Rachel's Reviews > Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean

Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition by B.R. Burg
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Jul 29, 2011

it was amazing
Read in June, 2011

This was an excellent scholarly study of the social conditions that led men and boys to become pirates. The previous title was "Sodomy and the Perception of Evil," which is probably more apt. It's rather a shame that such a well-researched, scholarly book may be mistaken for a larkish commentary on gay pirates. The author is aware of this, and in fact many of his fellow researchers refused to be acknowledged by name, unwilling to be associated with a topic that is still controversial. What a shame that respectable historians whose research happens to include the topic of sodomy should remain anonymous, as if they are authors of pornography. This book is anything but prurient. Only one chapter deals directly with buccaneer sexuality, as much as it is possible to do so with so little documentation. The author does manage to unearth some truly obscure references and I don't think any historian could possibly know more about pirate sexuality, a topic which is inherently difficult to research because of the low literacy rates in the 16-18th centuries, and the inherent unwillingness of people to document intimate sexual details, particularly those relating to homosexual acts.

However the rest of the book is more of a history of the economic and social conditions that drove men to piracy, often involuntarily. Military "press gangs" forced men into naval service, and many escaped to pirate ships where they had more freedom and more financial gain than in the navy. Pirates themselves often forced their captives to become pirates at the threat of death. The romantic image of freedom-loving pirates is far from the truth. Many were thieves and killers and yet, most were no worse than naval men and must be considered within the context of the social mores of the time in which they lived, a time in which corporal punishment, slavery, looting, and harsh treatment of children were fairly typical.

The author is primarily concerned with "situational" or "opportunistic" homosexual acts such as found in male-only prisons, jails, naval ships, and boarding schools. As such he does not write about homosexuality in the modern sense - a concept which did not exist in the age of piracy. His topic is actually relationships between men, whether they are friendships, sexual interaction, business partnerships and occassionally, romance. Especially fascinating are his sections on the gangs of homeless children that roamed England until the social reforms of the Victorian era. Children of the poor were often driven out to fend for themselves as young as 8 years old, generally because of economic necessity. Parents simply couldn't feed or care for them, and typically had many more youngsters that needed their attention. To a modern perspective, this is absolutely heartless, but given a choice between starving their infants and starving their 8- or 9-year-olds, parents had no choice but to focus their resources on the youngest, and bands of these unwanted children roved England, stealing and finding whatever work they could. These gangs were largely male and the author theorizes that many later became pirates and retained the opportunistic homosexuality they learned in these bands of boys.

The author writes extensively on sodomy and the law, and from that perspective, this book is a very well-researched history of such laws and correspondingly, how the social response to homosexual acts has changed throughout the years. His basic argument is that sodomy was only deemed a serious crime and moral sin late in the 19th century, and that, in previous centuries, it was regarded more as a peccadillo akin to adultery, considerably less serious than rape. He does not address how sodomy transitioned from a minor transgression to the mortal sin and unspeakable crime it became in the late 19th century, perhaps because this era is is beyond the age of sail with which his book is concerned. My own view, not necessarily the author's, is that the Christian notion of sin changed a great deal over the centuries, and corporal sin such as lust began to be regarded as far more serious than a sin of attitude such as avarice. In the Middle Ages, lust was a fairly minor transgression, and except in cases of adultery or sexual assault, was not thought to cause much harm to any but the parties involved. It was the subject of much comic theatre and poetry, and probably regarded with less consternation than it is today. By the Victorian era, lust and sodomy were regarded as dreadfully serious moral transgressions, and the law changed accordingly to make sodomy punishable by death and later, by years of hard labor.

I wish the author had written more about why social and legal attitudes about sodomy changed, but he simply states that they did and leaves it at that. Nonetheless, his book is exceptionally well-researched and includes many citations from rare documents and letters, some of which I am sure have never before been published. As an overview of sodomy and the law in the 16th-19th centuries, and as social history of piracy and the daily life aboard a pirate ship, this is a superb book.
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message 1: by Althea (new)

Althea Ann Sounds fascinating! Great review! :-)


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