With her pistols loaded she went aboard
And by her side hung a glittering sword
In her belt two daggers, well armed for war
Was this female smuggler
Was this female smuggler who never feared a scar.
If a "hen frigate" was any ship carrying a captain's wife, then a "she captain" is a bold woman distinguished for courageous enterprise in the history of the sea. "She captains," who infamously possessed the "bodies of women and the souls of men," thrilled and terrorized their shipmates, doing "deeds beyond the valor of women." Some were "bold and crafty pirates with broadsword in hand." Others were sirens, too, like the Valkyria Princess Alfhild, whom the mariners made rover-captain for her beauty. Like their male counterparts, these astonishing women were drawn to the ocean's beauty -- and its danger.
In her inimitable, yarn-spinning style, award-winning historian Joan Druett tells us what life was like for the women who dared to captain ships of their own, don pirates' garb, and perform heroic and hellacious deeds on the high seas. We meet Irish raider Grace "Grania" O'Malley -- sometimes called "the bald Grania" because she cut her hair short like a boy's -- who commanded three galleys and two hundred fighting men. Female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were wanted by the law. Armed to the teeth with cutlasses and pistols, they inspired awe and admiration as they swaggered about in fancy hats and expensive finery, killing many a man who cowered cravenly before them.
Lovelorn Susan "Put on a jolly sailor's dress/And daubed her hands with tar/To cross the raging sea/On board a man of war" to be near her William. Others disguised themselves for economic reasons. In 1835, Ann Jane Thornton signed on as a ship's steward to earn the fair wage of nine dollars per month. When it was discovered that she was a woman, the captain testified that Jane was a capital sailor, but the crew had been suspicious of her from the start, "because she would not drink her grog like a regular seaman."
In 1838, twenty-two-year-old Grace Darling led the charge to rescue nine castaways from the wreck of the Forfarshire (the Titanic of its day). "I'll save the crew!" she cried, her courageous pledge immortalized in a torrent of books, songs, and poems. Though "she captains" had been sailing for hundreds of years by the turn of the twentieth century, Scotswoman Betsey Miller made headlines by weathering "storms of the deep when many commanders of the other sex have been driven to pieces on the rocks."
From the warrior queens of the sixth century B.C. to the women shipowners influential in opening the Northwest Passage, Druett has assembled a real-life cast of characters whose boldness and bravado will capture popular imagination. Following the arc of maritime history from the female perspective, She Captains' intrepid crew sails forth into a sea of adventure.
Following Hen Frigates, an account of 19th-century women at sea, Druett tackles a broader canvas, portraying the exploits of seafaring women throughout history. Though unevenly paced, this entertaining work is filled with fascinating characters distinguished by "bold enterprise in the history of the sea" and a robust appreciation of women's forgotten or little-known role in maritime activity. The cast ranges from Cleopatra, the Valkyries, pirate queens such as Anne Bonny and cross-dressing sailors to tough mariners' wives, lighthouse keepers like Kate Walkers at Robbins Reef, N.Y., and enterprising ship owners. Some are memorialized in legend, like the Irish pirate Grace O'Malley, while others are included because of their influential relationships: Emma Hamilton had a scandalous affair with Admiral Nelson; Lady Jane Franklin launched an intensive campaign for the rescue of her husband's lost 1845 Polar expedition that not only secured Sir John Franklin's reputation as an arctic explorer but led to the opening and mapping of new arctic routes. While the early chapters are densely populated and rooted in myth, literature and folk tales, the livelier stories in the second half draw on contemporary documents and diaries, often coming boldly to life and occasionally ringing with familiar themes, as in the story of Grace Horseley Darling, a lighthouse keeper's daughter who helped rescue shipwreck victims off the coast of Northumberland in 1838 and was made into a folk heroine by an invasive, greedy press. Line drawings.