Elizabeth Shirland

(a.k.a. Cutlass Liz)

Female Pirate (Fictional)
   

Born: Unknown

Died: Unknown


The legend of Elizabeth Shirland is one of those strange tales that seems to be true at first glance. As soon as you begin doing any serious research into her life, it quickly becomes apparent that her story was in fact, nothing more than a fictional story.

First, let us look at the fictional version of her life:

Elizabeth Shirland was born in Devon, England in the 16th century, and was one of those most intrepid women who sailed to the New World as part of the expedition to found the colony of Roanoke set up by Sir Walter Raleigh. The colonists faced terrible hardships, not only from the Virginia climate but from the local hostile Native Americans. When supply ships eventually arrived, having been delayed by the threat of the Spanish Armada, they found the fledgling colony deserted, with signs of the colonists having left in a great hurry. The only clue was the "mysterious" word Croatan carved into a tree.

Elizabeth Shirland, among others, was captured by Native Americans and somehow managed to survive amongst them until such time as she was rescued by a passing Spanish ship, having stabbed an Indian guard with his own knife. Somehow or other she got back to England (if memory serves she was rescued by Sir Francis Drake) after serving as a sailor aboard an English ship (dressed as a man of course), got married in York, got bored and went off sailing again, only this time she went a pirating instead. So fearsome was she that she earned the moniker "Cutlass Liz", and she was renowned for using her male crew members for sexual gratification. Sometimes she would stab her men with her cutlass (I forget why). Eventually, in 1604, after having taken more Spanish gold than Drake she was betrayed to the Spaniards who caught her in her cabin, unsurprisingly having sex with the male mariner who had betrayed her. She was dragged naked from her cabin and killed, but not before stabbing her double-crossing gallant with a dagger hidden about her person.

Now lets take a look at the verified facts surrounding her life: Unlike many proposed female pirates documented on the internet, Elizabeth Shirland did actually exist. She was born in 1577 in Ottery St. Mary, near Exeter in Devon, England around 1595. Documents show that she was later married to Robert Adams, in Devon, and she gave birth to her only son sometime thereafter, also in Devon. However, there is no evidence that she ever ventured to York and some very strong evidence that she wasn't ever married in York.

In the interest of fairness, lets just assume that just the part of the story involving York is incorrect? Perhaps the rest of it is true?

The list of settlers who sailed to Roanoke in 1587 is readily available, and indisputably documented. There is no Shirland listed on any of the documents. There are one or two Elizabeth's, but since Shirland wasn't married until 1595 there is no way that she would be using her future married name - plus she would have been only ten years old at the time. The only sensible conclusion is that she did not in fact ever travel to Roanoke.

Now, if she did not ever actually travel to Roanoke then she cannot possibly have been captured by the local Native Americans in that area. Out of interest, there is nothing mysterious about the word Croatan either. Croatan was a nearby island inhabited by friendly Indians. By carving the name of that island into a tree the colonists were simply indicating their intention to travel there so that future supply ships would know where to find them. However, since Shirland was never actually at Roanoke that has no bearing on her personal story.

"Cutlass Liz" is a very unlikely sobriquet for an Elizabethan pirate. Although the word Cutlass was known and used it was not the most widespread term for that kind of sword. Cutlass Liz is not impossible, but Falchion Liz or Hangar Liz would be more likely. Neither particularly was the name "Liz" used much in that period - I've yet to find a single instance - it's a much more modern term. "Bess" was the normal diminutive form of Elizabeth at that time. So, "Coutelace Bess" maybe, but probably not; it's just not how Elizabethan nick-names were usually formed and has more in common with the 20th century ("Machine-gun Kelly" for example) than the 16th.

The best evidence against Shirland's having been a notable female pirate, however, is the fact that everything that is known about her points to her having led a quiet, normal life in Devon as the wife of Robert Adams, giving birth to one son and staying at home fulfilling her family duties at home - a home there is no evidence she ever left.

Lastly (to put this issue to rest once and for all) one must wonder why, with so much "information" about her available and given her alleged success, we have not heard of her before. For example, other female pirates like Grace O'Malley, Anne Bonny and Mary Read led no more interesting lives than Shirland is allegedly supposed to have led, and yet they are far more famous than Elizabeth. Sir Francis Drake took much less Spanish gold than Shirland supposedly did, and he became an hero of his nation, immortalized in history for his deeds. So why have we never heard of Shirland until recently?

The truth is that Shirland did in fact exist, and she is a genuine historical character, but there is no evidence that she ever actually went to sea. She was certainly not ever a successful pirate, if she was in fact ever one at all, and most of the details of her story can be positively disproven with little serious research efforts.

I personally suspect that whomever originally wrote the work of fiction that is Elizabeth Shirland's pirate story chose her because she (as an individual) actually did exist, in order to add a bit of realism to their story.


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