life would have suited you?

Give it a try:

Interested in learning more? Engage in the following activities with the assistance of an adult.

– Imagine yourself as the commander of a large pirate fleet, like Ching Shih. What rules would you establish for your pirates? Write a code of laws for your fleet and share it with a friend or family member. Explain why each rule is important aboard a pirate ship.

– Feeling crafty? Ask a friend or family member to help you create a milk carton pirate ship or a paper plate pirate. Make sure to review the supplies list before getting started. Have fun showcasing your pirate craft!

– Read more about piracy. What new information did you discover? Which pictures caught your interest the most? What do you think life as a pirate was truly like? Discuss these thoughts with a friend or family member.

Sources of Wonder:

– https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-chinese-female-pirate-who-commanded-80000-outlaws (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

– https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/fierce-queen-illyrians-teuta-untameable-003126 (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

– http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160615-the-pirate-queen-of-county-mayo (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

– http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_first_illyrian.html (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

– http://www.clareisland.ie/grace-o-malley-granuaile-16th-century/ (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

– https://sites.psu.edu/motykacpassionblog/2018/03/28/ching-shih-a-pirates-life/ (accessed 30 Jan. 2020)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *