Lambda Lore

Yo Ho Yo Ho a Pirate’s Life for Me

According to history professor Barry R. Burg, amid the climate of toleration of the English Restoration Era, there flourished one of the most unusual homosexually oriented groups in history, the Caribbean Pirates. That men who went to sea generally practiced sodomy is not a startling revelation. Even Winston Churchill was attributed to have remarked that “rum, sodomy and the lash” were Royal Naval traditions.

The Royal Navy filled its ranks from beggar boys and vagrants, often against the will of these youths, who regularly fell victim to the Navy’s press gangs. Once on board their first navy vessel these boys may have resisted sexual contact with their shipmates before succumbing to the prevailing sexual practices. In fact, the proportion of situational homosexuality must have risen in both the Navy and the commercial fleet during these ‘recruitment’ practices. Still, many other men joined the Royal Navy because they preferred the company of men to women. Ironically, the primary source of hands to man pirate vessels came from the vast pool of sailors who were pressed into service and had learned seamanship aboard ships of England’s merchant or naval fleets.

The origins of English piracy in the Caribbean reach back to the 16th century when Spain founded her American Empire on Indian gold and silver. Elizabethan adventurers and “sea dogs” discovered that vast treasures could be had by raiding Spanish settlements and capturing their treasure transports. English sea rovers returned home rich from their New World plundering, and reports of their successes encouraged others to follow their leads. If the royal government received its portion of the Spanish booty then they authorized the actions of the “privateers.” But if they did not, they called these adventurers pirates.

In the early 17th century, English colonies were not planned as permanent places of residence for large populations. They were commercial enterprises, and in the West Indies and Virginia they required the establishment of all-male villages. A census of Barbados residents in 1635 showed “94 percent were male, none were under 10 years old and they were virtually no married couples among the group.”

In 1655 Margaret Heathcote of Antigua wrote to her cousin John Winthrope Jr., governor of Massachusetts saying: “And truly Sir, I am not much in love with any as to go much abroad … they all be a company of sodomites that live here.”

That same year Admiral Sir William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania) captured Jamaica and with it Port Royal, which served for a time as the capital of Caribbean piracy. When Governor Thomas Modyford, in 1664, began encouraging pirates to seek safety in Jamaica, there were 22 full time privateering crafts using Port Royal’s facilities and each may have carried an average crew of 60 men.

Port Royal was reputed to have been the most corrupt and debauched town in all England’s dominions. Yet nowhere in the surviving evidence of the city’s demographics is there any evidence of a large contingent of unattached women or prostitutes to serve the hundreds of mariners always in port. Port Royal was universally known as the Sodom of the Caribbean. An earthquake in 1692 caused two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea killing between 1,000 and 3,000 people — over half the city’s population.

Men who sailed aboard vessels flying the Jolly Roger most often decided to become pirates when their own ship was taken by a buccaneer craft. Others who signed aboard pirate crafts usually did so after jumping ship half a world away from England. Often they had grown to manhood among the predominantly male shipboard environment where homosexuality or homosexual acts were accepted practice. English sailors, who knowingly elected to live in the all-male environment of the seafarer, found the sexual situation on pirate ships similar to that they had abandoned as honest seamen.

In the 17th century, sodomy, rather than oral sex, was the preference among homosexuals due to the lack of personal hygiene. Among the middle and lower classes, body cosmetics were unknown, and soap and water were rarely or never used. In countries where circumcision is rare, the continual accumulation of smegmal matter, bodily secretions, fecal and urinary traces, perspiration, bacteria and dirt in the pubic area and its pungent odor rendered the practice of oral genital contact generally obnoxious. So uncircumcised English men restricted themselves to sexual practices such as anal intercourse and masturbation.

Among the Caribbean pirates there was a unique institution called “matelotage.” It began as no more than a master-servant relationship which originated in cases of men selling themselves to other men to satisfy debts or to obtain food. In many cases matelots were no more than slaves – overworked, beaten, sexually abused, murdered or sold by their masters. However, pirates later considered matelotage as a bond of inviolate attachment existing between two men that existed as long as the master wanted it to remain.

A sharing of all property was a recognized feature of matelotage. The common ownership of goods even extended in most cases to inheritance. In the Caribbean, when a pirate died, all his goods went to his partner, whether master or matelot. So strong was the practice of matelotage that after the attack on Maracaibo, the pirate Captain L’Olonnais was careful to make sure that the booty was divided not only among the survivors, but that the portions belonging to those killed were distributed to their matelots.

On the rare occasion when pirates took wives, the rights of the matelot were eroded only in terms of his claim to the survivor’s benefits. If he still remained a matelot during his master’s marriage, he retained access to his master’s property and could demand and usually obtained the same connubial rights as the wife.

When Captain Louis Le Golif married a woman in 1665, the captain’s matelot Pulverin, was distraught but subsequently claimed his rights and was admitted into the marriage chamber. Pulverin was never reconciled to sharing Le Golif with a female and in due course he obtained revenge on his female rival. On returning from a raid, the Captain sent Pulverin ahead to notify the waiting wife of her husband’s impending return. Madam Le Golif was caught in bed with another man and Pulverin killed the woman and her lover, then disappeared. Captain Le Golif eventually found another matelot named LeBeque and was especially fond of him, but he never recovered entirely from the loss. His heart remained with Pulverin.

Professor Burg claimed through his studies that the sexual unions between buccaneers often involved deep and abiding love. The attachment of buccaneers to their matelots, boys and lovers is evidence that homosexual passions were easily as intense as those as heterosexuals and were instances of deepest devotion.

Reference: Barry R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean NYU Press, 1995.

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