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Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways & Sailors' Wives

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For centuries, the sea has been regarded as a male domain, but in this illuminating historical narrative, maritime scholar David Cordingly shows that an astonishing number of women went to sea in the great age of sail. Some traveled as the wives or mistresses of captains; others were smuggled aboard by officers or seamen. And Cordingly has unearthed stories of a number of For centuries, the sea has been regarded as a male domain, but in this illuminating historical narrative, maritime scholar David Cordingly shows that an astonishing number of women went to sea in the great age of sail. Some traveled as the wives or mistresses of captains; others were smuggled aboard by officers or seamen. And Cordingly has unearthed stories of a number of young women who dressed in men’s clothes and worked alongside sailors for months, sometimes years, without ever revealing their gender. His tremendous research shows that there was indeed a thriving female population—from pirates to the sirens of myth and legend—on and around the high seas. A landmark work of women’s history disguised as a spectacularly entertaining yarn, Women Sailors and Sailor’s Women will surprise and delight.


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For centuries, the sea has been regarded as a male domain, but in this illuminating historical narrative, maritime scholar David Cordingly shows that an astonishing number of women went to sea in the great age of sail. Some traveled as the wives or mistresses of captains; others were smuggled aboard by officers or seamen. And Cordingly has unearthed stories of a number of For centuries, the sea has been regarded as a male domain, but in this illuminating historical narrative, maritime scholar David Cordingly shows that an astonishing number of women went to sea in the great age of sail. Some traveled as the wives or mistresses of captains; others were smuggled aboard by officers or seamen. And Cordingly has unearthed stories of a number of young women who dressed in men’s clothes and worked alongside sailors for months, sometimes years, without ever revealing their gender. His tremendous research shows that there was indeed a thriving female population—from pirates to the sirens of myth and legend—on and around the high seas. A landmark work of women’s history disguised as a spectacularly entertaining yarn, Women Sailors and Sailor’s Women will surprise and delight.

30 review for Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways & Sailors' Wives

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jessica T.

    This book should be called seafaring dudes and their ladies I sometimes write about.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Zoe (Attic Salt Reviews)

    Sure it was pretty interesting but I picked up this book to read, specifically, about women. My expectations weren't high but I must admit it was still pretty disappointing. I'd hoped for stories of women who pretended to be men as they captained ships, who took over command after their husbands died or even just those who had to go through life on ships as prostitutes or wives. What we got was a heap of stories about men whose wives were side notes, the adventures of brave and daring sailors and Sure it was pretty interesting but I picked up this book to read, specifically, about women. My expectations weren't high but I must admit it was still pretty disappointing. I'd hoped for stories of women who pretended to be men as they captained ships, who took over command after their husbands died or even just those who had to go through life on ships as prostitutes or wives. What we got was a heap of stories about men whose wives were side notes, the adventures of brave and daring sailors and their nighttime habits, and an endless stockpile of nameless prostitutes. Of course among the stories of men and the fictitious stories written by men, there were mentions of women like Mary Reade and Anne Bonny but not enough detail to make up for the endless pages of stories about men. If you are looking for a non-fiction read about female pirates this is not the book for you. Aside from the lack of female figures it is an interesting read with a few helpful insights on pirate life.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Gina Denny

    Fifty-three pages into this book about "seafaring women" and we've had: - nameless prostitutes - a story about a man who had a wife, but the story is about him - one interesting story about a woman who cheated on her husband and murdered her own baby (she was never a seafaring woman, btw) - a fictitious woman, created by a male author I'm out. When I pick up a book that explicitly says it is about women, I expect it to be about women. Fifty-three pages into this book about "seafaring women" and we've had: - nameless prostitutes - a story about a man who had a wife, but the story is about him - one interesting story about a woman who cheated on her husband and murdered her own baby (she was never a seafaring woman, btw) - a fictitious woman, created by a male author I'm out. When I pick up a book that explicitly says it is about women, I expect it to be about women.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sophie Turner

    I found this to be disjointed and uneven -- some chapters were highly interesting, others not so much. It also fell off topic with some regularity, so that I found myself reading on some tangent regarding Nelson's or John Paul Jones's career. Interesting, in some cases, but already well-covered by others, particularly Nelson's career. I much preferred Suzanne Stark's more focused "Female Tars." I found this to be disjointed and uneven -- some chapters were highly interesting, others not so much. It also fell off topic with some regularity, so that I found myself reading on some tangent regarding Nelson's or John Paul Jones's career. Interesting, in some cases, but already well-covered by others, particularly Nelson's career. I much preferred Suzanne Stark's more focused "Female Tars."

  5. 4 out of 5

    CJ - It's only a Paper Moon

    I will have to admit that the title is a little misleading as the book is a lot more about the sailors then their women at certain points - however, on the whole it was very interesting and enlightening. I learned a lot about my city in the first chapter (I'm from NYC) and the prostitution and dance halls that popped up down there because of the sea ports and the demands of the sailors. You learn a lot about select captains of the navy and of course you read about Mary Reade and Anne Bonny. Pirate I will have to admit that the title is a little misleading as the book is a lot more about the sailors then their women at certain points - however, on the whole it was very interesting and enlightening. I learned a lot about my city in the first chapter (I'm from NYC) and the prostitution and dance halls that popped up down there because of the sea ports and the demands of the sailors. You learn a lot about select captains of the navy and of course you read about Mary Reade and Anne Bonny. Pirate men take a backseat but when you read about sailors and anything dealing with an HMS you are reading about men. On the whole I thought he could have injected more of a woman's POV but I will cut him some slack due to the fact that there aren't a lot of books written about women as pirates/stowaways/heroes. There are also not a lot of accounts and that is owing to a few things. Women were not very likely to want to disclose that they are female to their crew. Two, they were not seeking claim or fame and most likely just appealed to the Navy Pension - or didn't depending on whether or not they were married etc. Also, even if there had been a decent amount of women that worked and disguised themselves on a boat, they were most likely not written about and only those that distinguished themselves to the point of public notice were written about. Authors saw that people liked to read about women pirates/sailors but few believed that women should go into that profession. All in all - this is a good book if you are interested in maritime history and a slightly better understanding of the role and POV of women during the heydays of sailing.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    After reading several HRs that center around pirates or naval themes, I wanted to know more about what really happened on the high seas in the late 1700s through to mid 1800s. Were women common on board naval or merchant vessels? What was life like for them? Were there any female pirates? Were there any female sailors and, if so, how did they manage to keep their gender a secret? Well, this book answered all these questions and more. It explained the differences in naval ranks, what conditions we After reading several HRs that center around pirates or naval themes, I wanted to know more about what really happened on the high seas in the late 1700s through to mid 1800s. Were women common on board naval or merchant vessels? What was life like for them? Were there any female pirates? Were there any female sailors and, if so, how did they manage to keep their gender a secret? Well, this book answered all these questions and more. It explained the differences in naval ranks, what conditions were like on-board and whether and when women were allowed on board, as well as where the phrase "son of a gun" comes from. It is packed full of details, histories and anecdotes, but is a fascinating and entertaining read, not a heavy tome at all, and does not sit in judgement of the people included, but just presents the facts and some very succinct analysis. It's given me a whole new appreciation for the detail and research behind some of my favorite HRs, like Carla Kelly's Channel Fleet series, which are very accurate both in detail and tone, and left me astounded at the courage and determination of some of these amazing (real) women.

  7. 4 out of 5

    G. Lawrence

    A good book, but I think it should have kept it's original title, as this was more about sailors, and the women in their lives, than it was truly about the women. My other criticism is the glaring omission of perhaps the most successful pirate in the world, Madame Ching or Ching Shih (1775–1844), who commanded 300 ships and anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 men in China. Even the Emperor and his government were finally forced to make peace and offer pardons to this remarkable woman, yet so find A good book, but I think it should have kept it's original title, as this was more about sailors, and the women in their lives, than it was truly about the women. My other criticism is the glaring omission of perhaps the most successful pirate in the world, Madame Ching or Ching Shih (1775–1844), who commanded 300 ships and anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 men in China. Even the Emperor and his government were finally forced to make peace and offer pardons to this remarkable woman, yet so find no mention of her in the book. If the book said it was concentrating solely on Europe and America, fair enough, but if that was mentioned I missed it. Aside from those two points, the book is good. Solid research and a sympathetic handling of the women, which breaks into barely concealed admiration for women who pretended to be men and served on ships. Would have liked a bit more on female pirates, and at least a mention of Ching Shih, but a good read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Miles Jackson

    This book is about chix n boats, would recommend to @lukeM -

  9. 5 out of 5

    Raquel

    This is a well-researched and interesting book, which I recommend with a few reservations. Many reviewers here have criticized this book for focusing too much on men, and I think some of that dissatisfaction might have to do with the title. I read this book under the title Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, which I found to be an apt description of the content. Those who read it as Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives are liable to be disappointed, be This is a well-researched and interesting book, which I recommend with a few reservations. Many reviewers here have criticized this book for focusing too much on men, and I think some of that dissatisfaction might have to do with the title. I read this book under the title Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, which I found to be an apt description of the content. Those who read it as Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives are liable to be disappointed, because alas, there aren't nearly as many records of pirate queens and cross-dressing captains in existence as could be wished. However, as a woman who reads a lot of nautical fiction and history (and has an interest in 19th century feminism), I know how often females are left out of the narrative, and appreciate what Cordingly has tried to do––to trace the presence and paths of women, in any capacity, through records and stories of a domain that is usually seen as exclusively male. Plot twist––it wasn't. But perhaps in a subtler way than readers were hoping. The book speeds up very nicely after the first 50 pages, with several great episodes in a row. Some readers have commented that their interest fluctuated throughout the book, and I would agree––as a whole, I found it very interesting, and the stories of Hannah Snell, Mary Anne Talbot, Ida Lewis, and others were every bit as exciting as I could wish. A few others dragged, however, or felt out of place––while I found the story of John Paul Jones very interesting, for example, the sections about him and Augustus Hervey felt out of place (though I thought the Nelson/Emma Hamilton portion of the same chapter fit well). I understand what Cordingly tried to do with the structure of the book, ordering the sections as a voyage out leading to a return, and it's very creative, though occasionally it feels a little off. I'm impressed he brought as much cohesion to some chapters as he did, though, drawing from so many different records over two centuries. I also appreciated the incorporation of artistic and fictional depictions of women at sea (yes, even the chapter about mermaids and figureheads), because it shows how much of what we think came from Victorian conventions, and how real stories could be blown into different proportions once they reached a wider cultural consciousness. Even the story of Lucy Baker/Eliza Bowen, which bothered some reviewers because it turned out to be fictional, shows how much the public perception of women was often created by men––many contemporary readers believed the story to be true, only finding out later that the author was a man writing under a pen name. That kind of cultural context is really important when looking at the subject as a whole. My other main regret––Cordingly says in the acknowledgements that in order to give focus to a subject as vast as the sea itself, he limited this book to women in the Anglo-American maritime world of the 18th & 19th centuries. This means that the amazing stories of Ching Shih, the greatest pirate queen of all time, and Grace O'Malley, who commanded a fleet of ships, are nowhere to be found. Cordingly covered both of their stories in a chapter about female sailors in his other (highly recommended) book Under the Black Flag: the Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, but I was really looking forward to learning more about them, and I think their biographies would have given more power to the book. The way Cordingly traces the less visible side of women at sea, though, (the diaries of wives on whaling ships, the way women were left off the books of naval warships, even the "widow's men" charity system, etc.) is very good. Overall, I mention the qualms I have with this book only because I liked it so much. Many of the less-enthusiastic reviews here make valid points, things I felt myself when reading, but I don't think these problems discredit the book and the research done, or keep it from painting a remarkable picture of women and the sea. If you're interested in nautical history, women's history, or even British/American society in the 18th–19th centuries, give it a try!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Dowd

    This book left a lot to be desired. Read other books about maritime history or sailing history and you'll get more succinct and a more drilled down understanding of the life and hardship (yes, even that of women). Big feminist theory/obvious revelations about women and the world of ocean economies were either ignored or glossed over. And don't even get me started about how many times Cordingly brought up a story of a female sailor or whatever water-related woman he was discussing, and then casua This book left a lot to be desired. Read other books about maritime history or sailing history and you'll get more succinct and a more drilled down understanding of the life and hardship (yes, even that of women). Big feminist theory/obvious revelations about women and the world of ocean economies were either ignored or glossed over. And don't even get me started about how many times Cordingly brought up a story of a female sailor or whatever water-related woman he was discussing, and then casually slipped in that the story was likely fictitious and then left it alone. If you want another reason to skip this work, there is a whole chapter on mermaids and figureheads, and the chapter about men without women is embarrassingly short. Read this only if it is your first non-fiction book on maritime history.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jodotha

    I read this book under its original title "Women Sailors and Sailors' Women" (which I guess wasn't piratey enough for our Johnny Depp loving public - Oh well). I learned much from this book, and if I weren't in such a hurry to go find more books, I'd probably write it all down in a nicely outlined, formal report. Anyhoo. This book is well written and well researched. Although Cordingly can occasionally get lost in his facts and come across rather dry, his information on seafaring women is so inte I read this book under its original title "Women Sailors and Sailors' Women" (which I guess wasn't piratey enough for our Johnny Depp loving public - Oh well). I learned much from this book, and if I weren't in such a hurry to go find more books, I'd probably write it all down in a nicely outlined, formal report. Anyhoo. This book is well written and well researched. Although Cordingly can occasionally get lost in his facts and come across rather dry, his information on seafaring women is so interesting it never stays that way for long. Recommended for readers who want more to the "pirate story" than what Hollywood can give.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kate Robinson

    This book was well written, thoroughly researched, and loaded with anecdotal information of women's lives at sea. Despite its many tales of 'women sailors and sailors' women,' it seemed incomplete. Certain chapters were highly entertaining, while others seemed void of any story worth remembering. However, the topic remained intriguing enough to make it easy to breeze through the book's 250 pages. This book was well written, thoroughly researched, and loaded with anecdotal information of women's lives at sea. Despite its many tales of 'women sailors and sailors' women,' it seemed incomplete. Certain chapters were highly entertaining, while others seemed void of any story worth remembering. However, the topic remained intriguing enough to make it easy to breeze through the book's 250 pages.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tyrannosaurus regina

    In short, for a book called "Seafaring Women" it was shockingly patronizing of women. (Or maybe it wasn't shocking, and that was what made me so angry.) In short, for a book called "Seafaring Women" it was shockingly patronizing of women. (Or maybe it wasn't shocking, and that was what made me so angry.)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Norma

    "After all, to write about women it is not necessary to be a woman, merely to have a sense of justice and sympathy." -Antonia Fraser "After all, to write about women it is not necessary to be a woman, merely to have a sense of justice and sympathy." -Antonia Fraser

  15. 4 out of 5

    Khari

    Hmmmm...is it sad to say that the part of the book I enjoyed most was the glossary? I learned, finally, what a poop deck was. I learned that the topmast isn't at the top. Ha. Every pirate anime ever is WRONG. I thought the other pirate book I read last year about women was much more interesting and informative as well as better written. It's not that it wasn't informative...I just don't like the slapdash superficiality of this book. He obviously had more fun talking about the sexual pursuits of Hmmmm...is it sad to say that the part of the book I enjoyed most was the glossary? I learned, finally, what a poop deck was. I learned that the topmast isn't at the top. Ha. Every pirate anime ever is WRONG. I thought the other pirate book I read last year about women was much more interesting and informative as well as better written. It's not that it wasn't informative...I just don't like the slapdash superficiality of this book. He obviously had more fun talking about the sexual pursuits of Nelson and his myriads of women then about the supposed subject of his book. Also, although the title is 'seafaring women' most of the time he talks about prostitutes, families and those left on the shore. That is a worthy subject in and of itself, but doesn't quite match the expectations of the title. Finally. He committed the ultimate sin. He made a bogus linguistic claim. Shame. He said that the Virgin Mary is associated with water because her name is derived from the Latin Mar. I find it so irritating when people seem to think that the English name is the right one and only ever trace what they think its origins are. If this man had an ounce of knowledge about linguistics...or even the origin of the Bible, he would have known that while the New Testament was written in Greek, the everyday language of the people was Aramaic. The name 'Mary' is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic name 'Mariam/Maryam', which is probably from a Hebraic earlier name 'Miriam'. Where exactly is this Latin etymology?!?!? Ingnoramus.

  16. 4 out of 5

    AceFireFox

    This one is packed with case studies and examples of the many different types of women who were affected by the sea life. Admittedly a lot of the case studies are about men and the many women they knew, but in a male dominated society at the time it is understandable. Women were still very much the supports, the comforts and the vices of the day. Admittedly the most interesting parts are the case studies of women who had gone to sea or committed heroic actions, like those of the lighthouse ladie This one is packed with case studies and examples of the many different types of women who were affected by the sea life. Admittedly a lot of the case studies are about men and the many women they knew, but in a male dominated society at the time it is understandable. Women were still very much the supports, the comforts and the vices of the day. Admittedly the most interesting parts are the case studies of women who had gone to sea or committed heroic actions, like those of the lighthouse ladies. It's a very Eurocentric and America centric study so no mention of the Chinese Lady Pirate, Captain Zheng Yi Sao or 'Ching Shih', but there is mention of ladies such as Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Hannah Snell and Mary Ann Talbot. To be honest, I found this very interesting. Admittedly maybe the title was a bit misleading and the original title 'Women Sailors and Sailors' Women' is a little more accurate but I'm not too bothered. Very interesting indeed

  17. 5 out of 5

    Diana Sandberg

    Meh. Some interesting details - I hadn't known, for example, that in the 18th-19th century British Navy, captains and lieutenants were commissioned by the Admiralty (and often moved from ship to ship), while warrant officers (masters, pursers, carpenters, surgeons, bosuns...) were given warrants by the Navy Board and were, at least theoretically, permanently attached to one ship, from her construction to her breaking up. Also good quick biographies of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton - I was not pr Meh. Some interesting details - I hadn't known, for example, that in the 18th-19th century British Navy, captains and lieutenants were commissioned by the Admiralty (and often moved from ship to ship), while warrant officers (masters, pursers, carpenters, surgeons, bosuns...) were given warrants by the Navy Board and were, at least theoretically, permanently attached to one ship, from her construction to her breaking up. Also good quick biographies of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton - I was not previously aware quite how scandalous Emma was before she ever met Nelson. There are other nuggets scattered through this work, but overall it's fairly dull.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    3.5 stars I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. The research was done very well and it told me a lot that I didn't already know. The detail was very good too. I have marked it down half a star because I agreed with other reviewers that said that if focuses a lot on the men and their exploits. Whereas the stories are obviously entwined it did veer off in this direction a great deal. This is a good introduction to the women of nautical times and can provide a basis for further research if o 3.5 stars I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. The research was done very well and it told me a lot that I didn't already know. The detail was very good too. I have marked it down half a star because I agreed with other reviewers that said that if focuses a lot on the men and their exploits. Whereas the stories are obviously entwined it did veer off in this direction a great deal. This is a good introduction to the women of nautical times and can provide a basis for further research if one wishes.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

    Turns out this is the book I was reading, just under a different title (I think?) Anyway! This was an enjoyable and interesting read that also made me read the transcript of some pirate trials that happened in 1720 instead of revising! There was less on the Golden Age of Piracy than I was hoping but admittedly we only know of two female pirates operating in that time period and we only have one real source anyway (two at a push) Would recommend if you want to read about People On Boats between the Turns out this is the book I was reading, just under a different title (I think?) Anyway! This was an enjoyable and interesting read that also made me read the transcript of some pirate trials that happened in 1720 instead of revising! There was less on the Golden Age of Piracy than I was hoping but admittedly we only know of two female pirates operating in that time period and we only have one real source anyway (two at a push) Would recommend if you want to read about People On Boats between the 1600s and 1800s without so much of a focus on men

  20. 5 out of 5

    Coral

    If the title were flipped to Sailors' Women and Women Sailors, it would be more appropriate. Much of the book was dedicated to the women in the lives of seafaring men - the prostitutes, wives, lovers, and lightkeepers- with one very short chapter dedicated to women pirates. If you're looking for a book about women captains or pirates, this probably isn't the one for you. If the title were flipped to Sailors' Women and Women Sailors, it would be more appropriate. Much of the book was dedicated to the women in the lives of seafaring men - the prostitutes, wives, lovers, and lightkeepers- with one very short chapter dedicated to women pirates. If you're looking for a book about women captains or pirates, this probably isn't the one for you.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeannie

    I finally bailed on this book. It really wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I was expecting tales of Anne Bonny, Grace O'Malley and the like, but this was mostly about women stuck on ships or with men on ships. The title is very misleading. The author thinks these are the pirate "queens"? Hardly. I finally bailed on this book. It really wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I was expecting tales of Anne Bonny, Grace O'Malley and the like, but this was mostly about women stuck on ships or with men on ships. The title is very misleading. The author thinks these are the pirate "queens"? Hardly.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    Extremely detailed about many women (especially the paramours of famous men) but not so much about the achievements of others. Might just be the general lack of documentation about women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Still interesting stories about women and the sea.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Laure

    An amazing read, although difficult, well documented, rich in facts and fair to women and the crucial part they played in seafaring industries. I looked forward to read that book and I am far from disappointed. It is inspiring, inspired and very much interesting! Loved it!!!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Boris

    An interesting and surprising look at how many women went to sea in the period the book covered, largely the 17th and 18th centuries. It takes a deeper look at how essentially vile and nasty travel by boat was during the great sailing era.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Coral

    3.5 stars. Interesting and informative, but not super compelling. Life was hard for both the men and women in sailing. Thank goodness for vaccines.

  26. 5 out of 5

    J L R Webbie

    Lots of good information and a pleasant read. Found so many women I want to research in more detail now!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mary Keroson

    Interesting stories of women involved in the sea trade.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    Started fantastic but the ending was just boring.

  29. 4 out of 5

    cee

    this book is like, decent, but it wasn't really what i was looking for, which i guess was more global? idk i was mostly upset that i wouldn't get to read about ching shih this book is like, decent, but it wasn't really what i was looking for, which i guess was more global? idk i was mostly upset that i wouldn't get to read about ching shih

  30. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    Interesting book. Lots of detail. Its original title, “Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women,” is a better description of the book. What a grim life these women (and men) led.

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