No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#74: Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition -- B. R. Burg

In which Professor Burg sets out the thesis that homosexual behaviour was natural and normal and very much the done thing in Caribbean buccaneer communities around 1700.

The first chapter, 'Sodomy and Public Perception in Seventeenth-Century England', argues that sodomy was not viewed as negatively in Stuart society as it would be later: homosexual characters in plays and broadsheets were more likely figures of fun than stereotypes of wickedness. "Crimes of violence and treasonous plots were common subjects of the penny sheets, but on the rare occasions when they dealt specifically with sodomy it was clear they regarded it as a minor offence within the panoply of evil deeds." (p.33)

Chapter Two, 'To Train Up a Buccaneer', adds that vagabonds and criminals were unlikely to get many opportunities for heterosexual behaviour. Chapter Three, 'The Caribee Isles', presents some statistics about the demographic imbalance in the Caribbean colonies: far fewer women transported than men (though I hadn't previously encountered the argument that women could get out of transportation by pleading pregnancy: I'd thought they were more likely to have a capital sentence commuted to transportation for that reason); those women who emigrated mostly doing so as part of a family; female servants jealously guarded in case pregnancy should curtail their economic usefulness.

Chapter Four, 'Buccaneer Sexuality', and Chapter Five, 'The Buccaneer Community', argue in favour of predominantly homosexual behaviour amongst the pirates, whether bound by emotional and affectionate ties or simply the "homoerotic unity often observed between men in times of hardship, crisis or danger". Burg makes a case for penetrative rather than oral sex -- for reasons of hygiene, class-related mistrust of 'exotic' behaviour, and the pirates having "no need to include in their sexual practice techniques well-suited to furtive encounters." (136) -- and explores pirate nicknames, drinking habits and behaviour towards female captives.

I'd find the theory more credible if I trusted Burg's research a little more. There are minor errors -- for instance,the name of the founder of the Scout movement given as Richard, rather than Robert, Baden-Powell -- that shouldn't have made it into a second edition: there are ... interpretations that are presented as fact. Burg writes of Dampier buying the 'tattooed lad' Jeoly, and of their 'deep attachment': "Ownership of Jeoly had its pleasures but all was not joy for the Captain in the relationship." (123). Jeoly was a man in his thirties, and Dampier wasn't a captain. There's nothing in Dampier's own writing, or that of those who knew him, to support Burg's interpretation.

Burg readily admits there isn't actually much evidence:
...the absence of substantial quantities of documentation for pirate actions does not inhibit research into their intimate lives to any greater degree than would have been the case if more material were available. Still, despite the lack of familiar historical source materials and the total absence of the type of psychological data that has formed the base for much modern research on homosexuality, there remains cause for cheer. The very paucity of information on individuals vitiates many of the conceptual and theoretical problems that have vexed investigators and turned so many of them in directions that produce little but valueless articles. The passage of time and the absence of truly revealing personal records only channels research away from the preferences or general orientation of individual pirates and instead directs it towards the entire pattern of buccaneer homosexual behaviour. (44)
In other words, no tedious facts to get in the way!

I'd be surprised if there wasn't a tendency to homosexual behaviour, at least in the absence of other options, in a substantial portion of buccaneer 'society'. But I'm not convinced it was the norm, or that the majority of pirates were uninterested in women. (Or that 'a pirate forced into a situation of equality with a female would undoubtedly have been as uncomfortable as [if he'd been sitting] down to dinner with the king' (172).)


  1. Anonymous5:33 pm

    This is all sheer poppycock.

  2. @ anonymous:
    the book, or my review of it?