One summer in the early Naughties, I completed a history elective in a push to finish my drawn out undergraduate education in the Arts. The subject was about pirates, an eternally sexy topic, and it was hugely popular. A semester of packed lectures, tutorials and assessments were crammed into a few short weeks and was mostly convened by a man who reminded me of Rik Mayall taking the piss out of an eccentric professor, complete with unruly brow hair. This man, let’s call him ‘Eyebrows’ herewith, made a few obligatory Arrrgh matey! and Rum-ho-ho jokes, but otherwise took himself and his subject very seriously. He had what I thought of as a train spotter’s approach to history: the dates of European wars really got him going and he spoke at length on the inventory of missing cargo on shipping logs. I dismissed him as conservative and empirical, the worst insult an idealistic left-wing undergraduate could label an elder historian in those heady days. Whenever I put up my hand to speak in the tutorials (which was often) he’d first scan the room for other takers, shrug his shoulders, sigh and nod sadly as if a few more weeks with me was just too much of a burden to bear.
In one lecture about pirate sexuality, Eyebrows flashed up the only known English portrait of a real pirate, painted by Thomas Murray circa 1697-99. One inscrutable Captain William Dampier, book in hand, stared coldly from the screen above the lecturn.
Eyebrows became expressively disgusted as he related the tragic story of Dampier and his ‘Painted Prince’, a young tattooed slave from the Philippines known as Jeoly (and sometimes Giolo). Dampier had acquired Jeoly in Madras, and they travelled together awhile before he carried the Painted Prince back to London where he was sold and exhibited as a curiosity until he caught smallpox and died.
My ears pricked up. The black-eyed pirate stared down at me, illuminated by the screen’s back light. I had only just seen Antony and the Johnsons perform melodramatic, beautiful songs in an intimate Melbourne club and this one was burning in my heart at the time:
I fell in love with you
Now you're my one, only one
'Cause all my life I've been so blue
But in that moment you fulfilled me
Now I'll tell all my friends
I fell in love with a dead boy
Antony And The Johnsons, I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy
Eyebrows also flashed up a picture of the Dead Boy, the beautiful painted man, Prince Jeoly.
Intellectually, I was aware that Antony didn’t write this song about Dampier and Jeoly, but the damage was done. I drew a long bow and decided Dampier and his Painted Prince must have been lovers. Their story struck a deep, emotional, rebellious chord. I felt the song was meant for them. I went on a quest for more information and the world of Jeoly and Dampier captured my imagination, sent it spinning with vast cockles, brisk gales, shy turtles, fertile isles carpeted with abundant clove bark, gold-rich mountains surrounded by communities of peaceful people with intricate tattoos, and a landless moody European with scabby lips, hungrily circling the calm waters around the peaceful island in a wooden sloop. I thought I had tapped into a radical historical legend, but my mind was going nowhere short of orientalist romance, fit for the large print on the Mills and Boons shelf (if it were allowed to be gay):
Jeoly gazed at the moon sinking over the ocean, the milky reflection wavering back into his glossy black eyes. Whispering softly in his native tongue he turned to the Captain in wonderment, eyes glowing as if lit from deep within. Moved by a language only they shared under the night stars, the Captain leaned over and brushed his own smooth cheek against Jeoly’s swarthy lips. He surged back, electrified and frightened by his own desire. But the beautiful young slave stepped forward calmly and drew the Captain to him with both hands. Forgetting for just a moment that their love was forbidden, the Captain traced the intricate lines of ink on this boy’s broad chest, and then sank roughly into him, hardening against Jeoly’s firm body.
And what the jolly hell was wrong with a pirate and a tattooed man engaging in a bit of transgressive love? Spoiling to confront Eyebrows with a biting final essay that would either change all his views or make him vomit, I set about writing an essay to prove that theirs was a most exquisitely forbidden and tragic love story.
When Dampier returned to Britain in 1691, his only possessions (besides his Painted Prince) were his journals, written on scrolls protected in sealed bamboo, and his diaries, which had barely survived many spillages and dryings. His journalling was dependent on the availability of materials and the kind of work he was doing, but he wrote consistently throughout his time at sea. It is likely that his record-keeping was a kind of insurance for his respectability, should he ever return home – a career in piracy would never have much currency on dry land – but it could also be said that Dampier simply had the heart and mind of a compulsive diarist.
He went about generating interest in his journals at London coffee houses and spent the next handful of years preparing them for publication with the assistance of a ‘quill driver’ who transcribed the journals. This makes up the Sloane Manuscript 3236, picked up by Sir Hans Sloane who collected the works of buccaneers (and which was in turn part of a wider collection of curiosities that made up the founding basis of the British Museum). Dampier’s amendments and notes can be found scrawled in the margins of Sloane 3236 in his own hand.
The famous explorers of Dampier’s day were captains, admirals, important and prominent people. He was just a guy from the lower echelons of society and he had to set himself apart. Thus, he set out to please the Royal Society, a Natural Science institution formed in the mid-seventeenth century to gather and regulate information flowing in from Britain’s expansion into the new world. Whether by design or by zeitgeist, it so happened that Dampier’s obsessive detailing of trade winds, breezes, storms, seasons, tides and currents, his numerous observations of plants, animals, people and landscapes, and his detached writing manner, were all aligned with that of the Royal Society. One of its eminent members, John Locke, was a forerunner of enlightenment philosophy with his formulation that knowledge is gained through sensation and experience rather than gleaned innately.
A New Voyage Around the World appeared in print in 1697, and was published by James Knapton – the Lonely Planet of his day – who specialised in nautical exploration and the true stories of journeys abroad. In a bid to walk the tightrope between Pirate and Respectable Mariner, Dampier opened his journals by acknowledging his lowly place as a common seaman, but also implied that his accumulated experiences, plainly told, were an empirical goldmine of knowledge. Whether he was advised, or maybe he was just savvy, Dampier dedicated the book to Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax and then President of the Royal Society;
Yet dare I avow, according to my narrow sphere and poor abilities, a hearty zeal for the promoting of useful knowledge, and of anything that may never so remotely tend to my country's advantage…
But Dampier had another audience to acknowledge. At the time, tales of travel and the racy adventures of buccaneers were hugely popular, with a hunger for books such as the Dutch De Americaensche Zee-Roovers by Alexandre Exquemelin, first published in 1678, and later to be fancifully translated to The Buccaneers of America. In his preface to A New Voyage, he wrote with a knowing wink,
As to my Style, it cannot be expected that a Seaman should effect Politeness… I have frequently indeed divested myself of Sea-Phrases to gratify that Land Reader, for which the Seamen will hardly forgive me.
His book became an immediate bestseller precisely because he was known to have been a buccaneer who associated with pirates.
At this juncture, Eyebrows would beg the question, but what exactly was a pirate?
He is right to ask, because it was very confusing.
The definition of a pirate in the early modern period was murky in a climate of intense European competition for land, trade and resources throughout the world. There were privateers and their crews, travelling with official sanctions from their home country authorities to attack and plunder enemy ships and coastal towns in times of war. Occasionally they’d turn a blind eye in times of peace and continue with their lucrative piractical activities anyway. Buccaneers were originally poor northern Europeans who lived rough on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. But in the latter half of the seventeenth century, it became the common term for any sea rover who plundered Spanish ships and towns on the coasts and islands of the Americas and the West Indies.
In times of war against the Spanish (or Portuguese, Dutch or French), ransacking sea rovers were useful to England because they terrorised the competition’s strongholds throughout the Americas and the Spice Trail. In times of peace, they were tolerated as anti-heroes when they advanced England’s stations in these territories, but abhorred as criminal pirates when they became an ambassadorial nuisance.
William Dampier was all of the above at various points in his career at sea.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, piracy was becoming less tolerated and more outlawed, especially in the minds of British office. Reflecting on the laws of England, judge and jurist Sir William Blackstone noted that just a century earlier, Sir Edward Coke had declared pirates as hostis humani generis, one who is at war with all of mankind, and against whom all of mankind must make war.
To become a pirate was to make a bold choice; they were seen by many as transgressive, aggressive outsiders. There were a range of motivations for a man (and very few women) to go on the account: a mutinous mindset, in which a strong sense of personal injury at the hands of authority and a right to wealth to were tantamount. Induction by force. The attractions of living in an all-male, non-hierarchical environment. The possibility of massive financial reward, especially tempting for those from the lower classes who might otherwise never see such riches.
Later in his career, Dampier knew all too well the temptations for resorting to piracy, and warned his backers in a letter to the Lords of Admiralty when making plans for his own state-funded voyage to the South Seas;
Considering ye Temptations that Seamen have had of late to break loose & turn Pirate when they into ye richer parts of ye world I should be glad that some good Incouragement might be proposed to those whoe should goe in this Voyage upon their return.
Thomas Murray’s inscription on his portrait of the black-eyed Dampier reads “Pirate and Hydrographer”. It was a very neat summary of the cultural dichotomy that would eventually become inherent within the mythology of pirates. For Dampier never became he great man he hoped to be. In many ways, the historical ambivalence towards his character is the result of this legacy.
But let us return to the star-crossed lovers.
Their constellations first aligned on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Dampier was anchored there from the middle of 1686 as a crewman on the Cygnet, a trading ship cum pirate vessel captained by Charles Swan until Dampier and others mutinied early the next year.
When Dampier first encountered him, Jeoly was the possession of a Mindanayan known as ‘Michael’, an interpreter for Raja Laut, brother of the sultan of the island. In A New Voyage, Dampier reported that Jeoly hailed from the Meangis islands, 18 leagues south east of Minadanao, and that he,
…with his father, mother and brother, with two or three men more, were going to one of these other islands they were driven by a strong wind on the coast of Mindanao, where they were taken by the fishermen of that island and carried ashore and sold as slaves.
Meangis is now known as the Island of Palmas
He implies that Michael was a cruel and abusive master,
I often saw Jeoly at his master Michael's house, and when I came to have him so long after he remembered me again. I did never see his father nor brother, nor any of the others that were taken with them; but Jeoly came several times aboard our ship when we lay at Mindanao, and gladly accepted of such victuals as we gave him; for his master kept him at very short commons.
Although Jeoly had obviously made an impression on Dampier, their initial encounters were brief. They met again three years later at Fort St George, India, a fortress of the British East India Company. The Mindanao Merchant came sailing forth carrying the Painted People, Jeoly and his mother, now the possessions of Supercargo Mr Moody, who had purchased them in Mindanao. Jeoly didn’t even recognise Dampier at first, but Dampier remembered him.
The two slaves were adorned with intricately drawn ‘paint’. They were a sight to be seen, and admired by all wherever they went. The word ‘tattoo’ didn’t come into circulation until the next century, and the rich cultural and traditional significance that body art represented for those who wore it was not at all interesting to the explorers and sailors who encountered painted people in the New World. Rather, they got excited by the decorative novelty of body art, and made up fantastical stories as to why it was done. It might even be said that body art provided Europeans with the perfect chance to openly gaze upon the naked bodies of the Other. In New Voyages, Dampier appreciates Jeoly from head to toe;
He was painted all down the breast, between his shoulders behind; on his thighs (mostly) before; and in the form of several broad rings or bracelets round his arms and legs. I cannot liken the drawings to any figure of animals or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of lines, flourishes, chequered work, etc., keeping a very graceful proportion and appearing very artificial, even to wonder, especially that upon and between his shoulder-blades.
Dampier made friends with Mr Moody the Supercargo, who bacame instrumental to his fate when he reached a crossroads as to whether to go hither or thither. He promised to set Dampier up with small vessel in Indrapore and send him as her commander, along with Jeoly and his mother, on to Meangis to establish a commerce with their people. “This was a design that I liked very well,” says Dampier, “and therefore I consented to go thither.”
Harsh winds and circumstance conveyed Dampier to an English factory in Bencouli, Sumatra, where Mr Moody was unable to fulfil his promise. But he signed over half his shares in the slaves, and left them at Dampier’s disposal. The painted people stayed in a house outside the fort where they kept themselves busy with woodwork and sewing, and presumably spent time with Dampier in his hours off. There is something unusually sentimental and familial about the way Dampier described this time in his published journals. Of Jeoly’s cabinetry, he says, “it was but an ill-shaped odd thing, yet he was as proud of it as if it had been the rarest piece in the world.”
Then Jeoly and his mother both fell very ill in Bencouli, and Dampier lamented that he “took as much care of them as if they had been my brother and sister, yet she died.”
The young slave was inconsolable.
“I did what I could to comfort Jeoly; but he took on extremely, insomuch that I feared him also.” Dampier tried to bury her out of his sight in a decent shroud, but Jeoly wanted to jump in after his mother, to wrap her earthly possessions around her, including “two new pieces of chintz that Mr. Moody gave her, saying that they were his mother's and she must have them. I would not disoblige him for fear of endangering his life; and I used all possible means to recover his health; but I found little amendment while we stayed here.”
Around this time, Mr Moody shifted his last share of Jeoly to Mr Goddard, chief mate of the Defence, the ship upon which Dampier and Jeoly eventually fled from Bencouli. Mutinous soul that he was, Dampier gives a flurry of disingenuous reasons for slipping away with the mourning Jeoly one night: his employer the governor was brutish, not to his taste; he was longing for his home country; he wanted to display Jeoly in London and hasten the dream of sailing off into the sunset to Meangis with his Painted Prince.
I’d like to return in time to somewhere in the mid-2000s.
My ambition to write a radical history essay for Eyebrows was deflated by my inability to find hard historical evidence illuminating a grand love affair between the two men who had captured my imagination. My habit of writing essays the night before they were due didn’t give me the time to do justice to the reading I’d done. I was also begrudgingly forced to soften my opinion of Eyebrows who was not at all shocked by my proposition that Dampier and Jeoly were lovers.
Of my essay, he wrote “this is very well researched, but lacks focus. You have not even attempted to justify why you have chosen this particular subject or why it is important in your depiction of piracy.”
I began a course in screenwriting around this time. In one class, we were told we would be pitching our ideas to two executives from Channel 9, the most conservative television broadcaster in the land. Naturally, I decided to present to them my experimental, short period piece about a gay pirate and his tattooed prince.
My teacher urged me to try something else – didn’t I have a cop thriller or a panel show idea I could work on? I just kept quiet and plodded on chump-like trying to turn uncertain fact into entertaining fiction. After all, wasn’t Dampier and Jeoly’s dramatic escape from Bencouli in early 1691 fit for a Hollywood screenplay?
William Dampier (VO)
I came by stealth and left all my books, drafts and instruments, clothes and bedding, chests and wages behind. I only brought with me this journal and my painted prince.
CUT TO a thin, rugged, sharp-eyed man, Dampier, slinking along a wall towards a door carrying a steaming cup and a flannel over his shoulder, and rounding a corner. Suddenly…
EXTREME CLOSE UP, of a red brutish drunkard, the Governor, approaching Jeoly, who is sleeping. The brute stands over the beautiful young man in a way that can only mean one thing. Dampier clears his throat at the door and the brute spins and slams the door behind him.
William Dampier (VO)
For it proved, as I had foreseen, that the Governor would not suffer us to depart. I importuned him all I could; but in vain.
EXTERIOR - SHIP - WIDE SHOT - NIGHT
Dampier, panting, rows himself and Jeoly out to a big ship – the Defence – in a row boat, the moon full on the ocean behind them. Dampier stares protectively at his distracted ward. At the ship, Jeoly gives Dampier a friendly hand up, then, moving fast and unexpectedly, he dives into the black water, climbs back into the lowered row boat, and attempts to escape on his own. A few of the ship’s groggy sailors dive after him, and overtake him quickly. Dampier stands on board watching, damp-eyed.
William Dampier (VO)
I begged a visiting captain’s assistance to fetch us off Bencoolen and conceal us aboard his ship; which he promised to do. We slipped away at midnight. Creeping through one of the portholes of the fort, we got to the shore where the ship's boat waited and carried us aboard.
London town is a foggy skyline as the ship slips along the channel. Dampier and a freezing Jeoly stand and watch on board. First making sure no one is watching, Dampier takes Jeoly’s hand, which remains limp, not reciprocal. They both stare ahead, one full of longing, the other aching with loss.
William Dampier (VO)
Being glad I was myself at liberty, I had hopes of seeing England again.
As I continued to read and re-write the story of Dampier and Jeoly, the complicating frissons of attraction and empathy for Jeoly continued emanating from Dampier. In my mind, Bencouli was the balcony upon which they fell deeply in love. The main evidence I had for this conviction was that nowhere else in his published journals did Dampier speak with familial closeness or in such emotive language about other people. Like Liberace, he had a brother George who he mentioned once or twice. And his poor wife Judith! Dampier was married to her for a few months before zig-zagging around the globe over the next twelve years, and she only got a couple of words of acknowledgement.
There was also something melancholy about the way Jeoly is positioned as a last hope at the end of Dampier’s long journey full of aimless wanderings and almost self-thwarting attempts to get rich. He was chronically unable to stay anywhere long enough to see out his many plans, or to commit to anything that might lead to his financial success. His journals are full of reflections, presumably placed there in his editing process, bemoaning lost opportunities of wealth and fame (lost, but not his fault).
Right to the end of his narrative about Jeoly in New Voyages, Dampier holds on to a fanciful, unlikely dream of taking the young man home and setting up some kind of peaceful trade in spices where everyone involved would be fulfilled and happy. He mourns one last time;
For beside what might be gained by showing him in England I was in hopes that when I had got some money I might there obtain what I had in vain sought for in the Indies, namely, a ship from the merchants wherewith to carry him back to Meangis and reinstate him there in his own country, and by his favour and negotiation to establish a traffic for the spices and other products of those islands.
Conveniently ignoring the master and slave dynamic which renders Jeoly’s perspective and experience completely absent, I only saw the plaintive hope and respect Dampier had for his painted prince. I imagined that Dampier and Jeoly found solace in each other, one a doomed slave displaced from all he loved and who loved him, the other as a transgressive deviant displaced from his society where he would never have fit in.
I saw echoes of Dampier and Jeoly in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, published in 1851, in the innocent depiction of the loving relationship forged between the sailor Ishmael and the tattooed Polynesian native Queequeg, whose racial and religious difference and exotic physicality initially frightens Ishmael;
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair… We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.
Melville explored the devastating effects of colonialism in his literature, and the sexual and racial transgressions of Queequeg and Ishmael have been widely studied by literary critics, in the context that Melville was a severely closeted individual representing a thinly closeted wider world of sexual transgressions. I thought, if Melville could barely bring the desire that can’t readily be named to the surface in a late nineteenth-century work of fiction, then imagine the secrets that the inscrutable William Dampier kept?
When I told the story about the old sea dog and his painted man one afternoon at the pub, Dr Zora Simic, lecturer in the History of Sexuality and Women’s and Gender studies at the University of New South Wales asked me, “why are we always trying to out people in history? It’s really no one’s business”. She has a point. I personally wouldn’t dream of outing someone in the present. When I considered this question in hindsight, I would say that the primary attraction for me, other than wiping that entirely imagined sneer off Eyebrows’ face, was the potential for this story to illustrate that people have always been the same, that love could always cross social boundaries, and perhaps that their love was all the more special, exquisitely romantic, because it was hidden.
American playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer has no problem with historical outing:
There has never been any history book written where the gay people have been in history since the beginning. It’s ridiculous to think that we haven’t been here forever.
Larry Kramer, interview in The Advocate
Kramer’s long-term labour of love, “The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart,” is a history of homosexuality and AIDS in the United States. Although Kramer wrote the work as a history, it has been cautiously published as a novel, and is already attracting controversy from historians who have been attacked by Kramer for not taking gay history seriously. They also take umbrage at the way he has recast some of the major big wigs in American history as gay: Washington, Lincoln, Twain, Nixon. Where’s the evidence? they cry. “I used gaydar” said Kramer. “What else have I got?”
Sexuality is a complicated lens through which to view history. Theorists debate whether or not ‘homosexuality’ as an identity can simply be transferred to the past if people and society at large may not have recognised themselves or others as such. It is commonly held that identity politics is a modern conceptual development rising out of a political demand for the recognition of previously invisible peoples and cultures. Political shifts in the 1960s and ‘70s introduced an imperative in historical research to reclaim and uncover stories in order to bring pride and place to those who had been sidelined and oppressed in the grand march of popular national historical narratives: the working classes, women, the disabled, slaves and indigenous people from colonised lands, the sexually deviant.
Experiments in historical theory first sought to demonstrate that history is not just found, uncovered and revealed as the glorious eternal truth of the universe. Jacques Derrida is famous for proclaiming that reality cannot be accessed outside writing, that our comprehension of the past is limited to the realm of the text and must be studied as such. But Derrida also crashed through that fourth wall by saying that writing is not just script, but all inscription; texts, hieroglyphs, graffiti, image, film, statues, symbols, performances, rituals, cultural practices, tattoos.
This linguistic turn demonstrated that dominant ideologies concealed themselves within all kinds of cultural operations, including historical narratives, which, because of Derrida, could now be observed and analysed in much the same way that a British anthropologist might speculate about deepest darkest Africa when observing a stone-age tool. Dominant narratives had become dangerously normalised. Historical theorist Hayden White pointed out the obvious when he said that western historical texts and discourses tended to seem natural, but that they are actually highly constructed. He identified and described the insidious technique of emplotment, the way in which ‘facts’ are interpreted and weaved into sequence to convince a reader of an idea; or the tendency for historical texts to use the third person, concealing the narrator and their privileged access to the past by presenting their history in a mode of objectivity, a hidden but powerful overlord of the truth.
The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault was hugely influential for those seeking to uncover alternative histories. Studying the historical distinctions between the legal term ‘sodomy’ and Victorian era’s scientifically inflected category of ‘homosexual’, he argued that these ambivalent, often contradictory, yet very controlling and limited definitions of human sexuality represented a continuum in the historical repression of same-sex relationships. He argued that when sodomy and homosexuality appear in history, they are often both signifiers in the historical continuum of transgressive sexual acts and associated behaviours and cultures that occur in the modern day (including gay romance and relationships). By categorising sodomy as an historical species of modern gay culture, Foucault made space for the histories of sexuality and gave many historians and writers license to go forth and uncover these new worlds.
But historians are an inconveniently factual lot. Even if they are sympathetic, researchers are reluctant to make positive proclamations about same sex desire based on primary sources. It is easy to theorise, and far more difficult to stray from the logical and extremely engrained act of interpreting solid, obvious primary evidence for use in the emplotment of histories. Gaydar, for example, will rarely be taken seriously in academic circles.
Alternative historians must take a big, brave leap and rely heavily on historical theory and other secondary research in order to decode and illuminate subtextual meanings in historical sources. Historian Goran Stanivukovic says his chapter, “Between Men in Early Modern England” of the book Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800: Siting Same-Sex Desire in the Early Modern World;
Queer theory depends on rhetorical constructions, and social and textual representations…to read signs of homoerotic desire and acts in early modern England means to ‘read relationally’, to look at ‘texts as sites of self-identification’, and to analyse the ‘syntax of desire not readily named’.
A few general historians of piracy have conceded that shipboard sexuality could be seen as a microcosm of sexuality in the population at large and therefore, that homosexuality was likely to have occurred. One of the reasons for this begrudging acceptance is because of a glaring absence of punishment for sodomy in the Pirate’s Codes. A few of these rare Articles of Agreement were documented in Charles Johnson’s A General History of The Pyrates, published in 1724, a tome that has become one of the major sources of contemporary information about piracy in the Early Modern age.
Across the articles, it is clear that when a man signs on to be a pirate, he has the right to vote, he shall not gamble, he shall agree to the terms of booty dividends, he shall not fight, he shall go to bed by 8pm, he shall keep his weapons serviceable. But if he brings a woman or young boy on board, he will be punished with death. There is no mention or punishment for man-on-man action on board a pirate ship, which means that it either wasn’t an issue, or was so commonly practiced that to bother would be a waste of time.
When I came across BR Burg’s book Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean I was sure he would have all the facts on gay pirates. An expert on sexuality under the sail, Professor Burg has put into historical practice Foucault’s ideas about the categories of sodomy and what they might represent in the historical continuum. He looks over extensive recorded examples of buggery and sodomy in the shipboard communities of the early modern period in England and found that Navy prosecutions for shipboard buggery were rarely enacted until the prudish King Charles I declared buggery or sodomy punishable by death in the mid-1600s.
When cases were ever actually tried, Burg points out that they were usually because other boundaries had been overstepped. Sex between men was seen as far more intolerable when it was interracial. Sometimes legal proceedings were used as a weapon to discredit someone in a bid for power. There were the creeps who didn’t play by the rules and pestered men for sex too frequently and aggressively. In one case, an outraged father doggedly attempted to un-tarnish his buggerised son’s reputation. Most of these cases didn’t end up punished with hanging as prescribed by law, but rather with (no less brutal) lashes or pillory. Burg thinks this is because homosexuality was in fact probably so common and tolerated on all-male ship boards that there had to be a crime beyond buggery or sodomy for it to be tried as such.
Burg’s research on early modern shipboard communities and the possibility of a gay underworld is historically brilliant. But he had also been discredited for attempting creative comparative sociology, using observations of shipboard, asylum and prison communities in the present day to inform and complement his historical knowledge of the ‘total institutions’ of seventeenth century pirate communities, envisaging all-male environments as naturalised societies across centuries. It must be exhausting to spend your career carefully sifting through a roll call of deviant sex-acts – including pedophilia and bestiality – and their associated punishments in order to prove that same-sex desire and love between men existed within such an overbearing heteronormative historical paradigm.
Enter Rum, Sodomy and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality and Masculine Identity by literature professor Hans Turley. He takes a broader overview, that doesn’t necessarily have to be based in fact, in asking, how is it that these brutal, menacing criminals of their day became romantic fictional tropes, now so ubiquitous that the parents of small children are happy to dress them up as little predators for pirate themed birthday parties at pirate themed playgrounds?
Turley suggests that some of the enduring masculine tropes of piracy – extreme individualism, fierce economic opportunism, the mysterious outsider who is at once of society but also beyond it – has manifested from a broader context of large-scale expansion, resource grabbing and the colonisation of the new world. These characteristics play out ambivalently in the image of a pirate because they were transgressive enigmatic figures operating in a competitive and portentous time in European history, their activities simultaneously applauded and abhorred by those at home.
Turley precariously compares the socio-political and economic piratical deviant with the sodomite, who also performs his transgressions in secret. Thus, the anti-heroic pirate outsider figure has become implicitly sexually transgressive because he went out of his way to live in an exclusively homosocial world. It is because of this backdrop that the pirate of popular culture so often simultaneously displays both hyper-masculine and exotic, feminine qualities.
Pirates were also of an ambiguous class. Even though they were, in reality, so often from poor backgrounds, the piratical subject merged with tropes of the libertine figure – traditionally eccentric, wealthy aristocrats, whose excess and transgressions were seen as a form of power. Pirates were not officially sanctioned agents of power, but their ‘eye for the prize’ and their gamble for untold wealth and bounty, have transformed them into mythological anti-heroes of the highest order.
Turley’s book really niggled at me. He had basically catalogued and defined all the little ways in which I had hook, line and sinker bought into the irresistible clichés of pirate mythology.
I made a mix tape for Dampier and Jeoly; I had it on high rotation for a while there. Redemption Song was number three, after Antony and Nina Simone’s I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
The lyrics to this song reference Marcus Garvey’s Pan African political efforts. It speaks to the slave’s experience, the generational trauma and legacy of colonisation. I was listening to my soundtrack as a way to get inside the love story of Dampier and Jeoly and their world. But was I listening to the Bob Marley version? No. It was Joe Strummer’s version. A gnarly, punky, gravelly old white man rendition. I came to understand that for me, it always was more about Dampier than Jeoly.
Even though pirate shipboards in the early modern era were supposedly multicultural, the pirates of my imagination were all white anti-heroes, with Dampier at the helm. I was in the business of using William Dampier to indulge some kind of outsider fantasy of anarchic individualism that ran parallel to wider social practices of exploitation for individual wealth. I was looking right past Jeoly and focusing on Dampier, questioning his sexuality to prove how transgressive he was, how deserving of his place in alternative history. But pirates have enjoyed an eccentric and decorated place in the popular imagination for millennia now, while the colonial and postcolonial existence of exploited indigenous figures such as Jeoly and Queequeg have a far less celebrated and much more complex place in popular culture.