Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Butt-Pirates of the Caribbean

As if we needed it, here is yet another chapter in the seemingly endless annals of withering estimates of male sexuality, which is quite plainly predatory and opportunistic. James Hamilton-Paterson (not to be confused with the best-selling mediocrity James Patterson) seems to suggest, in this excerpt from his beautiful book The Great Deep: The Sea and its Thresholds, that piracy - particularly the extreme variety that flourished in 17th-century West Indies - was a consequence of a lack of women.

"A good example of a highly specialized social group living in extreme circumstances is that of seventeenth-century English pirates in the Caribbean. It was described recently [1983] by a scholar who, in default of extensive documentation (for they were not great diarists) elegantly deduced by a series of negative proofs how their lives had to have been. His thesis is that these buccaneers were practically all homosexual and that their piratical activities were sustained by their sexual relationships, much as the Spartans' valor was. He cites as determining factors the generally lenient prevailing attitudes to homosexuality in England at the time and the way in which apprentices were drawn or press ganged extensively from the bands of boy vagrants ('great flockes of Chyldren') who roamed the country and whose group identification, for their own protection, was exclusive. Furthermore, the population of the British West Indian islands was then almost entirely male, an imbalance enhanced by transportation. 'The single certainty is that the only nonsolitary sexual activities available to buccaneers for most of the years they spent in the Caribbean and almost all of the time they were aboard ship were homosexual.' (1) Very few pirates ever married, it seems, and those who did were uniformly unlucky with their women (and vice versa, one would imagine). Blackbeard, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp and other pirate captains jealously guarded their favorite boys, while all aboard took advantage of a form of male bonding discreetly named matelotage. It is a great pity there is such a dearth of contemporary documents, although vivid details do emerge. Captain John Avery was known as Long Ben, 'not because of his height.' Add to all this the occasional bouts of derring do and the frequent orgies of drinking when every soul aboard from captain to ten-year-old powder monkey was stone drunk, and by contrast to the solidarity of outlaw life afloat, that of 'straight' life (in both senses) ashore would have seemed dreary indeed. It is strange to think that, but for the lack of a few hundred women in the West Indies, piracy might have assumed quite different patterns or even have been suppressed entirely by privateers."

Strange indeed! Anyone still smiling at Johnny Depp's Keith Richards turn as the pirate Jack Sparrow in the dreadful Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies might now be wondering what plumbing Keira Knightley was hiding under that dress. But maritime history is rich in such anecdotes. Richard Hough suggested in his great book Captain Bligh and Mister Christian that one possible explanation for Fletcher Christian's decision to lead the crew of the HMS Bounty in mutiny was Bligh's unwelcome homosexual advances during the homeward voyage from Tahiti. And it was Winston Churchill who was supposed to have said, "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but run, sodomy and the lash."

Hamilton-Paterson should've read a review that George Orwell wrote of a book called Walls Have Mouths by W.F.R. Macarthey: "The most dreadful chapter in this book is the one entitled 'Notes on Prison Sex Life'. It gave me such a shock when I read it, for it suddenly revealed to me the meaning of a conversation of years earlier. I once asked a Burmese criminal why he disliked going to jail. He answered with a look of disgust and the single word, 'Sodomy'. I thought then that he merely meant that among the convicts there were a few homosexuals who pestered the others, but what Mr. Macarthey makes clear is that in prison, after a few years, almost every man becomes homosexual, in spite of putting up a fight against it. He gives a horrible account of the way in which homosexuality gradually overwhelmed himself, first of all through the medium of his dreams."

I think Orwell, who was a terrible homophobe, got it wrong. It is not that all men are inherently gay, and that only the right (or wrong) circumstances will bring it out. It is not even that all men are bi. Freud may have (famously) pointed out that there is only one libido that serves both men and women, but the message is painfully clear to me: for men, anyone may serve as a sex-object, any orifice may be enlisted to satisfy the libido - depending entirely on the degree of their personal delicacy. This is a far more chilling estimate of male sexuality than either Hamilton-Paterson or Orwell imagined.

(1) B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Perception of Evil. English Sea-Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean (1983)

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