The popular stereotype of the pirate is of a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, womanising tough-guy, but the reality is altogether more nuanced. Confined together for months at sea without female company, pirates like all other mariners developed strong buddy relationships with their shipmates. Inevitably these sometimes expressed themselves in physical ways. In national navies such partnerships have been seen as deadly threats to discipline: sodomy was a hanging offence in the Royal Navy. So what about pirates?
There isn’t a straightforward answer. None of the surviving pirates’ articles (ship-board rules of conduct) mention homosexuality. Perhaps this is insignificant. It could indicate either that same-sex relationships were common and hardly worth mentioning; or equally that they were non-existent. But among the Caribbean buccaneers of the 17th century, single-sex relationships were so commonly accepted that they even had a name: matelotage.
The men who teamed up on Hispaniola to work as hunters and butchers, and later as pirates, shared everything: their possessions, their money, their food, and — when they could get them — even their women. Matelotage formalised this relationship in a document that provided for each matelot to inherit his partner’s possessions in the event of the other’s death.
Did this signify a sexual relationship, or just a strong bond of comradeship? Opinons are divided, and objectivity is a little thin on the ground. Etymology is a good place to start looking for evidence. Matelot, the French term for a sailor, originally meant “bunk-mate.” But, like modern “hot-bedding” this was an entirely innocent relationship in which the partners merely shared a hammock on board ship. They would never have occupied it simultaneously, because the nature of maritime work meant that when one was sleeping, the other was on watch.
According to Christopher L Miller, in The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade, the 19th-century Larousse Dictionary…”defines matelotage as ‘friendship, bond between sailor comrades, who are each other’s matelot’, going on to say that among freebooters these unions were ‘intimate and indissoluble'”.
Perhaps the most forthright advocate of the idea that matelotage was an explicitly physical homosexual relationship is Richard Burg, professor of history at Arizona State University. Even the title of his book on the subject pulls no punches: it’s called Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. Burg suggests that… [warning: gross generalisation based on reading brief fragments follows] …homosexuality was not just exceptional: it was the prevalent form of relationship among buccaneers.
This is probably over-egging the cake a bit. Though Prof Burg’s academic credentials are impressive, reader Steve Mitchell comments that “The book contains some circumstantial evidence, tenuous suppositions, circular arguments and dismisses any contrary evidence as anomalous.”
We will probably never know the true nature of the bond of matelotage, but its very existence deserves to be more widely publicised if only as an antidote to the Disneyfication of the pirate legend.