On 28 December 1720, a court was convened in Spanish Town, Jamaica, whose audience bore witness to one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s penultimate acts of defiance. The final verdict decreed that the prisoners: ‘go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution; where you, shall be severally hang’d by the Neck, ‘till you are severally dead.’ A single moment later, the prisoners played their trump card, claiming that they were both pregnant, and so the court was brought to a standstill. By ‘pleading their bellies’ as it was called, both women could not be hanged for their piratical crimes, and so they were granted a stay of execution, representing a unique moment in the wider history of piracy. The two women in question were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, now known the world over as the pirate queens, or the Hellcats of the Caribbean.
As we have previously explored in Pirates Legends III, Bonny and Read’s story represents one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most notable acts of defiance. In their challenging of the norms of their age in such a spectacular way, they continue to epitomise the social rebellion view of piracy. What is even more interesting however, is that many authors have postulated that the two were in fact lovers. Captain Charles Johnson, arguably the discipline’s most famous author, was a firm believer that the two shared a sexual relationship, emphasising in 1724 that Anne fell in love with Mary under a guise, and continually hints towards intimacy between the pair in two corresponding chapters. Centuries later, Steve Gooch’s play The Woman-Pirates (1969) further implies that the two kindled a romantic relationship.
If one takes a gander at the wider social history of piracy, the discipline is littered with instances of peoples of the same sex finding comfort with each other out on the vast oceanic frontier. In the last two decades, historians have investigated the social history of piracy, arguably the most innovative, and progressive component of the discipline. Subsequently, at least two writers have asserted that many Golden Age pirates engaged in homosexual activity. Namely, Hans Turley suggested that piracy and homoerotic imagery are conjoined, arguing that pirate literature and genuine historical evaluations of pirates is infested with homoerotic imagery. Likewise, Barry Richard Burg put forth the notion that within pirate communities, the ratio between genuinely homosexual pirates and those who partook in what can be considered as homosexual acts in consequence to the lack of women, would have significantly increased homosexual contact. Though both theories rely on the certainty that pirate ships were exclusively male institutions, and there is evidence to the contrary.
Correspondingly, is the seafaring practice of matelotage or, seamanship. While any person of any profession may practice it, matelotage was very prevalent amongst pirates. The practice was a formal agreement between two men, whereas one would inherit the other’s property if they were to pass away. While on the outset this appears to be a purely economic relationship, matelotage has been compared to marriage. Fortunately, we have written evidence of a matelotage agreement between two known pirates- John Beavis and Francis Reed. Signed and dated in 1699, the document made it known that ‘by these preasants that Francis Reed and John Beavis are entread in courtship together.’ This is of course not the only instance of the practice between two male pirates. The notorious Captain Robert Culliford, archnemesis to Captain Kidd, was also known to have engaged in matelotage via his relationship with fellow pirate John Swann, who supposedly also lived with Culliford. While these instances do not necessarily denote a sexual relationship, the common saying that pirates married one another is a legitimate historical fact, if the exact nature of the relationship itself remains ambiguous. Several authors have firmly asserted the notion that matelotage was only a form of insurance lacking any kind of personal relationship, though I personally disagree with this narrow assessment.
Thus, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that pirates engaged in relationships, and possibly sexual relationships, with each other. It is no wonder then that this viewpoint has ventured into the realm of popular culture. Recent portrayals of pirates have embraced the evident LGBTQ+ presence within piracy, culminating in numerous examples across multiple media. Most famously however, Starz’s Black Sails (2014-2017) presents a gritty prequel to Treasure Island, where the main protagonist- James Flint (played by Toby Stephens), is canonically bisexual, having been shown engaging in sexual relationships with both men and women. Without too much in terms of spoilers, the entire plot of Black Sails is driven by Flint’s intense desire for revenge against the oppressive establishment that robbed him of his relationship with his male partner, decreeing that he intends to ‘wage war against the world.’
More recently, HBO’s hit comedy-drama Our Flag Means Death (2021-present) features no less than three separate LGBTQ+ relationships. Including a heartfelt love story between fictionalised versions of Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard (played by Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi), and another between nonbinary character Jim Jimenez and Oluwande Boodhari (played by Vico Ortiz and Samson Kayo). The series has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of LGBTQ+ relationships, and a second season is already forthcoming.
Golden Age piracy represents many things. Some scholars view the period as a sailor’s rebellion against the oligarchical establishments of Europe, while others claim it represented nothing more than a loose contingent of outlaws harassing trade and prosperity. Nevertheless, pirate subculture facilitated liberation and freedoms in a notoriously oppressive age, and these men and women sought the sunny horizons of freedom, over the darkness of the deep blue sea.
Burg, Barry Richard. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. New York, 1984.
Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.
Fox, E. T. Pirates in Their Own Words. Milton Keynes, 2014.
Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious
Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.
Leeson, Peter. The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Piracy. Princeton, 2009.
Rediker, Marcus. ‘Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700-1920 eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling. London, 1996.
Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. New York, 1999.
Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history.
All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.
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