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Gay pirates: An explanation to the frilly shirts?

On a piece of forgotten queer history.

Art by Eleanor Curran

The true stories of gay pirates have been lost in most Hollywood representations. These historical badasses had more of a colourful history than Pirates of the Caribbean made us believe. Somewhere between pillaging villages, burning their own beards, and scurvy, there was love on the high seas. Or at least historians suspect there was, and with hoards of men stuck at sea for years on end, you can understand why. Unfortunately, little documentation of gay relationships survives. However, one common pirate custom does hint towards their bootylicious partner preferences. Pirates had their own form of same-sex marriage called ‘matelotage’; matelots wore matching gold rings, fought side by side, and, when one died, the other got their cut of the booty. 

Some matelotages were purely platonic, but the matelotage of the pirate captains Robert Culliford and John Swann, in 1698, was far from it. The pair were said to have run away together to a tropical island near Madagascar after years of pillaging, with John Swann cited as Culliford’s “great consort who lives with him.” The couple separated years later in Barbados, when Culliford took up piracy once more. He was captured shortly afterwards and narrowly escaped the death penalty. Culliford then flew underground and never saw his beloved again. 

Examples of pirate couples were rare, yet there was one particularly heartwarming match between pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts and the pirate surgeon George Wilson, who joined Roberts’ crew very willingly on their second meeting in 1721. According to a fellow pirate’s court testimony, Wilson spruced up with a fresh set of clothes before greeting Roberts at their reunion off the coast of West Africa. Meanwhile, other witnesses to the couple claimed that Roberts and Wilson were particularly intimate on board and had plans to blow up and “go to hell together” if they were captured by enemy ships. Sadly, as with most pirate love stories, their romance ended in a hail of gunpowder when the British Royal Navy intervened. 

During the golden age of piracy, between 1650 and 1730, crimes of sodomy were threatened with cruel punishment in the Queen’s Navy, hence Navy men fled to piracy seeking freedom and refuge. A few women also found freedom in piracy, and dressed as men to hide aboard the ships. At the time, lesbian relationships were not illegal, but instead swept under the rug to discourage female curiosity. 

Mary ‘Mark’ Read and Anne ‘Andy’ Bonne were fierce pirates, who were each fooled by the other’s disguise and became lovers when they revealed their true identities. Living as outlaws, the two women became valiant fighters, and on one night off the coast of Jamaica the lesbian lovers, while both pregnant, battled a band of pirate hunters as their drunken male crewmates hid in the hold of the ship. As legend goes, Mary shot her gun at the hold and told her crew “to come out and fight like men.” Court records state that Mary and Anne were both captured after the battle, and they fortunately escaped execution due to their pregnancy. 

On the whole, relationships between pirates were polyamorus, even within matelotages where the union was respected like marriage. The island of Tortuga was the main hub for pirate activity where the population was overwhelmingly male and it was likely somewhat of a gay paradise. In order to dispel such activity, a French governor named Jean Le Vasseur arranged a shipment of over a thousand prostitutes to Tortuga. This of course did nothing to prevent the practice of matelotage; instead the men chose to simply absorb any marriages to prostitutes into their union. 

So defiant were these gay outlaws with their rich history of daring tales that their stories, as recorded by witness testimonies, should not be swept aside for the sake of a heteronormative vision of the past. The pirates of the golden age have become a part of a changing queer perception of archival history, and their story should be told with the same audacious sentiment they lived by. Hopefully, one day the newest Pirates of the Carribean movie will boldly feature these queer historical characters.

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