Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Men and victors have been the predominant recorders of events throughout history. Their opinions and societal norms color their objectivity. As a result, women and their participation in historical events are either omitted from these accounts or given short shrift. Or as Duncombe writes: “Pirates live outside the laws of man, but women pirates live outside the laws of nature.” (xi) This is a reality that she encountered time and again in her research for this book. A prime example of this is Grace O’Malley, one of the few names the general public readily recognizes. Although this Irish “pirate queen” was a major thorn in the side of the English and had a private meeting with her contemporary, Queen Elizabeth I, archival mention her is scant. It is the bards of Ireland who have kept her alive.
In this highly readable and interesting account, Duncombe collects the known women who dared to become pirates. Yet this book is far more than just a look at well-researched history; among the women here one finds fictional female rogues too. She shares what is known about these people, as well as what is missing about them. In the process she clearly identifies whether this information can be proven historically or if it’s just a myth. She asks thought-provoking questions along the way to stimulate readers’ curiosity and further discussion.
The women who are often discussed in pirate histories – including Queen Teuta of Illyria, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Cheng I Sao, and Grace O’Malley – are found in this collection. So are names that rarely see the light of day, such as Sayyida al-Hurra, Maria Cobham, Lai Choi, and Rachel Wall. Duncombe even mentions the suggestion that Bartholomew Roberts might have been a woman in disguise. Rather than use footnotes or end notes, she seamlessly weaves this information into her narrative, removing the need to search for this elsewhere and thus break its flow. Pirate Women also includes fictional pirates, such as Anne de Graaf, Jacquotte Delahaye, and Gunpowder Gertie. Duncombe provides an index and “To Find Out More” lists for general pirate and chapter-by-chapter subject resources. Most of the latter are secondary and tertiary sources, rather than primary documents.
What this book is not is strictly a history of women pirates. Duncombe tends to stray from that narrow theme, but with purpose, and she always returns to the original subject before moving on to the next pirate. Examples of this come when she discusses courtesans in ancient times, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s marriage to one of his concubines, or binding women’s feet in China. Her use of a broad definition of piracy allows her to demonstrate the evolution of what constituteds piracy in different time periods. It also permits the inclusion of women who have no direct connection to maritime piracy, such as Cheng Chui Ping, a snakehead (human trafficker).
The weakest chapter in this book is the last, “The Pirates of the Silver Screen.” Although several pirate films are discussed because they focus on fictional female pirates, Duncombe also examines Bonnie and Clyde and An Unmarried Woman – neither of which involves pirates. She concludes the chapter with a criticism on Hollywood’s portrayal of and treatment of women in film.
Pirate Women is a good introduction to female pirates and the eras in which they lived. As Duncombe says, “Pirate women deserve a spot next to their more famous male counterparts because yearning to escape the confines of an ordinary life and to live on one’s own terms is not an exclusively male feeling.” (228) Her purpose in writing this book is to inspire the next generation of women to strive to be innovators. But are pirates the best role model to achieve this goal?
There are several reasons, however, why Pirate Women is a valuable addition to the handful of books that deal exclusively with these females predators. Presented in chronological sequence from ancient times to the present, it is an extensive list that includes far more than any other volume. Earlier titles often focus on only a small sample or examine women associated with piracy, but who aren’t actually pirates themselves, during a specific time period. More importantly, Duncombe incorporates the society, culture, and historical events of the period in which each woman lives. This means she examines them as part of a whole, rather than a single aspect of their lives. Equally noteworthy is the inclusion of the people who have told each pirate’s story and how their motivations impacted their renderings of her.
Note to readers: I always attempt to provide readers with a fair review that points out a book's pros and cons. I would be remiss in not letting you know that Laura Duncombe includes me in her acknowledgements and one of my piracy articles is quoted in her narrative.
Book Review Copyright ©2017 Cindy Vallar
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