Thursday, December 16, 2010
Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean
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.