Cold Spring Harbor museum highlights history’s ‘pirate queens’


Visitors of Cold Spring Harbor’s Whaling Museum and Education Center will get a taste of untold history at the “Irish Pirates!” event on March 16. In addition to notable swashbucklers like Blackbeard and Calico Jack, docents will highlight history’s “pirate queens” who also ruled the open seas.

Education manager Liz Fusco said the event intentionally coincides with Women’s History Month and St. Patrick’s Day weekend to emphasize notable women pirates of Irish descent. Last fall the museum premiered a new exhibit, “Heroines at the Helm,” which highlights the historic efforts of “whaling wives,” and includes extensive first-person accounts from the 1850s detailing what life was like for women at sea, which at the time was considered a revolutionary feat.

“We’re trying to show that not all of these Victorian whaling wives were demure and subservient to their captain husbands,” Fusco said. “These supposedly delicate women were very strong and very independent.”

Grace O’Malley

Grace O’Malley was born to a pirate father in Ireland in 1530 during the reign of the English King Henry VIII. The O’Malleys were one of the few seafaring families on the country’s west coast, building a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory.

As a young girl O’Malley wished to accompany her father on a training expedition to Spain, but was told she couldn’t go because her long hair would get caught in the ropes of the ship’s rigging. “So she cut off most of her hair,” Fusco said.

After her father’s death she assumed leadership of her family’s lordship, despite having a brother, and for almost 40 years plundered English ships under Queen Elizabeth I’s rule, who tried to take her family’s land.

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland in 1702 to a servant mother. Upon emigrating to America with her family her father became a successful business merchant. She got her start in pirating after divorcing her first husband and remarrying pirate Captain Calico Jack Rackham.

Bonny became a fierce fighter aboard her husband’s ship, and upon the open seas befriended a fellow “pirate queen,” Mary Read. The two are considered the most famed women pirates of all time, and among the few women convicted of piracy during the early 18th century, the height of piracy’s golden age.

“They fought to defend their ship against a king’s ship while the rest of the pirates were too drunk or hiding,” Fusco said.

‘Belaying’ the stereotype

Museum educator Erin Becker spoke to the event’s importance in portraying untold stories from history. “I think women have been overlooked in a lot of histories, and when we’re talking about women pirates, that’s a very masculinized field,” she said. “People don't normally associate women with pirates unless you are watching ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ but these women traded in spaces that people wouldn't have necessarily expected to find them.”

Becker said women pirates like O’Malley and Bonny were considered authority figures in their own rite, and made their living pirating off the land and sea. “It’s eye-opening for a lot of people, especially because they are used to the way the media portrays pirates,” she said, “[and it] reminds them that women were here too and women did play this role in global history.”

“Irish Pirates!” takes place at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and Education Center, 279 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor, on Saturday, March 16 at 12 p.m. and is open to all ages.