Biography, History, Nonfiction

Pirate Women by Laura Sook Duncombe

The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas

I love all things pertaining to pirates, particularly women pirates. It’s long been a fascination for me, piracy seemingly the only women many women could truly be “free” throughout history. I’ve had this book since it first came out in 2016 and tried time and again to read it, but just couldn’t get into it. Then I found the audiobook, and I absolutely loved it!

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
In the first-ever comprehensive survey of the world’s female buccaneers, Pirate Women tells of the women, both real and legendary, who through the ages sailed alongside-and sometimes in command of-their male counterparts. These women came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a desire for freedom. History has largely ignored these female swashbucklers, until now. Here are their stories, from ancient Norse warriors like Awilda, Stikla, and Rusla; to Sayyida al-Hurra of the Barbary corsairs; from Grace O’Malley, who terrorized shipping operations around the British Isles; to Cheng I Sao, who commanded a fleet of 400 ships off China in the early 19th century. Author Laura Sook Duncombe also looks beyond the stories to the storytellers and mythmakers. What biases and agendas motivated them? What did they leave out? Pirate Women explores why and how these stories are told and passed down and how history changes depending on who is recording it. It’s the largest overview of women pirates in one volume and chock-full of swashbuckling adventures. In this book, pirate women are pulled from the shadows into the spotlight that they deserve.

Review

I’ve been reading books about remarkable and “unknown” women for as long as I can remember, so to find a book that includes women I’ve never heard of, is quite a feat. When I was fully into working on my manuscript about Awilda (also known as Alfhild and Alvilda), I sought out every book about her that I could possibly find, Pirate Women being one of them. While there’s no greater depth of information here than most other sources (information on her is quite sparse), she was just the jumping off point for this book. (Laura even includes a call in this book for someone to write Alvilda’s story, so I really better get a move on on my manuscript!)

Pirate Women is published by a university press and written by a long time academic, so the actual reading of it can feel a bit dense and like a chore. The audiobook, however, is engaging and dynamic and I am so glad I didn’t give up on this book after just reading Alvilda’s story! The stories are in roughly chronological order and I was glad to see Laura not only share their stories, but also comment on the lens through which each woman’s story is told – that of them men around them. In Pirate Women, the curtain is lifted to reveal what their lives may have really been like and not just a regurgitation of other stories about them.

The male lens filter over the historical records indicating which of the women really existed, and which may have been legends or an amalgamation of many women, is fascinating. Growing up, I took all the stories with a grain of salt, I didn’t develop clearer historian glasses through which to view primary sources until college. So while I “knew” the stories of the women Laura included, I realized I didn’t know them the way I thought I did. Looking beneath the surface of the primary sources, there was much more to their stories.

As a person who studied history (it’s what my BA is in), I learned a lot about not only historical research, but also interpretation. While reading We Keep the Dead Close, I thought a lot about how archeologists, anthropologists, and historians, have all inserted themselves into a narrative, or focused more on telling a story than conveying facts – being, in fact, legend creators and interpreters of the past more so than hard, fact and evidence based scientists.

All history is viewed through the lens of the present (and is probably why we have such a “cancel culture” issue now), but we say we cannot accurately interpret something while we’re in the middle of it. So even if Laura’s pirates had written their own diaries and journals (which some did), we would still be interpreting them through our own lens.

I guess what I’m getting at, is that I struggle to think of anything written about pirates as being fact and hard history anymore – they’ve been so enveloped in legend, it’s challenging to decipher the fact from the legend, even with exaggerated primary sources in front of you. So if you love pirates as I do, particularly for their legendary status, this is the book for you. (Though I recommend the audiobook over the physical book for maximum enjoyment).

Rating: 9 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon. Click the image below to add the book to your Goodreads TBR!

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