Joan Druett,
She Captains:
Heroines & Hellions of the Sea

(Simon & Schuster, 2001)

The title of Joan Druett's otherwise excellent book is misleading.

She Captains, subtitled "Heroines & Hellions of the Sea," led me to expect a historical text on the scurvy likes of Anne Bonney and Mary Reed, Grace O'Malley, Alfhild, Cheng I Sao and their spiritual kin. But Druett writes with a broader pen, dealing not only with female pirates, including those listed above, but also lady merchants, young women who disguised themselves as sailors, the wives, daughters and mistresses of seamen of both high and low rank, prostitutes who serviced the sailors, and desperate female thieves who plagued the coast.

But, having accepted a certain latitude in the adherence to topic, the book is a fascinating look at the feminine side of seamanship. Villains and victims both have their place here, as do the women who waited patiently on shore and women who ventured boldly to sea. Even the wives of ships' captains living on board and lady passengers traveling alone found themselves often in danger.

There's Cleopatra, who had plenty of ships at her command but lacked the naval know-how to use them well. There's Lady Emma Hamilton, whose infidelities with Admiral Lord Nelson brought low the celebrated victor over Napoleon's navy. (Nelson at one point was recalled to London by Admiral Lord Keith, who complained that "Lady Hamilton has ruled the fleet long enough.") There's Mary Lacy, who went from sailor to shipwright, and Eliza Bradley, who was captured by Arabian slavers.

The story of the sea is dominated by men, but Druett shows here how the numerous roles of women should not be overlooked. Neither dry nor boring, She Captains is a colorful tapestry of maritime history.

by Tom Knapp
2 September 2006

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