Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean

Pirates are among the most heavily romanticized and fabled characters in history. From Bluebeard to Captain Hook, they have been the subject of countless movies, books, children's tales, even a world-famous amusement park ride.

In Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, historian B. R. Burg investigates the social and sexual world of these sea rovers, a tightly bound brotherhood of men engaged in almost constant warfare. What, he asks, did these men, often on the high seas for years at a time, do for sexual fulfillment? Buccaneer sexuality differed widely from that of other all- male institutions such as prisons, for it existed not within a regimented structure of rule, regulations, and oppressive supervision, but instead operated in a society in which widespread toleration of homosexuality was the norm and conditions encouraged its practice.

In his new introduction, Burg discusses the initial response to the book when it was published in 1983 and how our perspectives on all-male societies have since changed.

You have to love a book that begins, "The England that produced three generations of sodomitical pirates was a land far different from modern Britain or America." Burg, a professor of history at Arizona State University, wrote Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition in 1983 and updated it in 1995 (it's now in paperback). It describes how most if not all of the pirates and buccaneers who sailed the Caribbean from 1650 to 1700 had sex with each other. Homosexual behavior was rarely condemned in the West Indies or Great Britain during that century, when most of the pirates were growing up. By the early 1800s, the party was over and sailors were being executed for the crime of loving another man — or at least having sex with him. The first chapters trace the history of the perception of homosexuality in modern English society. For the most part it was tolerated if kept discreet. Sex was sex. Even in the American colonies, sexual crimes were condemned severely in the law but not in practice. Fornication and adultery were usually punished with whippings or fines, even in settlements that had been founded by families. The only person executed for sodomy in the colonies during the middle 17th century was a guy in conservative New Haven who admitted to having sex with two men, encouraging boys to masturbate and, most horrifically, being an agnostic.

Usually when people cried "sodomy" there were other motivations, such as revenge. Live-and-let-live set the stage in England. During the time there were many beggars and vagabonds roaming the countryside in groups of two to six men. Women weren't accessible (you had to have a job and money to land a wife), so over time homosexual behavior became more frequent among disenfranchised males. Some of them may have been gay; others heterosexual but without a choice of female partners. Eventually the men would end up in a coastal city. There they might be conscripted into the Royal Navy or hired to work on merchant ships. In either case, the journeys would last years at a time, and the Navy wasn't about to give shore leave to vagrants who might desert in some foreign land. So you're at sea for four years — hey, things happen. If you're on a merchant ship sailing anywhere from South America north to Bermuda, you risked being jumped by pirates. Disillusioned, maybe you join them. Like everyone on your ship and back home, the pirates were buggering each other.

Burg contrasts the pirate lifestyle with homosexual acts you find among prison inmates and notes many differences. In prison, men see their homosexuality as temporary — it's more about power, a way of saying "I'm in charge." Among the pirates, it more closely expressed their sexualities. Burg documents how many pirates, if they came upon a ship with women aboard, wouldn't touch them. Not that women weren't raped by pirates, but usually they were native or black women who were seen as "inferior." European women had never been approachable when the pirates were coming of age, and they weren't now either (in one case, a woman was simply tossed overboard with the rest of the loot the pirates didn't want). The lesson Burg draws from his research is that "aside from the production of children, homosexuals alone can fulfill satisfactorily all human needs, wants and desires, all the while supporting and sustaining a human community remarkable by the very fact that it is unremarkable.... The male engaging in homosexual activity aboard a pirate ship in the West Indies three centuries past was simply an ordinary member of his community, completely socialized and acculturated." Except for that killing and looting part, sure.


fan of casey said...

Joe: We must be on the same wave length, I just sent you email on a gay pirate song.

JoeBlow said...

FOC: I know, the gay pirate song that you sent me is what gave me the idea to post this. Check out CAM.

Uncutplus said...

Does this mean Johnny Depp is gay???

JoeBlow said...

I think it probably does, Uncutplus, LOL. Besides Depp has always said that he plays Capt. Jack Sparrow as a gay man.

adhar said...

It's not surprising that people going through all these oceans had sex between them. The contrary will be exception.

If not, men would habe gone mad. Sex is so important to us, it's worse to have not during long time. so it was just fine

JoeBlow said...

Adhar, a man will always be a man and our dicks beg us all the time to be put in some kind of hole, LOL. But I think it gives a new meaning for the use of that peg leg when it came to the bottoms on board, LOL.