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Meet the real pirate queens behind 'Our Flag Means Death' hijinks

The truth behind Season 2's fascinating female pirates.
Meet the real pirate queens behind 'Our Flag Means Death' hijinks

The second season of Our Flag Means Death has arrived, not only reuniting the crew of the Revenge, but also bringing some new pirates into their fleet. With Season 1, series creator David Jenkins lovingly revived characters from history (i.e. Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet). This time, he's cast a wider net, pulling into this romantic, comical, and swashbuckling narrative three women whose lives outside of piracy are shrouded in myth and mystery: Zheng Yi Sao, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read.

Over the course of the first three episodes of the show's second season, Zheng Yi Sao (played by Ruibo Qian) has become an unexpected ally to some of Stede's crew,?particularly the lovestruck Oluwande (Samson Kayo). And with episode 4, "Fun and Games," Stede meets some of Blackbeard's old friends, Anne Bonny and Mary Read —?portrayed by Minnie Driver and Rachel House. Beyond the hilarious —?and violent —?hijinks seen in Our Flag Means Death, these pirates had incredible stories of their own.

So let's dive into the truth behind Our Flag Means Death Season 2's fascinating female pirates.?

Who is Zheng Yi Sao??

Ruibo Qian as Zheng Yi Sao in "Our Flag Means Death."

The most famous names in piracy — Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Captain Henry Morgan, William "Captain" Kidd — come to us from accounts of the "Golden Age of Piracy," the period between 1650 and 1720, when thousands of pirates were active throughout the Caribbean. It's this time that most historians have focused on, and this — as well as the facts that pirates didn't generally keep log books and what records may have existed often didn't survive — resulted in many important figures in piracy being overlooked.

Born in 1775 in China, Zheng Yi Sao is described by Laura Sook Duncombe, author of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas as "absolutely, unquestionably the greatest pirate who ever lived." Also known as Ching Shih, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi in 1801, and was then given the name Zheng Yi Sao, or "wife of Zheng Yi." Zheng Yi commanded the Red Flag Fleet of pirate ships, and had successfully united a number of rival Chinese ships by the time he died in 1807.?

Upon Zheng Yi's death, his adopted son (and lover) Cheung Po Tsai inherited the Red Flag Fleet. He also became Zheng Yi Sao's lover, and later, her husband. Over time, Zheng Yi Sao took over leadership of the Guangdong Pirate Confederation, or the Red Flag Fleet (named as such because the ships all flew the same color flag), which included 1,800 ships and 80,000 men. (For context, Blackbeard's fleet was made up of four ships and 300 men.) It became the largest pirate fleet on Earth, and under Zheng Yi Sao's command, it grew significantly,?eventually defeating three Chinese fleets sent to vanquish it.

There are no primary sources that can confirm the rumor that Sao's ability to successfully negotiate the intricacies of a fleet was due to her past as a sex worker on a floating brothel.?

Sao maintained control over her fleet by utilizing a powerful code of law, including beheading on the spot anyone who attempted to give their own orders, disobeyed a superior, or raped a female captive.?

Under Sao's leadership, the Red Fleet went undefeated, despite attempts by officials and even the Portuguese Navy to destroy it. In 1810, after the breakup of the pirate alliance (sources differ on what exactly motivated the split), Sao accepted an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government and retired. She died in 1844 at the age of 69, considered one of the most unique and successful pirates of all time. In Richard Glasspoole's account of being held prisoner by the Red Flag Fleet, A Brief History of My Captivity, published by Owen Rutter, Robert Gibbings, and the Golden Cockerel Press, Zheng Yi Sao is described by Rutter as “a remarkable woman," using her authority with firmness and discretion.?

Who is Anne Bonny??

Minnie Driver and Rachel House as Anne Bonny and Mary Read in "Our Flag Means Death."

According to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson, published in 1724 and considered by some scholars to be a dubious source, Bonny was born around 1698 in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland. Her father was William Comack, and her mother the family's maid, Mary Brennan. As a girl, Bonny left Ireland with her father and Mary for what is now Charleston, South Carolina. After Mary's death in 1711, Bonny's violent temper surfaced, allegedly resulting in the murder of a servant girl, and the attempted murder of a suitor who tried to rape her. Rumors of her behavior supposedly endangered her father's business, so he disowned her in 1718, after she married a sailor named James Bonny.

The pair absconded to the Bahamas, where James made a career, ironically, out of snitching on pirates, and Bonny continued to meet men in bars. including John “Calico Jack” Rackham. An affair commenced between Bonny and Rackham, and she joined him aboard the Revenge.?

Upon discovering Bonny's affair, James Bonny attempted to have Anne convicted of adultery. However, she deserted Bonny and escaped with Rackham, stealing a sloop and nullifying his pardon.

Female pirates were exceedingly rare at this time (in many cases, women were banned from ships), but It's likely that Bonny was inspired by Grace O'Malley, another Irish pirate, who was granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 1593. While aboard Revenge, Bonny lived openly as a woman and as Calico Jack's lover, but when interfacing with other ships, she dressed as a man.?

Bonny met Mary Read when the Revenge overtook Read’s ship in the West Indies. Read, who presented herself as a man, revealed herself as a woman to Bonny, whom she tried to seduce, believing Bonny to be a man. Beard's secret was safe with Bonny, and the women formed a tight bond. They were even rumored to be lovers, which is how they are presented in Our Flag Means Death.?

The Revenge was seized off the coast of Jamaica in October 1720 by an armed privateer. Bonny and Read, both heavily pregnant, stood trial in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, in November, and were found guilty of crimes of piracy. Because of their pregnancies, their executions were stayed. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Bonny's father returned her to? South Carolina, where she remarried, had eight more children, and died at the age of 84 in April 1782.?

Who is Mary Read?

Anne Bonny and Mary Read might have looked like this.

The details of Read's life also come from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Prior to her arrival on the Revenge, Read, born in the late 1600s, was a member of the British, and later, Flemish militaries, where she presented herself as man. Her ability to infiltrate male-only spaces stemmed from being dressed as a boy by her mother in order to extort money from a relative.?

After falling in love with a Flemish soldier she met in the military, the two were discharged from the army together and married. The couple moved to Breda, Netherlands, where they ran an inn until he died. Read returned to dressing as a man, briefly entering the Dutch military for a stint before she boarded a ship headed for the West Indies. This same ship would be captured in 1720 by Calico Jack and his crew, including Anne Bonny, with whom Read fought side by side throughout her time on the Revenge. The two led numerous raids during the summer and fall of 1720, and were described as being "very active on board and willing to do any Thing.”

When the Revenge was captured by Jonathan Barnet, an English privateer in the Caribbean, Read and Bonny refused to surrender, remaining on deck and fighting after the rest of the crew fled to the hold. According to legend, Read, disgusted by her crewmates' inaction, yelled at them to join them on deck, then, when no one responded, she fired into the hold, killing one.

After her stay of execution was granted, Read died in prison in 1721, along with her unborn child, possibly of gaol fever (now known as typhus), and possibly from complications resulting from childbirth.?

While it's hard to confirm all the details of Read's life, what is clear is that she and Bonny certainly earned their reputations as two of the most infamous and remarkable women in history. In Our Flag Means Death, they are reborn, their pugnacious spirit and shared affection intact.?

How to watch: Our Flag Means Death Season 2 is now streaming on Max with new episodes each Thursday.

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