The incredible true history of gay pirates and their strangely modern world

The lesbian and gay pirates of the 17th century lived a strangely egalitarian life, with health insurance and even same-sex civil partnerships.

Piracy was a world apart, and one where homosexual couples may have been the norm, not the exception.

So to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day (19 September) here’s our queer history of piracy.

‘They never engaged in combat without embracing each other’

Same-sex action and the sea have long gone together.

Captains on navy and merchant ships must have accepted, if not engaged in, gay sex. It may even have been useful to them, reducing tensions and resentment and increasing the bond between men.

But technically it was illegal in many navies. Britain’s Royal Navy punished ‘sodomy’ or ‘buggery’ with lashes and even hanging.

Pirates often recruited their crews from the merchant and military ships they attacked, where sailors would already be having sex with each other.

And piracy offered a release from sexual restrictions alongside society’s other rules. Pirates consciously separated themselves from the rest of society. Some engaged in salt-water baptisms, gave themselves new names or toasted each other with seawater to mark their new life together.

And they embraced the all male world they joined.

One contemporary French historian wrote: ‘They never engaged in combat without embracing each other as a sign of reconciliation. At such times one might see them thumping their chests, as if they wanted to arouse some remorse in their hearts, something they had become scarcely capable of.’

The birth of the gay buccaneers

Most of our modern pirate myths stem from the Golden Age of Piracy, from the 1650s to the 1730s. This period was the inspiration for the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

It was born on the island of Hispaniola (which is nowadays Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean.

By 1605, Spain had abandoned its colonies in the impoverished north of the island. So runaway slaves, mutinous soldiers and sailors, almost anyone who had a reason to hide, could find safe haven there.

Many of them were protestants, either French Huguenots or English, and therefore fiercely opposed to the Catholic Spanish. Together, they formed a society which they dubbed the Brethren of the Coast.

Initially they hunted pigs and cattle, which they smoked over a wooden barbecue called ‘boucan’. That earned them the name ‘buccaneers’.

It was an almost entirely male society, so they lived in same-sex couples. Two men would disappear into the tropical forests for between six months and two years. When they emerged, they would be dressed in animal skins and covered in blood. Then they would sell smoked meats and hides to passing ships.

They may have turned to piracy to subsidise this meagre income. But the Spanish tried to wipe out not only the buccaneers but the animals they hunted. And this just made them more dependent on piracy.

Eventually, the Spanish persecution forced the buccaneers to move to the smaller island of Tortuga, off the north coast of Hispaniola. This was more defensible but had even fewer natural resources. So piracy became their main source of income.

Prostitute trouble on Tortuga

Tortuga was split between French and English colonies. That played into the buccaneers hands. The French, English and Dutch governments all wanted to break the Spanish monopoly of trade with the New World. So they either turned a blind eye to anti-Spanish piracy or even encouraged it.

State-sponsored piracy was nothing new. In fact, there is a long history of privateers. This is when a government grants people the right to attack merchant ships from another country.

The buccaneers did cause them one problem though. There were far too many men on this island and too few women. Tortuga was obviously deeply homosocial and probably openly homosexual.

The authorities had a plan for this. French governor Jean Le Vasseur apparently arranged for up to 1,650 female prostitutes and petty criminals to be shipped from Paris to the island.

Brutal sexism was at play. Le Vasseur believed the women would be a civilising influence. But he treated them little better than cattle – selling the ‘girls’ off to the highest bidder at auctions.

And it didn’t wash with the gay pirates. The same-sex couples were established by now, so they shared everything. And one woman between two was plenty. If one married, they simply became bisexual buccaneers in three-way relationships.

Pirates had gay civil unions and health insurance

Captain Morgan is now most famous for being the face on a bottle of rum. But the real Captain Henry Morgan was a privateer – a state-sponsored pirate. And before he attacked Panama in the 1670s, he…

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