Pirates Are Gay (No, Really)
Pirates, a crowd favorite for obvious reasons, but did you know that they had incredibly progressive views for the time? Nathan digs into the social structure of pirates in the golden age of piracy, tells us about their dealings with the government meets of the time and how they conducted themselves.
What we know about pirates:
Peg Legs, scurvy, eye patches, bad attitudes, anti-authority, etc... a lot of what we know as general knowledge we get from shows like Black Flag, and Disney movies which isn't a completely wrong depiction of how they did things, but it doesn't really get to the meat of how they lived their lives.
Aaaaannnnddd since its Pride season and a lot of us are feeling withdrawals from Our Flag Means Death, it's kind of a perfect time to discuss it their lives on the sea
So, in the 17th and 18th century, piracy was kind of at its height. That's where a lot of our stories romanticizing the life come from. The idea of major navies having it out for pirates is both true and portrayed pretty accurately. It's a pretty simple situation honestly, the government wants these people to follow the rules, they don't, thus clash. Easy stuff.
What we don't usually discuss though is that the Navy, merchant sailing, and pirating was a male dominated profession. This was mostly because the higher ups thought bringing women onto the boats would cause internal struggles in the crew. Whatever that means, it was their excuse.
Now, we all know the uhhh stereotypes that come from being a navy man, and honestly, how are you gonna get it when it's all dudes and you're out at sea for months at a time? The navies of that era, and especially the British Navy had strict rules against having sex with other dudes while in service. If you were caught, you were often subjected to the whip or hung.
It was for this reason that many pirates would recruit from merchant and navy ships that they targeted. When new crew were taken aboard their new homes they often were given saltwater baptisms, new names, and often cheered with saltwater drinks, which seems a little weird but do you I guess.
These new pirates were often relieved to be free from the restrictions of society, which meant that they also weren't beholden to the laws regarding sexuality, and were free to be themselves.
We all know about Pirates of the Caribbean, and one of the reasons we know about this is because when the story is told, is during the Golden Era of pirating, specifically between 1650 and 1730. The Spanish had abandoned their colonies in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, known then as Hispaniola.
As such, this place became a haven for deserters, slaves, sailors, and mutinous soldiers. Everyone and anyone who needed a place to hide was welcome, and everyone hated the Catholic Spaniards. Eventually, they created the Brethren of the Coast. They were famous mostly for their hunting and local cooking method which was a wood burning style of BBQ, called Boucan. It was from this that they inherited the name Buccaneers.
Again, it was mostly a male society, often two men would disappear into the woods for 6 months, and come out wearing whatever they hunted, covered in blood, and enlightened by the experience. Buccaneers while hunters also dabbled in pirating, and since the Spanish wasn't happy with their arrangement, tried to wipe them and the animal they hunted. This in turn made them more dependent on pirating since it was more profitable.
Eventually, this group was pushed to the island of Tortuga. This ended up being the perfect spot for the pirates as Tortuga has English and French colonies. This ended up being a fantastic situation for not only the pirates but also the French, English, and Dutch governments who were obviously opposed to the trade monopoly the Spanish government had at the time. So, they conveniently turned a blind eye to their piracy, and in some cases, paid the pirates to do their bidding in what we know as privateering.
Now, Tortuga wasn't without its political issues, in fact, the French government HATED that they were so open about same-sex marriage, which by this time we are Matelotage or Seamanship for those English folks. Matelage was seen as both an economic joining of two people, but also as a marriage between two loving couples. So, when the government doesn't want you to be having sex with the boy across the cabin, it doesn't matter what it is, it's what they think it is. SO, the French governor Jean Le Vasseur, in his infinite wisdom about all things piratey, decided that he was going to send over 1,650 female prostitutes.
This deeply sexist man, thought that sending over 1,600 women would civilize these men. However, the pirates saw through his attempt at breaking the social norm of Tortuga, by selling these women to them, and in true fashion, any woman that was brought in, usually just ended up as part of a throuple. See, Tortuga had seen homosocial and likely homosexual relationships for so long, that trying to throw a wrench in the works wasn't as easy as everyone thought.
Getting back to Matelotage: One of the first and most famous pirates we all know is on a bottle of rum. Captain Henry Morgan, he was a privateer who drafted a contract for his crew. You could consider it one of the earliest versions of health insurance. You would get 600 pieces of eight if you lost a hand or foot in battle, 1800 if you lost both legs, 200 for an eye, and then 2000 if you became completely blind.
However, this isn't the only thing allowed under these contracts, they also allowed and encouraged civil unions of same-sex couples.
Buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin wrote: 'It is the general and solemn custom amongst them all to seek out... a comrade or companion, whom we may call partner... with whom they join the whole stock of what they possess.'
Pirates were known to respect the Matelotage enough that they would never interfere with the relationship. It was also noted that even if the pretense of the joining was economic, it was almost always sexual.
The joining meant that if one partner were to die, the other would inherit all of their possessions, and in all raids after the fact, would gain their partner's piece of the booty. It was noted by one captain Johnson, that some pairings were so strong, that he once saw a man refuse to leave a sinking ship without his matelot, and the pair died together
In the later years of the Golden age around 1719, Bartholomew Roberts would be recruited from his station on a merchant ship. He was reluctant at first, but eventually came to terms as his motto was "A Merry life and a short one". Within six weeks of his recruitment, his captain had died and the crew elected him as the new Captain.
Shortly after, he captured a ship with 40,000 gold moidores (Portuguese golds coins), the value being around $10mil USD currently. He was instantly the most successful pirate of the era. Interestingly enough, he was also the one who introduced the Pirate's Code which is often referenced in media. One part of the code forbade crew members to try and convince women and children onto their boats with the penalty being death.
That said, Roberts was again not against having relationships with crew members. One account tells of his relationship with his ship surgeon George Wilson who joined the crew after they took his ship. He quickly became Roberts senior surgeon they started an intimate relationship. Apparently, Wilson was once left on shore (or deserted) for 5 months, but was then reunited with Roberts after he took yet another ship that Wilson happened to be on. Someone on the crew reported that Wilson was very alert and cheerful to be back in Robert's presence
Supposedly, the two had said "Ig they ever meet the turnip ma (King George), that would blow up and go to hell together", unfortunately that's not how they died. Roberts was shot, and Wilson managed to negotiate his escape from the british navy.
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