Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by skye. skye Wonders, “who were the first crew of female pirates” Thanks for WONDERing with us, skye!

Would you recognize a pirate if you saw one? What would you look for? An eye patch? A wooden leg? A parrot on the shoulder? A treasure map? A hoop earring and a red kerchief?

What about a beard? Some famous pirates, like Redbeard and Blackbeard, were named for their facial hair. But do all pirates have beards?

Absolutely not! In fact, not all pirates were men. Before we talk about a few famous women who were pirates, though, let’s learn a bit about pirates and how they came to be so famous.

The word “pirate” comes from the Latin word periato, which means “sea bandit.” Piracy—the act of robbery or illegal violence at sea—has been around for thousands of years.

Since the days of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, ships have attacked other ships at sea. They often did so in search of riches, such as jewels, money, and other goods. If there was a body of water used by ships to carry goods to and from other countries, there were likely pirates at work.

From 800 to 1100 B.C.E., the Vikings and the Danes raided the seas and coastal towns of Northern Europe. During the 14th through 17th centuries, the Chinese ruled the China Sea with large vessels that held hundreds of pirates.

The 16th to 19th centuries may have been the heyday of pirates. They traveled the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, often attacking ships carrying people who had been kidnapped for enslavement. Sometimes countries would hire pirates—called “privateers” when employed—to attack the ships of an enemy. Those who attacked ships with loyalty to no one but themselves were true pirates.

If you watch too many pirate movies, you might get the idea that all pirates were men. But there were certainly several famous female pirates over the years. Irish “pirate queen” Grace O’Malley had a long family history of piracy. She entered the family business after the death of her first husband. After her ships were captured, she appealed to Queen Elizabeth I for mercy. The queen granted her freedom and money in exchange for her loyalty.

Two other famous women pirates—Mary Read and Anne Bonny—sailed the Caribbean. They worked with another famous pirate, “Calico Jack” Rackham. Both dressed like men from time to time and could fight with the best of them.

In the early 1800s, Ching Shih became the leader of the Red Flag Fleet. This was an infamous group of pirates with more than 1,500 ships that terrorized the Chinese coast. Known for her savage attacks on enemy ships, some historians consider her the “best pirate who ever lived.”

So why did pirates dress so strangely? No one knows for sure, but most of their clothing was stolen from ships they plundered. When you plunder a ship, you take what you can get, so pirates often didn’t have a lot of choice when it came to clothing. If you had to wear whatever someone else had packed for a trip across the sea, it’s no surprise you might end up with an interesting outfit!

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