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15 Inspirational Female Explorers You Should Know: 1-5

By Chelsea La Near

The Travel Industry Association of America found that 75% of people embarking on nature, adventure, or cultural trips are women between the ages of 20 and 70. According to this data, the average adventure traveler is a 47-year-old female.

This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, up until relatively recently, female travel, particularly solo female travel, was seen as too dangerous or even inappropriate. Even now, male explorers and pioneers are often more celebrated than their equally formidable and often more exceptional female counterparts.

In honor of Women's History Month, we’re giving credit where credit is due by exploring the lives of 15 female travelers whose brave adventures had significant impacts on their communities and the world. In defying convention to forge their own paths, these wanderlusting women challenged gender inequality and paved the way for a future of freedom.

This week, we look at five extraordinary women including cross-dressers, travel writers, and the greatest pirate that ever lived.


1. Jeanne Barret (1740-1807): The first women to circumnavigate the Earth

Jeanne Barret is widely regarded to be the first woman to make a complete trip around the globe, though she had to do so disguised as a man.

Little is known about her early life except that she was likely born to a peasant family in La Comelle, a village in Burgundy, France. She found work as a housekeeper to the botanist and naturalist, Philibert Commerçon, and eventually became his illicit companion following the death of his wife. Commerçon joined the circumnavigation expedition of celebrated French Admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. At the time, women were strictly forbidden from French naval ships, so Jeanne Barret devised a plan to dress as a man in order to serve as Commerçon's assistant on the voyage.

Throughout South America, the expedition's first destination, Barret ended up doing much of the botany leg-work due to Commerçon's waning health. She became well-regarded as an expert in botany in her own right. In Rio de Janeiro, it was Barret who collected specimens from a flowering vine that Commerçon would name Bougainvillea. Barret's true gender was eventually discovered as the ship headed to Tahiti, and she and Commerçon left the expedition upon reaching the French trading post in Mauritius. When Commerçon died there, Barret didn't have the means to return to France, so she ran a tavern and remarried. She eventually made her way back to France likely around 1775, completing her circumnavigation of the globe. Her adventure proved the competence of female sailors long before they were officially allowed to serve alongside men on naval ships.

2. Ching Shih (1775-1844): The most successful pirate in history

Ching Shih, Chinese female pirate and explorer, as in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
Ching Shih portrayed in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. (c) Walt Disney Pictures

Not a whole lot is known about Ching Shih's early life except that she was born in Guangdong province during the Qing Dynasty. We do know that the end of the 18th century found her working on a floating brothel in Guangzhou. At 26, she married the pirate Cheng I, famed commander of the Red Flag Fleet who excelled at uniting rival pirate clans. Legend claims that Cheng I sought out the sex worker for her powerful intrigue and financial savvy, and that Ching Shih demanded equal control over the organization as a condition of marriage. When Cheng I died 6 years into their marriage, his wife quickly took over his leadership position by seeking the support of her husband's family, making herself essential to existing loyalties, and developing personal relationships with rivals. As commander, Ching Shih established a brutal code of laws to maintain her authority and keep the organization united. Violations of this code were punishable by flogging, clapping in irons, quartering, or death. Deserters had their ears chopped off. Those who disobeyed superiors or gave orders that didn't come down from Ching Shih were beheaded on the spot. She did, however, ban rape, one of her few forward-thinking laws.

At the height of her power, Ching Shih had 1,800 pirate ships and around 80,000 men under her command. For scale, during the same century, legendary pirate Blackbeard had just four ships and 300 pirates. The pirate queen invited enmity from multiple maritime authorities by wreaking havoc along the Asian coasts and disrupting important trade routes. But for years, her outlaw armada outsmarted and at times even conquered fleets from the the Qing Imperial government to Chinese, Portuguese, and British bounty hunters. It would take the Portuguese Navy - one of the most revered marine militias in the world - to bring down the Red Flag Fleet at the Battle of the Tiger's Mouth. Always the shrewd ruler, Ching Shih was somehow able to negotiate amnesty for her pirates who surrendered. And they even got to keep their treasures.

After years on the high sea, Ching Shih retired to Macau where she opened a gambling house and got involved in the salt trade. When the First Opium War broke out in 1839, the Chinese military sought her advice to help them fight the British Army. The notorious Ching Shih died of old age surrounded by her family at age 69 as a free woman - a very uncommon fate for a pirate. Though her exploits are certainly not anything to admire, a woman at that time commanding the most successful pirate fleet in history is a feat to reckon with.

3. Hester Stanhope (1776-1839): The ultimate adventurer and eccentric