Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, Second Edition By B R Burg 2005. This Review is by John Cook

pirates

I confess to thinking that this might be a blood-curdling exposé of all things piratical but it turned out to be a deeply scholarly review of the circumstances preceding the period in question and a careful analysis of what might have happened within the closed confines of Caribbean piratical society. I suspect that it was originally a PhD before its original publication in 1983 and updating in 1999 and a paperback edition in 2005. That is not to say that this work is unreadable – heavy at times, yes – rewarding yes. I shall never look at a Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the same light again!

 

While the primary focus is on 1650 to 1700, the author prefaces (extensively) his research by carefully examining sodomitical behaviour (‘homosexuality’ didn’t exist) in England and the US prior to the buccaneer/pirate period. While there is no shortage of careful academic history analysis here, the result is  a reasonably readable examination of a period usually largely skimmed over or limited to listing the horrendous punishments that were on the ‘books’. Burg, however makes a strong point in that there were remarkably few recorded instances of such punishments during the period of interest. Further, there were often clearly indications of other agendas being at work when charges were laid. One interesting example of accusations being made came from the colony of New Haven where an unfortunate who freely admitted to sex with two men, encouraging boys to masturbate, and (most heinous of all) admitted to being agnostic!

 

The author spends considerable time on looking at the social grouping from which most pirates would have come and focuses on the living conditions of poor young males who were often ejected from their families while quite young and joined an often mobile group of wanderers who minimally got into regular trouble with petty theft and often more serious crimes. He also examines the role of the Royal Navy (pressganging) and merchant marine as possible sources for recruiting and breeding grounds for all-male groups who were often without prospect of heterosexual socialisation and even less any chance of opposite sex sexual contact. He also examines the role of convicts and some who journeyed to the Caribbean as indentured labourers.

 

Some reference is made to duplication of some of these pressures in contemporary location such as the long sea voyages of tankers, though in contemporary military situations there is probably a degree of awareness  of counteractive planning.

 

He make a powerful case for a variety of pressures creating circumstances where sodomy amongst such groups of sexually isolated male pirates was virtually inevitable  – though there is no mention of ‘homosexuality’ and virtually nothing of effeminacy. There are, however, instances of very special bonding occurring between these men leading to recorded instance of self-sacrifice. Burg also indicates that instances of female rape of prisoners were remarkably low while admitting that there were clear instances of the most psychopathic violence from some (most often from leaders who had utilised that characteristic to gain power).

 

In short, forces of socio-cultural, economic and political nature created, for a period, a set of circumstances that nurtured and maintained an exclusive homosocial environment where sexual expression as sodomy, with or without bonding, was the most common and unremarkable.

 

He concludes

 

“… 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.”

 

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