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social sciences

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Since the "Golden Age of Piracy," roughly from 1690 to 1730, pirates have played an important role in the cultural imagination, especially in British and American writing and film. Their status as economic and cultural outsiders has appealed to a broad range of people, but suggestive speculation about pirate sexuality has made the figure of the pirate--both male and female--into something of an icon for gltbq people.

Undoubtedly, the reality of pirate sexuality was far less affirming of homosexuality than our imaginations might like us to believe. Hans Turley cautions us against assuming that pirates must have been . While it is possible and perhaps even likely that many were, the lack of evidence means that we can only speculate about what sexual life was like aboard a pirate ship in a predominantly male environment.

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Pirating Before the Golden Age

In various forms, piracy has existed since antiquity. Migrating tribes called the "Sea Peoples" invaded Egypt in the late thirteenth century B. C. E. In the second century B. C. E., Cilicians turned to piracy and plunder for their livelihood, creating haven for pirates in the Roman world. In 67 B. C. E., the Roman Senate ordered Pompey to clear the Mediterranean of pirates. Historians estimate that his campaign killed as many as 10,000 pirates and destroyed more than 120 bases or fortresses.

Late in the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth centuries, the Corsairs of the Barbary Coast attacked European trading vessels, using North African ports as their bases. In league with the Ottoman Empire, they paid a small percent of their plunder to the local potentates of the port cities and kept the rest for themselves.

During Elizabeth I's reign, English privateers such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins led secretly sanctioned raids against the Spanish in the New World. Although they served under a Letter of Marque that granted them permission to "rob by command of the Queen of England," the Spanish viewed such activity as piracy.

The Golden Age of Piracy

The most intense and best known period of pirate activity occurred between 1714 and 1724. During that decade a number of notorious pirates were captured, and their trials inspired numerous written accounts, both true and fictional, that became very popular.

The best known of these works, Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, was first published in 1724. The work, which may have actually been written by Daniel Defoe, chronicles the lives of a number of infamous pirates whose lawlessness had created a sensation in the previous decade. In addition to a number of well-known male pirates, such as Captain Avery and Captain Roberts, the book also includes the stories of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two women who had been captured and tried in Jamaica in November 1720.

It is from this body of writing that our modern sense of the pirate emerges. In the early eighteenth century, pirates were seen as groups of mostly male criminals who banded together in defiance of all cultural norms. Legally, they were considered "the common enemy against all mankind." Swearing no loyalty to any nation, pirates were outlaws who plundered for their livelihood.

Sodomitical Suggestions in the World of Pirates

B. R. Burg's work from the early 1980s uses contemporary studies of male sexuality in prison to suggest that sex between men on buccaneer and pirate ships was common. Although his work is largely speculative, he challenges the assumption that pirates were heterosexual. As he suggestively concludes, "The single certainty is that the only non-solitary sexual activities available to buccaneers for most of the years they spent in the Caribbean and for almost all of the time they were aboard ship were homosexual."

Although Turley has criticized Burg's work for his imprecise marshaling of evidence, Burg does highlight many areas of pirate life that could easily have involved homosexuality in some fashion.

For instance, Burg contrasts pirates' attitudes towards women and their cabin boys. Even though some captains prohibited both on board their ships, Burg argues that pirates were more tolerant of than they were of relationships with women. On Captain Roberts' ship, for example, the crew was subjected to the rule that "[n]o Boy or Woman [was] to be allowed amongst them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter [S]ex, and carry'd her to Sea, disguis'd, he was to suffer Death." As Burg points out, no mention is made of capital punishment for seducing cabin boys.

But as Turley rightfully points out, nothing conclusive can be drawn from such material, and the truth of the pirate experience comes to us highly mediated through fiction, popular history, and legend.

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