Jolly Rogers

Sodomy and the Perception of Evil: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean

by B.R. Burg
New York University Press, 215 pp., #20.00

Dr. Burg’s object is to take the seventeenth-century Caribbean pirates as a self-sufficient isolated population and to consider the incidence of homosexuality among them. It is an interesting idea. But there are problems. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he proclaims, than that this is “a historical work.” It “relies heavily on behavioral theory and other devices from the social and behavioral sciences that are often anathema to historians.” That is fair enough, and does not render “apoplectic” this historian. Dr. Burg draws parallels between seventeenth-century pirates and modern secluded populations whose behavior has been studied, such as inmates of prisons and submarine crews. These offer intriguing analogies, but there are also significant differences, to which Dr. Burg very properly draws attention, notably that his pirates had mostly freely chosen their closed society, and voluntarily submitted themselves to such discipline as they knew.

But it is not so easy to deal with the past without taking account of history. Many historians claim to have no theory when they mean that they make out-of-date “common-sense” assumptions; so Dr. Burg relies on old-fashioned and unreliable history instead of having no history at all. His main sources for the social history of England during his period are Peter Laslett’s work, and Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. Professor Stone is a very distinguished historian, and his book contains a great deal of fascinating and reliable information about the aristocracy. But it is, by general consent, at its weakest when dealing with the sexual ethos and practices of the lower classes, for which accurate information is hard to come by. Yet it is, unfortunately, on the least reliable aspects of Stone’s work that Dr. Burg relies to argue that “interpersonal relationships were in the seventeenth century ‘at best cold and at worst hostile”‘; and that parents felt little affection for their children. “The excessive brutality of the poor towards their offspring, according to Lawrence Stone, deeply affected the personality of large numbers of adults.” Few historians today would regard that as an unquestionable assumption.

Dr. Burg has read widely in the literature of the period, and he is to be congratulated on bringing together a number of references to homosexuality, a subject hitherto little studied. He reminds us that kings accused of homosexuality ruled England at the beginning and end of the seventeenth century. But his single vision, and his lack of familiarity with the background, lead to distortion. Upper-class homosexuality does not necessarily tell us much about lower-class homosexuality. Dr. Burg has studied, for instance, the libertinism of Restoration drama, which he contrasts with “the decade of harsh and dreary rule of Puritan righteousness” that he thinks preceded 1660. He seems wholly unaware of the orgy of libertine speculation and practice in which Ranters and other lower- and middle-class groups indulged under “the rule of Puritan righteousness.” I do not know whether Ranters spoke up for buggery, but they advocated everything else that could shock righteous Puritans;…

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