Pirate Women
by Laura Sook Duncombe
Chicago Review Press

The cartoonish cover may not grab the attention of history buffs tired of flimsy books on female pirates, but they’d be wrong to bypass this volume, which fills in some of the gaping holes in scholarship on these women.

For example, despite Chinese pirate Cheng I Sao (1775-1844), co-leader with her husband, Cheng I, of the Red Flag Fleet in the South China Sea, being one of the most successful pirates of all time, relatively little about her is known (which is why this reviewer abandoned a documentary project on her years ago).

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According to Laura Sook Duncombe, the same is true of other female pirates. They are absent from historical discus­sion, the author says, because “their very existence is threatening to traditional male and female gender roles”. And because these women were considered un­worthy subjects of documentation in the past, subsequent study has been difficult, although a few historians (Anne Chambers and Joan Druett among them) have added to our knowledge of them.

Helpfully, this book gives context to the tales about the pirate women, including Sayyida al Hurra, Jacquotte Delahaye and Margaret Jordan, although – as with Cheng, who comes to life helped by research by Dian Murray – it’s sometimes hard to tell fact from fiction.