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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 Many historians claim to have no theory when they mean that they make out-of-date “common-sense” assumptions; so Dr.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; it would have been worth looking at this far-from-aristocratic group.

Dr. Burg frequently indulges in historical speculation, some of it interesting, most of it unsupported by much evidence. He depicts his pirate crews as self-sufficient homosexual communities, who even when ashore had little use for women. So he starts with intriguing guesses about the previous sexual experience of those who become pirates. He assumes—not implausibly—that were drawn mostly from the navy or the mercantile marine (on whose ships homosexual practices were likely to prevail) or from English vagabonds, or from apprentices. He argues forcefully, though without much evidence, that all-male groups of roving vagabonds must have practiced buggery, since they were cut off, socially and economically, from the rest of the population and could not afford prostitutes. (“The life of the wandering youth was passed in a predominantly male and primarily homosexual milieu.”) This might be plausible if we knew that male vagabonds and down-and-outs seriously outnumbered females. But Dr. Burg produces no evidence to establish this, and I know of none.

The usual complaint made at the time was of the heterosexual promiscuity of vagabonds. Similarly with apprentices. They—unlike vagabonds—were not an isolated group cut off from society; many of them came from relatively prosperous families. Few can have been so poverty-stricken as not to be able to afford prostitutes. Yet Dr. Burg asserts that “it is equally certain that all apprentices or even large numbers of them lacked the charm, purse, or inclination to satisfy their physical desires heterosexually. A portion of these became involved in homosexual liaisons as a matter of preference, others as a response to sexual deprivation.” If that is true, its truth has certainly not been demonstrated. In London, Dr. Burg continues, “homosexuality was more easily tolerated than in other sections of the country and apprentices were sufficiently numerous to exert a profound socializing effect on each other.” Again, this can no more be disproved that it can be proved. So Dr. Burg’s basic assumption, that pirates were recruited from social groups in which homosexual practices were already familiar, will not stand up—at any rate without much more evidence than he has yet produced.

This does not necessarily mean that Dr. Burg is wrong. If he had read a little more widely he might have found a better theory. Demographers insist that the average age of marriage until the later eighteenth century was between twenty-five and twenty-seven. (Historians are less confident that demographers’ basic—and indeed only—source, parish registers, is reliable enough to support the confident conclusions that are drawn from it, but that is another argument: parish registers are all that demographers have.) Anyone who reflects for a moment must ask himself what happened between the sexes before they reached the age of twenty-five or twenty-six. From puberty to age twenty-six is a long time, even if puberty came later in the seventeenth century than today, and for the poor was delayed by undernourishment.

Extramarital or premarital sex seems the obvious conclusion. But no satisfactory evidence has yet been produced for widespread knowledge of contraceptive practices that could prevent the birth of illegitimate children. Yet our leading authority on these matters, Dr. E.A. Wrigley, tells us with absolute conviction that when the age of marriage dropped by about three years in the later eighteenth century, and the proportion of potentially child-bearing unmarried women was reduced by half, the consequent increase in the illegitimacy ratio. Why had the illegitimacy rate been lower when couples had to wait so much longer before getting married?

If Wrigley’s figures are reliable, men and women must have copulated less while waiting longer before marrying. So how did people cope before reaching the magic age of twenty-six? Infanticide could have been one answer, but demographers are firm that this did not occur on any significant scale. The alternatives appear to be mass sexual abstention, which is perhaps unlikely, or masturbation, isolated or mutual. But Burg’s speculations suggest further possibilities—buggery and bestiality as familiar practices in the countryside among English youths. This might have been worth investigating. I suspect that more evidence might be forthcoming for bestiality than for male homosexuality; but this is a guess. Dr. Burg in fact quotes a suggestive passage from John White’s The First Century of Scandalous, Malignant Priests (1643), in which the author’s disapproval in “the case of a minister who engaged in homosexual buggery eighteen times…was mitigated” by the reverend gentleman’s “expression of horror at fathering bastard children.” But this intriguing glimpse of buggery as a form of birth control is not followed up.

Another of Dr. Burg’s interesting but unproven claims is that in practice buggery was not regarded as a very serious offense. It was routinely denounced from the pulpit, but so were a multitude of other sins. The legal penalty was death, but very few men were in fact executed for it, and then there were usually other charges. Dr. Burg suggests that this must mean that buggery was a relatively acceptable practice arousing no particular horror, such as—he asserts—attached to homosexual practices in the nineteenth century. He may be right; but his case is certainly not established. It is based on fragmentary evidence, often tendentiously glossed (“If the story was accurate it indicates at first perusal that the mob was seriously offended by Holdbrook’s deed. This, however, need not have been the case…”).

An influential article by J.M. Beattie, in a book from which Dr. Burg quotes, argued that very few of the ferocious statutes threatening the death sentence for innumerable offenses were regularly enforced in the eighteenth century.* The possibility existed in terrorem; it was enforced only when special circumstances seemed to require it. (This perhaps made sense in a society with no police force, in which those who were charged were tried by a jury of their neighbors, who would know when allowances were to be made.) The treatment of buggery as described by Dr. Burg seems to fit perfectly into this pattern: there is no reason to accept his suggestion that the offense was especially leniently treated.

I have perhaps dwelt unfairly on Dr. Burg’s background chapters, but they are essential to his argument. For once he gets his pirates aboard their ships evidence becomes much scarcer. “While first-hand descriptions, journal accounts, legal records, or even literary evidence would all be desirable, in most cases they are not to be had.” What evidence does survive convinces Dr. Burg “that among the men of this seafaring comunity, there was no need to hide sexual orientation, and the anxieties, psychological disruptions, and psychopathological difficulties that often result from this type of guilt and repression did not emerge.” But this conclusion depends much more on theoretical insights from studies of twentieth-century prisons than on anything left from the seventeenth century.

Even here Dr. Burg could have done better. He cites Defoe’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates more than once, praising Defoe’s “attention to accuracy and detail” and his careful authentication of his material. Yet Defoe makes at least two important contributions to Dr. Burg’s subject that the latter fails to mention. First, Defoe includes stories of more than one lady pirate. Dr. Burg may regard this as an instance of “the occasional inclusion of a fictional buccaneer,” but it would have been worth arguing about. It is relevant to the conception of the pirate crew as a closed community, with little interest in the other sex. Secondly, Defoe has a long account of a utopian property-sharing community established on Madagascar by Captain Misson (not Mission). Dr. Burg regards this as “fictional.” He is probably right; but there are other stories of egalitarian pirate communities on Madagascar. They might have been worth analyzing for possible contributions to an understanding of the sexual aspirations and fantasies of pirates. Finally, Dr. Burg never even mentions the classical evocation of the life and ethos of pirate crews, Marcus Rediker’s “Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726,” published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1981. Perhaps it came out too late for him to use it.

Dr. Burg puts historians to shame by raising extremely interesting questions that no one before had asked. But his speculations, even when backed by behavioral theory, cannot make up for the almost complete lack of hard evidence. Dr. Burg does his best with modern parallels—prisons, crews of submarines and oil tankers—but they cannot be compared with seventeenth-century pirates, the main characteristic of whose lives, as Rediker brilliantly shows, was freedom from subordination, freedom from deference, an ability to determine their own destinies within the limits of a life that was by its nature nasty, brutish, and short. Dr. Burg’s guesses about their sexual habits are highly plausible, and the scraps of evidence he has collected, often fascinating, are compatible with his picture. We glimpse John Durrant and Abdul Rhyme buggering and mutually masturbating in full view on the quarter deck. Captain Norman, on the other hand, as befitted his rank used to close and lock the cabin door before buggering his servant. But it remains guesswork. Dr. Burg’s title is perhaps pardonably lurid, but I couldn’t find anything in the book about “the perception of evil.” It is not my impression that his pirates thought sodomy evil. It came naturally.

  1. *

    Crime and the Courts in Surrey, 1736-1753” in Crime in England 1550-1880, edited by J.S. Cockburn (Princeton University Press, 1977).

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