Mary Thomas Leads A Revolt

A year ago a news article about a statue in Denmark popped up on my Google alert for “women warriors”.(1) Titled “I Am Queen Mary”, the statue was inspired by a woman who led a revolt in the Danish colonies in the Caribbean I was intrigued for many reasons, including the fact that Denmark and Caribbean colonies are not two ideas that occupy the same slot in my mental filing system. (2) But I had just received edits for Women Warriors, and I couldn’t stop to track down one more story. So I added Mary Thomas and her revolt to the list of things to think about later, along with the other stories I stumbled across in the final weeks of working on the book,.

It’s later now.

Mary Thomas was one of three women, known as the “three queens” who led a labor uprising called the “Fireburn” in 1878.

Harvests had been poor throughout the 1870s and hopes for better times were squashed when rumors about improvements in the labor law of 1849 proved to be just that, rumor.

The uprising began on October 1st, when many of the workers on St. Croix were gathered in Fredericksted for “job-change day”. As is often the case when large numbers gather, there was celebration and drinking in the streets. (I’m picturing St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, with an undercurrent of anger.) Eventually, things got rowdy enough that the authorities got nervous and tried to clamp down on the commotion. As so often happens in such cases, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A man named Henry Trotman was injured—badly enough to be hospitalized. Rumors spread that Trotman had died as a result of his treatment by the police. The violence the police had hoped to avoid escalated. The police and the military retreated to the fort in Frederiksted to escape the angry crowd. Unable to breach the fortress, rioters set buildings on fire and looted shops in Frederiksted and torched some fifty plantations surrounding the city before supporting troops arrived the next day.

Three women led the revolt and are considered national heroines in the Virgin Islands today: “Queen Mary” Thomas, “Queen Agnes” ( officially Axeline Elizabeth) Salomon, and “Queen Mathilda” McBean. (Mary preferred the title “Captain”.) All three were arrested, tried for their role in the uprising, and sent across the Atlantic to serve out their sentences in a women’s prison in Copenhagen. Presumably so their presence would not provide a rallying cry for others to renew the revolt.

Henrik Holm, curator at Denmark’s National Gallery of Art, summed up the importance of the statue and others like it: “It takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy. It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression and hatred.”

( The illustration above is from an 1888 publication titled Leaflets from the Danish West Indies.  The regal figure in “I Am Queen Mary” holds the same two implements:  a torch and a tool used to cut sugar cane. I couldn’t find a picture of the statue that wouldn’t violate someone’s copyright. You can see it here.   The details are all the same, but the general effect is completely different.)

(1) Google alerts are the writer’s friend. Though I must admit, an awful lot of news about women sports teams pops up in that feed. Go, Warriors!

(2) We all have historical blind spots, though it always chagrins me when I discover one of mine. In fact, the Danish West Indies, made up of the Islands of St. Thomas, St. Jan (now St. John), and St. Croix, were a colonial possession from 1672 to 1917, when Denmark sold the colony to the United States for 25 million dollars. (One of those pieces of American history that slipped by me.)

The Danish West Indies, like other colonial possessions in the Caribbean, were developed as sugar producing colonies and like other plantation economies in the region they were dependent on slave labor. Denmark banned the slave trade in 1792— 15 years before England and the United States. (Passing a bill isn’t the same thing as enforcing it.  Danish ships continue to carry slaves from Africa to the Caribbean until 1803.) But as in other slave owning countries, banning the slave trade was not the same thing as banning slavery. In fact, fifty years passed before Denmark abolished slavery in 1848. A year later, Denmark passed a law regulating the working conditions of the newly emancipated slaves, including a (low) day wage and a rule that workers could only change jobs once a year , on October 1st. Not a labor-friendly regulation

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen


Sixteen century Irish clan leader Grace O’Malley was the most famous “pirate queen” in the English-speaking world, and in fact the woman for whom the term seems to have been coined.

Ireland in the sixteenth century was a decentralized society, ruled by independent clan chieftains who were continually at war with each other. It was a largely agricultural society, where wealth was measured in terms of cattle. Chieftains gained their wealth and consequently their power through raiding and cattle stealing. Traditional Irish culture and the clan system were threatened by the English who had ruled in Dublin since the the thirteen century and had begun extending their control over the island under Henry VIII.

Born around 1530, Grace, whom we will hereafter refer to Granuaile, the name by which she was known to her countrymen, was the only daughter of Dudhara (“Black Oak”) O’Malley, chieftain of the kingdom of Umhall, the region around Clew Bay on the west side of Ireland, and his wife Margaret. Her mother had lands of her own, which Granuaile would inherit under traditional Gaelic law.(1)

The O’Malleys were a powerful clan, whose motto was terra marique potens, powerful by land and sea. In the sixteenth century, they controlled the waters off the west coast of Ireland, They raided coastal settlements, including the international port of Galway Town,. They issued licenses to English, Spanish and French boats to fish in their waters—and enforced them. They ferried in mercenary soldiers from Scotland, known as gallowglasses, hired by warring Irish chieftains for the fighting season. And according to Irish annals, they traded and raided as far afield as Spain, Scotland and Brittany.

By all accounts, her father raised Granuaile in the family tradition of trading and raiding. When she was about fifteen, he arranged her marriage to a neighboring chieftain, Donal-an-Coghaidah O’Flaherty, thereby sealing a politically advantageous alliance. When he proved to be a feckless/reckless/improvident leader, Granuaile became the de facto ruler of the O’Flaherty clan.

The law of the time did not allow her to become the actual leader of her husband’s clan. After his death, her husband’s cousin was elected to succeed him. Granuaile was not willing to give up power. She took those members of the O’Flaherty clan who were will to follow her and returned to her father’s territory, where she settled on Clare Island. With her father’s ships and an army of 200 men, she began a career as a pirate, which she would later describe to Queen Elizabeth as “maintenance by land and sea”.

When Granuaile decided to marry again, she chose her husband based not on his own charms but on those of the castle he owned. Richard-in-Iron Bourke was deputy to the Mac Williamship, the most powerful position in the region, and owner of Rockfleet Castle , which was a more secure haven for Granuaile’s ships than Clare Island. According to Irish folklore, Granuaile married Richard according to a Gaelic law that allowed two parties to marry for “one year certain”, with either party able to end the marriage at the end of that year without ceremony. At the end of the year, Granuaile and her men held the castle against Richard. Granuaile shouted down at Richard from the ramparts “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you”—keeping the castle and discarding the husband.

With time, the growing (and not unfounded) fear that Spain would use Ireland as a foothold for invading England, led the English to push more aggressively into the remote parts of Ireland, and consequently into regular confrontations with Granuille. In 1584, those confrontations became personal when a new English governor arrived in Connaught. Richard Bingham was charged with bringing the Irish chieftains under English rule. He made it a personal quest to bring down “Grany OMallye” whom he described in a letter to Queen Elizabeth’s secretary as “the woman who overstepped the part of womanhood.He accused her of being “nurse to all rebellions for forty years.” While she may not have been involved in rebellions for forty years, we know that on three occasions she ferried gallowglasses from Scotland to take part in rebellions against Bingham’s cruel rule in Connaught.

At one point, Bingham captured Granuaile. He was so excited by the prospect that, as Granuaile would later tell Elizabeth I of England “he caused a new pair of gallows to be made for her last funeral.” He was denied the pleasure of seeing her hung. At the last minute, the chieftains of Mayo obtained her release by providing hostages in her stead. Thwarted, Bingham confiscated her cattle and horse herds, guaranteeing that she would return to her ships and piracy to earn her living.

The conflict between Granuaile and Bingham reached a new level when Bingham arrested Granuaile’s youngest son, Tibbott-ne-Long, and charged him with conspiring with Ulster chieftains who were plotting to rebel against the English, with a little help from Spain. Treason was a serious charge. One that couldn’t be solved with a group of hostages.

Granuaile decided to go straight to the top. In her first petition to Queen Elizabeth I, Granuaile requested that Tibbett-ne-long be released from prison. She also requested that both Tibbett and his half-brother, Murrough O’Flahert, be allowed to hold their lands under English rather than Irish law—suggesting that Granuaile was well aware that the world of her childhood was disintegrating in the face of English pressure. In return, she offered “to invade with sword and fire all your Highness’s enemies wheresoever they are or shall be without any interruption of any person or persons whatsoever.”

Elizabeth was Granuaile’s equal in shrewdness. In response she sent eighteen “articles of interrogatory to be answered by Granny Ni Maly” (2) Granuaile’s answers tell her own version of her career, cleaned up for royal consumption.

In July, 1593, Granuaile sailed from Clew Bay to Greenwich, determined to follow up her correspondence with a face-to-face meeting with Elizabeth.

The pirate commander and the English queen were both in their early sixties. Both were power players in a traditionally male world. Tradition says that Granuaile refused to bow to Elizabeth because she, too, was a queen. In fact, there is no written record of what the two women said when they met. We don’t even know for sure what language the conversation took place in. (3) What we do know is that following her meeting with the “Pirate Queen,” Elizabeth chose to ignore the evidence and the advice of her own governor and ordered the release of Granuaile’s son .

Bingham released Granuaile’s son, but tried to moderate the effects of what he considered the queen’s rashness by quartering English soldiers in Granuaaile’s castle and ordering others to accompany the Irish leader on every voyage–enough to put a crimp in any pirate’s style.

Questioning Elizabeth’s orders was rashness of another sort. Bingham was recalled in disgrace in 1595. With Bingham off her back, at the age of 66, Granuaile hoisted sail once more, raiding as far afield as Scotland.

The final reference to her appears in the State Papers of Ireland in 1601, when an English warship caught one of her galleys off the coast of Mayo. She is believed to have died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603 and to be buried in the abbey of Clare Island.

(1) Roman law was gradually replacing traditional Gaelic law in Ireland, but in the sixteenth century women still had more rights than their English counterparts, including holding and administering property.
(2) Elizabethan spelling was creative, but even after spelling became more regular the English never did well with the names of the people they conquered.
(3) The smart money is on Latin. But Spanish and French are also possible choices.

A Woman’s Home is Her Castle

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, in Treasure of the City of Ladies; or the Book of the Three Virtues, author, intellectual, and champion of female education Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) instructed noblewomen of her time to learn the military skills they needed to defend their property: “She ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack, or defend against one.” It was good advice. Noblewomen and queens often found themselves leading the defense of a keep, castle, or manor (and occasionally besieging someone else)—even if they didn’t have “the heart of a man.” (1) (Occasionally, not-so-noble women also found themselves under siege. Margaret Paston (1423–1484), the wife of a wealthy landowner and merchant, defended besieged properties three times against noblemen’s attempts to seize them by force.)

The skills needed to withstand a siege were an extension of housekeeping when the idea that a man’s home was his castle was a literal description for members of the aristocracy. In medieval and early modern Europe, noblewomen were often responsible for managing family properties, and consequently for providing the military resources needed for those properties. Provisioning a household that was as much an armed fortress as a family domicile involved procuring the cannons, small arms, and gunpowder needed for its defense as well as the day-to-day supplies of food, clothing, or household linens. Noblewomen supervised men-at-arms in the course of daily life and helped mobilize the household’s resources for war. Leading its defense was one more step down a familiar road.

We find stories of women organizing the defense of a besieged castle/keep/manor in sixth century China, in the dynastic wars of medieval Europe, in the religious wars of seventeenth century England and France and in shogunate Japan. (2) Some led their men-at-arms into battle, weapons in hand. Most harangued the enemy and encouraged their troops. (Sometimes they also harangued their men-at-arms. In 1584, the wife of samurai warrior Okamura Sukie’mon armed herself with a naginata, (3) patrolled the besieged castle, and put the fear of the gods in any soldiers she found asleep while on duty.) More than one noblewoman, such as Hungarian nationalist Llona Zringyi (1644–1703) walked her ramparts at twilight in full view of the enemy, giving the besieging army a metaphorical middle finger.

For the most part, these women led the defense in the absence of their fathers/husbands/brothers/sons—who were often fighting elsewhere. In the case of Nicolaa de la Haye (ca. 1150–1230), the castle she defended was her own. De la Haye inherited the offices of castellan and sheriff of Lincoln when her father died in 1169 with no male heirs. In that role, she became involved in the conflicts surrounding the absentee King Richard the Lionhearted, his brother John, and England’s barons, that resulted in the Magna Carta. (De la Haye was on Team John.) (4) As castellan, she successfully defended Lincoln Castle twice, once in 1191 and once in 1216. Her resistance during the second siege led her enemies to describe her as a “most ingenious and evil-intentioned and vigorous old woman.” I suspect she took that as a compliment.

(1) I can’t tell you how tired I got of the many variations on “the heart of a man,” “manly courage”, “as capable as a man” while writing Women Warriors .)
(2) Japanese “castles” in the twelfth century were wooden stockades—more like a fort in the American West than a medieval European keep.
(3) A traditional weapon of samurai women, the naginata is a curved blade on a staff, similar to a glaive. Samurai women also carried a long dagger in their sleeves called a kaiken, sometimes referred to as a suicide dagger.
(4) We (and by that I mean Americans) tend to assume that John was the villain of the story because the only things we learn about him is that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which is seen as the documentary forefather of our own Constitution and Bill of Rights. (Not to mention his appearance as a villain in the Disney film Robin Hood.) In fact, Richard wasn’t exactly a stellar king from the British perspective. He was more interested in crusading in the Holy Lands than in ruling. During the ten years of his reign as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, (5) he spent no more than six months in England, and is reported to have said that he’d sell the place if he could find a buyer.  Not a model king by any standard.
(5) Which began with him conspiring with his mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and the king of France to seize the throne from his father . (Not for the first time. He had previously joined two of his brothers in an unsuccessful rebellion in 1173.) Happy family.


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