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So, being the committed slasher that I am, one of the first things I did when beginning my Pirates of the Caribbean research was look for books about pirate sexuality. I found and read two that addressed the subject in detail, and thought I'd give some summary/review for the benefit of those attempting to discuss 17th Century pirates and their sexuality.

(Note: I should probably mention that there was no equivalent term for "homosexual" or "gay" in the 17th Century. Not only did the words not exist in their current meaning, there was in fact no actual formal concept of same-sex sexual preference. Same-sex sexual relationships were instead defined in the courtroom by the legal definitions of sodomy, which is why that term is used so frequently in my summaries.)

Burg, B. R. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea-Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. Orig. title: Sodomy and the Perception of Evil: English Sea-Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: New York UP, 1983.


Essentially, Burg's argument is that a number of factors in 17th Century English society combined to produce groups of men who preferred the homosocial/homosexual life aboard ship to the heterosocial/heterosexual life led by the landbound community.

First, Burg discusses 17th Century attitudes towards sodomy, using trial records and other sources to suggest that, even though sodomy was illegal and punishable by death, in practice the majority of citizens of all classes were very tolerant. He argues that in many instances where men were prosecuted for sodomy, the sodomy itself wasn't the issue, but rather was a means of bringing legal action against someone for political or personal gain. Burg also notes that even those convicted of sodomy were often given very light sentences, suggesting that most citizens felt the offense to be far less than the law decreed.

Next, Burg turns to the socialization of the young men who most often became pirates. Many future pirates, he says, came from the poorer classes, and were often turned out of their homes to fend for themselves at a very young age. These boys formed groups for protection, and Burg suggests that this early induction into a homosocial order was a crucial factor in their choice to join a similarly all-male group as adults. Burg also asserts, using records of seamen's wages and numbers, that sailors were always in short supply, and that sailors could, in fact, choose whether or not to pursue a career that included frequent trips to shore, or to opt for the long months and years of service aboard warships and merchant ships. This choice, Burg argues, was often dictated by the sailor's desire for the all-male society aboard ship.

Burg next turns to the social structure of the Caribbean islands, showing through population records and records of transportation that the population of most of the major English settlements in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly male. Not only that, Burg argues that the women who did live there were not available for sexual encounters to the lower classes, ie to the men who were or who became pirates. In some sense, then, the Caribbean was practically devoid of women, at least as far as pirates were concerned.

Having established that pirates lived in what was essentially an all-male society, even when on shore, Burg then begins to discuss pirate sexuality, and to draw parallels between pirate sexuality and modern studies done of the sexual practices of prisoners and other institutionalized men. He draws from 17th century accounts to show the deep affection that some pirates demonstrated for those who were their friends, in some cases dying for each other. Burg also builds on his earlier arguments to claim that the homosocial lifestyle was one deliberately chosen by many pirates. He also asserts that the relative permissiveness in the 17th Century would have freed the pirates to practice whatever sexuality they pleased. These factors, combined with modern research showing the significantly higher rate of homosexual relationships in prisons, lead Burg to suggest that homosexual relationships were an important facet of life aboard a pirate ship. Burg also discusses actual sexual practices, including reasoning of why fellatio was likely not a common act, and the general acceptance of semi-public or public sex.

Finally, Burg discusses a number of modern notions about homosexuality and applies them to what is known of pirates. He suggests that there was no gay culture in the 17th Century because there was no need for homosexuals to have a "safe" means of meeting or identifying one another. Since sodomy, according to Burg's earlier arguments, was not the dangerous practice then that it could be in modern times, there was no need to develop an exclusively gay culture or lifestyle.

Burg also discusses the cabin boys as sexual/social companions for the higher-ranking men aboard ship, particularly the captain. He explores the few cases of sodomy that were prosecuted aboard Royal Navy ships, and, again, argues that the charges were usually brought for reasons other than a single act of sodomy itself.

Burg concludes by discussing several other traits often associated with pirates and with sodomites--both 17th Century and modern--including effeminancy, sado-masochism, and alcoholism, and showing that these traits are not necessarily part of either culture.

Burg ends his book with the following:

"The male engaging in sexual activity with another male aboard a pirate ship in the West Indies three centuries past was simply an ordinary member of his community, completely socialized and acculturated. The appearance and institutions of his society were substantial reflections of the heterosexual England that produced him, and the functional accomodations made to adjust for homosexuality were minor. The lives of the pirates were ordinary within the context of their chronological period and their economic requirements, and instances of antisocial, depraved, or pathological behavior were not noticeably more common than in concomitant heterosexual society." (175)


I wanted to believe this theory. I really did. I mean, what more could a slasher ask for than to have her character's sexuality validated by actual historical research? Unfortunately, while Burg does provide persuasive evidence about the general permissiveness of 17th Century attitudes towards homosexuality, and the acceptance of homosexual relationships at sea, in the end I simply wasn't convinced that this permissiveness, combined with all-male societies aboard pirate ships, inevitably led to homosexuality, or that men deliberately chose the pirate life chiefly because of the homosocial nature of pirate society.

One serious shortcoming of Burg's argument is his tendency to make frequent unproven assertions that are not necessarily directly supported by his sources. For instance, he uses certain records to show that sailors were in great demand, but then jumps to the confident statement that sailors who preferred a heterosexual environment could likely find employment on coastal vessels, while those who opted for more far-reaching ships had "chosen all-male environments when in most cases they could have chosen the coastal trade" (57).

Another feature of Burg's writing that makes me less confident in his conclusions is his habit of pulling facts from sources without directly quoting them. Instead, he would often build a paragraph around one or more sources, citing them as proof without any direct examples, and then tag the paragraph with an endnote citing the sources. The reader has to accept on faith that the sources say or imply what he claims, and this, again, makes me wary. I don't believe that Burg falsified his sources or was deliberately misleading, but his reluctance--or inability--to cite specific passages suggests to me that his interpretation of his material may very well be open to debate.

All this aside, there is some very valuable research included in this book. As mentioned before, I found Burg's analysis of the relative permissiveness of 17th Century attitudes towards sodomy to be fairly convincing, and in fact his assertions are supported by other sources of my acquaintance. Likewise, I was intrigued by his portrait of the early lives of the men who were most likely to become pirates, and the implications it had for the brand of sexuality to be found aboard pirate ships. The chapter on "Buccaneer Sexuality" also had some useful points to make.

I would also like to say that my criticism of Burg's book doesn't mean that I'm convinced that he was utterly wrong. It's simply that he wasn't able to sufficiently persuade me that he was right. What evidence he was able to uncover doesn't necessarily contradict his claims, but neither does it provide proof positive. I suppose my main objection to his argument isn't that it seems unlikely, but that he has had to stretch his sources beyond the bounds of credibility, and has been forced into making unsupported statements in order to bolster his theory. This is more a flaw in the material available than a flaw in his methodology, but I could wish that he were more frank about the tenuousness of his assertions.

In the end, I wouldn't call Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition an authoritative source for claiming that the pirate culture was a homosexual one. But I would recommend it as a summary of 17th Century attitudes towards sexuality, and as a source of certain pieces of information about pirate culture and pirate sexuality. Just bring some salt along.

September 2012

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