Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by WonderTeam. WonderTeam Wonders, “Who was the Pirate Queen?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, WonderTeam!

When you hear the word “queen,” you might think of grand castles, elegant dresses, and sparkling jewels. But today’s Wonder of the Day is about another type of queen. She traded her jewels for a sword, her dress for pants, and her castle for a ship. That’s right, we’re talking about the pirate queen!

Which pirate queen are we talking about? Yes, there was more than one! To learn about the world’s earliest known pirate queen, we’ll have to go back to 231 B.C.E. At that time, Roman ships largely controlled in the Mediterranean Sea. But another power challenged Rome.

Illyrian pirates clashed with Roman ships in the northern Mediterranean, an area known as the Adriatic Sea. The Illyrians were led by Queen Teuta, who ruled after the death of her husband, King Agron. Queen Teuta led the pirates against Rome in the First Illyrian War, which ended in defeat for the Illyrians. Queen Teuta was then forced to leave Illyria, and records are unclear about her fate.

Many centuries later, another pirate queen emerged. This time, it was a queen from the west coast of Ireland. Grace O’Malley was born on Clare Island in 1530. Her family, the O’Malley clan, had been involved in piracy for many years. As a child, O’Malley’s father once refused to take her on a voyage to sea because she was a girl. According to legend, O’Malley cut off her hair and dressed as a boy to sneak onto the ship. She was caught and forced off the ship.

But O’Malley’s determination continued into adulthood. After the death of her first husband, she took up piracy, which she would continue for the rest of her life. She married again, but quickly divorced her second husband and kept his castle. O’Malley then ruled from two castles—on Clare Island and Clew Bay—and the sea. That’s why many called her a “pirate queen.”

Grace O’Malley largely fought with English ships, as a feud between England and Ireland was well underway. After her son was captured by the English, she bargained with Queen Elizabeth I for his release. In return for her son’s freedom, O’Malley agreed to fight against Elizabeth I’s enemies. This made many of O’Malley’s own people angry, as they saw her as a traitor to Ireland.

Still, Grace O’Malley continued to rule as a pirate queen. The last record of her piracy involved a run-in with an English ship in 1701, when she would have been 71 years old.  A century later, one last pirate queen began her reign.

Ching Shih (also called Cheng I Sao) took up piracy when she married Cheng I, pirate commander, in 1801. Together, they ruled the waters off the southern coast of China. After Cheng I’s death in 1807, Ching Shih continued to lead their fleet of 1,800 ships. She commanded an estimated 80,000 pirates.

Ruling over 80,000 pirates certainly wasn’t easy. To help, Ching Shih developed a code of laws. This was a strict list of rules to live by, and any pirate who stepped a toe out of line was punished. Ching Shih’s code was especially protective of female captives. It ruled that pirates could be put to death for harming a captive woman. Ching Shih’s fleet respected her rules, however, and largely followed the code.

Ching Shih became a threat to China’s Qing Dynasty, as well as the Portuguese navy and East India Company. In 1810, she negotiated a deal with the Qing Dynasty and retired from piracy. As part of the deal, all of the pirates in her fleet were given amnesty. Ching Shih herself was also safe from arrest. And the deal also allowed her to keep all of the riches she had plundered. This vast wealth led some to nickname her the “pirate queen.” Ching Shih went on to live a quiet life until her death in 1844.

Would you have enjoyed ruling as a pirate queen or king? It may sound like fun, but life on a ship can be difficult. Still, the idea of sailing the seven seas in search of treasures is a big draw for many. What do you think? Would the pirate life have been for you?

Standards: C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.2,CCRA.W.4, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

Wonder What's Next?

Join us in Wonderopolis tomorrow for a peaceful Wonder of the Day!