The Pirate Queen

I came across Barbara Sjoholm’s The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, when I was in the midst of my own search for Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth century Irish pirate who was a thorn in the side of English officials in Ireland.*

I must admit, I’m a sucker for books in which someone heads out on a quest to discover the traces of a historical personage or idea or event: say traces of Roman Britain  or the trail of the Cheyenne Exodus. ** The Pirate Queen is a wonderful example of the genre–good enough that I kept reading it in little bits and pieces over the course of months until I couldn’t stand it anymore and gobbled down the last hundred pages this morning.

Sjoholm begins with the question “Where are the stories of women and the sea?” Ultimately, for reasons of language, she decided to limit her search to the British Isles and Scandinavia although she was aware that other maritime cultures also had legends about seagoing women. Beginning in Grace O’Malley’s home turf of Clare Island in Ireland and ending in Tromsø, Norway, she tells the story of her search for the sea-women of history and myth and her discovery of new aspects of her. She tells stories about women who went to sea, and women who worked on the land as part of maritime industries. Grace O’Malley was just the best known. She tells the stories of the Viking princess Alfhild who chose to “go a-viking” rather than marry and Lief Erikson’s (married) sister, who sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland. Mrs. Christian Robertson, who ran a maritime warehouse and whaling agency in the Orkney Islands in the nineteenth century. “Trouser-Beret”, a Sami woman who captained fishing boats off Norway twenty years earlier. Hundreds of Scottish “herring lasses” who came to the Orkney Islands each summer in the 1930s to work in the fish industry. She considers weather witches, sea goddesses and the statues of women staring out to sea that appear in harbors throughout Scandinavia.

The stories are well-told and interesting in their own right. But I found the story of Sjoholm tracking down the stories even more interesting. It made me want to set out to sea in search of history.

*And who will not appear in Women Warriors, alas! I planned to include her in the chapter on women commanders, but the chapter fell apart in my hands. Grace O’Malley was left an orphan.

**One of those stories I stumbled across in search of something else. After the defeat of George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S Army hunted down the tribes involved. The Northern Cheyenne were relocated to the Indian Territory (aka Oklahoma). In 1878, a small group of them fled the reservation and attempted to make their way back to their home on the northern plains—an effort that turned into a 1000-mile running battle with tragic results. I’ve only dipped briefly into Alan Boyle’s Holding Stone Hands: On The Trail of the Cheyenne Exodus, but it looks like an excellent example of the genre.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.