Even before the American and the French revolution introduced the concept of governmentally protected basic human rights, there was a weirdly equal society. As you’ve guessed, it’s pirates. In the midst of human rights hell (17th century), they had such luxuries as gay marriages and even something we’d now call health insurance.
As piracy was not a part of the ‘civilized’ society of that period, pirates were comfortable with the concept of male and female homosexuality, transgender people, and whoever you may choose or were born to be.
We are not sure of what are the rules of Talk Like a Pirate Day is, but today we’re going to talk queer history.
This holiday is on the 19 of September, by the way, so you can start the preparations.
Fight? No, hugs first
Maybe it’s the nature of the sea or the gods, but gay relationships are no stranger to long voyages.
Despite the societal norms, gay sex wasn’t something unheard of even on navy and merchant ships. It helped release the tension and strengthen the bond between crew members. So, you know, if not for men hugging each other, the history would’ve known much more on-board mutinies.
However, let’s not forget that we’re talking about times around the 17th century. It’s not known best for its acceptance and tolerance, isn’t it? In British Navy gay encounters were considered immoral – ah, the classic 17th century. Any display of ‘unnatural’ affection was punished with lashes or even death by hanging.
It was usual for pirates to attack merchant ships and take whatever’s there including people.
Did pirates care for the ‘society’? Nah, they didn’t, but that was the intention. They were ‘not like others’ in every way, not only fluid sexuality and sexual preferences. Among other nonconformist rituals were saltwater baptism, giving each other new names. The least pleasing for the modern reader would be to know that pirates often toasted with saltwater in the name of their new beginnings. Out and proud is fine, but saltwater? That’s extreme.
In the works of one French researcher, we see that another pirate pre-battle ritual was embracing each other physically. Of course, it wasn’t the heartfelt best friend/lover hug we know now, but a chest bump. Still cool, if you ask us.
How gay pirates were born
The worldwide knowledge of pirates, their culture and lifestyle mostly derive from cultural myths. These are hugely influenced by the media, and the source of media in the history of the 17th-18th centuries. If you’ve watched ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and strive to know more, know you know where (or, rather, when) to look.
The Caribbean Sea is not a myth and was a real home to many, many pirates. The birthplace of pirates (not all of them, though) is the island of Hispaniola.
Piracy was born out of the least respected part of the worldwide society. Enslaved people, renegades, many minorities all had their reasons to reject the usual way of life – and so did gays. By the early years of the 17th century, Spain has abandoned Hispaniola. It’d become somewhat uninteresting as Spain gained more and more colonies.
Another societal segment had the reason to flee. Protestants, French of English, didn’t find God in the Catholic church. When it was enough of them to form an alliance of their own, they did and named themselves the Brethren of the Coast.
At first, pirates weren’t called pirates, they were ‘buccaneers’. The origin of that name was quite peaceful, actually. The Brethren of the Coast were cool guys, barbecuing before it became mainstream. The wooden barbecues, on which the Brethren smoked meat, was called ‘boucan’.
As the women had (almost) no rights whatsoever, they couldn’t even escape their lives, so the buccaneers were a kind of secret all-male society. Surely, they lived as they wanted, and for some of them, it included same-sex relationships. Gay couples had to hold a rite of passage involving jungle solitude up to two years, blood and animal skins (as wedding gowns, apparently). After this, they would travel, selling goods, and spreading love.
Buccaneers were selling meat and other stuff to occasional ships. It seems like one day someone thought ‘why sell it to them if we could just take what we want’. The piracy as it is wasn’t born yet, but we’re close.
Of course, the 17th century Spain just couldn’t allow these people to have fun. The Spanish tried to exterminate the buccaneers the smart way, by wiping out animals they’ve hunted to survive. That only made it worse, as buccaneers became more reliant on piracy.
The Spanish achieved something, though. It displaced the pirates out of Hispaniola, and they decided to settle on Tortuga. It was smaller, thus having fewer recourses, but certainly easier to defend. However, all pirates couldn’t fit on one island, so they started to do their business on the sea.
Tortuga prostitute problem
The fun thing about history is that there is always a part of the world everyone’s fighting for. In the 17th century, the country that had the most colonies was Spain, so its rivals all wanted something for themselves. Even if it was small Tortuga – English, French, and Dutch were after it just to spite Spain (in other words, ease its trade monopoly). Piracy on Tortuga, a Spain-ruled island? Who cares, thought England, France, and the Netherlands.
And that’s when things turn ugly. The goal of gaining more colonies and trade relations was close to being sacred, so everything was done to achieve it. Even the government-sponsored piracy, when people were hired to attack other countries’ ships. These people were called privateers.
But one thing Western European couldn’t tolerate. It was Tortuga’s homosexuality, as there were absolutely no women on this island.
The best idea the ‘civilized’ society could come up with is to send prostitutes to Tortuga. Surely, it was disgustingly sexist, as women were plainly sold to the one who pays more. Somehow, women had no civilizing effect on Tortuga as it was originally planned by the French.
And did gay pirates go extinct? Of course not. The same-sex relationship was somewhat a tradition by now, and no government could change that. But here’s the best thing. One of the same-sex couples could marry, but that didn’t end the gay relationship. It simply introduced a new member into a now three-way bisexual relationship.
What about health insurance and marriage equality?
Today the name of Captain Morgan doesn’t ring any bells. You may know him as the dude from the rum bottle, but the real Morgan was a privateer. He arranged wonderful working conditions for his men. For a lost limb, an eye, or a handicap there was compensation.
But there’s more than that. Thanks to Alexander Exquemelin (a pirate) we know that two men could have a right to own joint property if they were partners. If one were to die, the other would inherit the property and share of the booty. It seems like the punishments for one’s partner’s behalf occurred. Partners formally called matelots, fought as a team in battle.
Often, though not always, these matelotages were sexual.
Writer Captain Johnson (very well maybe Daniel Defoe) wrote about such partnerships. Devoting to one another was so deep that the pirate would drown with his partner rather than abandon him.
Finally, female pirates
As piracy developed, women became pirates, too. The best-known of them are Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
It’s unclear whether Mary or Anne was transgender boys, but it’s known that Mary often would dress as a man named Mark. Anne was no lees badass girl. When she was little, her father would dress her in male clothes, maybe as a safety measure. She’s reported to have killed a servant girl with a table knife at the tender age of thirteen.
Their stories deserve to be adapted on screen. At first, Read would pretend to be a man to work at sea, but when the pirates attacked her ship, she became one of them. Anne Bonny became a pirate deliberately when having a holiday (or a work trip? We’ll never know) in the Bahamas. There she met a man – a pirate – and they became lovers. Soon they were joined by Mary. Imagine what a crew they were.
Read also: Coming Out Through The History
After a short period of assuming the other one was a man, Mary and Anne confessed to each other they were girls. Apparently, Anne’s lover captain John Rackham was jealous, but not after she told him Read’s also a woman.
It goes even more romcom-ish. The three of them, still being on the Bahamas, stole a ship, recruited a crew, and sailed off into the sunset.
The tragic end
It all ended in the year 1720. The story turned from romance to drama, and our main heroes met their end. The crew was having a party when a pirate hunter attacked their ship. The party must’ve been great, as the men were too drunk to put up a decent fight. It left only one man and two women, Mary and Anne, to defend the ship. Rackham was among the defeated man, and he was put to death.
The women weren’t sentenced as they were both expecting, but later only Anne survived, as Mary met her end in prison.
Among male pirates, Captain Bartholomew Roberts was one of the most famous ones – and a type that’d be recreated later. One a merchant, he was captured by pirates and persuaded to become one. From now on, it a story of a self-made man, as he was first noticed thanks to his great skills. He was elected as captain when the previous one died, so – democracy.
As the English gentleman he was, he preferred tea to alcohol. As a pirate, he avoided women, which may or may not be the sign of him being gay. Roberts is also famous for establishing a Pirate’s Code, which over the centuries has become no less of a legend than he is.
Read also: The one and only: “gay gene”
One of the provisions forbade anyone to bring a woman on board – under pain of death, no less. Boys were banned, too.
Together till the end
Actually, yes, besides being a legend Robert’s was very gay. His love story is another which can be adapted into a good pirate romantic drama.
Once, after a particularly successful working day, Captain Roberts and his crew acquired a surgeon named George Wilson. Thinking that a doctor would be needed anywhere, he volunteered to join the crew, and he wasn’t wrong.
The lovers were separated by the circumstances, as Wilson was somehow left on land for almost half a year. After these long five months, the captain and the surgeon did meet again. According to the recollections, the captain and surgeon were very happy to see each other.
Back with the crew, George seems to have spent every minute to get close to the captain. His hard work paid off when he was chosen, senior surgeon. This, of course, involved more interactions with Roberts. Soon their bond became stronger, and their relationship grew intimate. Apparently, they were the first to dramatically promise one another to die together rather than get captured by the authorities.
They didn’t. After long years of work, Roberts was captured by the British. Unlike other stories, he wasn’t sentenced to hanging but plainly shot in battle. His partner survived. Seemingly, George talked his way out of the death sentence and fled.
Other members of the crew met no less cruel end than their captain. 52 were hanged, and 65, being black men, sold into slavery.
Opposing the straight history, pirate culture has lots of openly gay figures. It seems like all famous homosexual pirate couples consist of a captain and a crew member, and this one is no exception. After years of ravaging the sea they were arrested and imprisoned, but not separated.
According to one researcher, in French West Indies a straight marriage wasn’t the only choice. A popular analog was a male ‘civil partnership’, as we’d call it now.
Changed, but not forgotten
Often the real history is more interesting than the film. Nevertheless, pirate movies are one of the best from all of the entertainment media.
The lead actor of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, Johnny Depp, said that he was inspired by all of these gay pirate stories. When he was asked why the heck he plays Captain Jack Sparrow the way he does, he replied that all the men he plays are gay.
What can we say about it? Well, we’re totally on board.