Monday, July 1, 2013

Gay Marriage Among Pirates

In celebration of the end of DOMA, and hoping for the freedom to marry, for everyone, everywhere.
Sailors at sea have always been prone to what sociologists call “situational homosexuality.” All-male crews, at sea for weeks or months, cut off from the rest of humanity, turned to each other for sexual release. Pirates, most specifically the pirates active in the Caribbean beginning in the 1600’s, had formalized unions between consenting adult men.

The term used for this was matelotage a French word with the meaning of “seamanship” stemming from the word matelot which meant “seaman” or “sailor.” The French government showed concern for their sailors turning to a homosexual lifestyle, so much so that in 1645 the French governor of Tortuga requested hundreds of prostitutes be shipped to the New World to lure the sailors out of each other’s arms.

Being French, the sailors did not deprive themselves of pleasures already acquired, but shared the favors of the ladies as they shared so many things.
Sailors often moved between ships, even between ships of different nationalities. The English sailors, observing the close relationship between pairs of their French counterparts, adopted the words “matelot” and “matelotage” into English, with the approximate meaning of “buddy” and “buddy-ship.”
Eventually, the word “matelot” was shortened down to “mate.”  Yes, like pirates say. “Hello, mate!”

The English navy was not nearly so reasonable concerning homosexual relationships. In an age when the English Navy ran on “rum, sodomy and the lash,” (as noted in many writings of the time), homosexual relationships were punishable by death.

The result here was that in the English Navy, relationships went underground. Very often, they became forced, often between a superior and a subordinate. When English crews went on the account, becoming pirates, they looked for a way to legitimize relationships of honest affection.
Matelotage, now used as an English word, became a term for a legal marriage between two men. Some of these had begun as master-servant or senior-junior. But under the pirate flag, they could be honored and legitimized.

Why the extreme difference in attitudes between the English Navy and the pirates, many of whom had been navy men at one time? I think the difference lies in the fact that, in the pirate world, the law-makers and the law-abiders were in the same boat, literally and figuratively. In England, the moneyed, law making class was largely immune to the very laws they instituted. As the rich were becoming more rich through expanded trade and the growing cash economy, they enacted draconian laws to control the lower classes.

One of the peculiarities of this system was that, for a crime to be prosecuted, someone had to pay the court costs. This made it easy for a rich person to prosecute a poor one, but almost impossible for a poor person to prosecute someone better off. As long as a rich person did not “bother” a member of his own class, he was immune from the law, while a member of the lower classes who seemed to be having the “wrong kind of fun” might attract the attention of someone with more money who was willing to spend money to take him to court.

In pirate society (and only pirate society) two men could “marry.” They would exchange gold rings, and pledge eternal union. After this, they were expected to share everything.  Plunder and living spaces were obvious, but couples in matelotage were also known to share other property, and even women. If one of the partners was killed in action, pirate captains were careful to make sure that the surviving member received both shares of plunder, as well as any appropriate death benefits.

Simply put, homosexual relationships had been kept under wraps by people in fear for their lives because of draconian laws. Among sailors who had practiced this form of release themselves, it lost its sense of being alien, and so became accepted and legitimized as soon as they (by turning pirate) gained the right to make their own laws.

In today’s society, the recent legitimization of gay marriage in the US became possible because of the people who “came out” when it was still dangerous. Neighbors, friends and relatives saw that gay people were not so very different after all.


  1. Comments always welcome on this blog! I'd especially love to hear from folks outside the US!

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  2. I never thought about this, specially when we are talking about hundreds of years ago. It amazes me the level of repect pirates had for homosexual relationshops. It was easy to think that gay sex existed in such an evironment, but I never imagined there was a kind of marriage.
    This makes me feel, worst than ever, that after all these years, we (the world) are still too old-fashioned as a society.


    1. Could pirates read?

    2. Some pirates could, some couldn't. Being a "functional reader" was less common than being able to write your name. But captains, at least, had to write to keep a log book and navigate.

    3. So the navigator would have to teach them if they didn't know how to write? And when you say captains needed to record logs, was the words "perfect" eg. English or was the inglsh synpul?

    4. The dictionary hadn't been invented yet, so spelling was problematic (as many surviving logbooks prove) But being educated was part of being a captain.

    5. I wasn't aware that pirates had this form of civil union until March when I read "If A Pirate I Must Be", the story of the career of arguably the most successful pirate of all time (certainly he was the most successful of his era) Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts. I think it's great that pirates were so tolerant of same-sex relationships in an age when homosexual behavior carried the death penalty in many countries at that time. Here's to men who were men ahead of their time--pirates!

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  4. Do you have any sources to share?
    I'd like to do more research.

    1. I'm not the blogger but I am a librarian: start with _Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean_ by Barry Burg. It is based on trial records and is more ambiguous than this post. There's also an implied pirate marriage in Defoe's novel _Captain Singleton_ if you follow Han Turley's reading of the novel. The clearest marriage is in the early chapters of Herman Melville's _Moby-Dick_ (American, a century later, non-pirates).

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hey hey, and thanks for a brilliant blog! I am seriously interested in writing a play based on homosexual relations amongst maritime entities in the 17th and 18th centuries...I would love it if you could contact me, because, as a history student, this is an area of study in which very little is written, and you seem fairly knowledgable on this stuff! It would be great if you could contact me at, just with a little message to let me know if you're interested in the project e.t.c. and where you have got your information from, just to use as a starting point for the play. Thanks again for a great post and look forward to hearing from you soon!

  7. his is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the excellent work.
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  8. I checked several dictionaries, including the OED, and could not find "matelotage" used as an English word. Do you have a citation for that?

    1. It was a doctoral thesis, but it no longer seems to be posted.

  9. French matelot is more likely from English mate (buddy) rather than the other way around, or from the Celtic root as is Irish maite, which traces back to the Indo-European as seen in Sanskrit maitri "benevolence", one of the cardinal virtues and the root of the Buddhist figure Maitreya (the Buddha to come) and the Iranian deity Mithra.

  10. Thank you for posting about this! I've been planning on writing a comic but it's very hard to find information about homosexuality in history, it's often even denied by historians, never mind hearing about it in my history classes!

  11. One of the most horrific things that could happen to people caught by some sex-starved pirate's would be....

    Being securely tied down by all but the worst offenders happens first.
    Then small slits maybe just an inch or so are made by a sharp knife, on the body's more fleshy parts such as the abdomen, belly,chest, armpits & quite possibly many other places too.
    The the pirate's would insert their penises into the cuts & fuck the cavity in the area of attention.
    And of course the body is a vacuum too, so most injuries in those areas are usually described as 'sucking wounds'. . . .

    So just let that sink-in... ... ...

    If ya pardon the pun ������

  12. Hello I'm in the process of starting a podcast about queer history and I was wondering where I could find some sources on this. I just want to make sure anything I put out is as truthful as possible :)

  13. We can't learn anything good from criminals...

  14. Your blog is wonderful! I'm just starting to look around here -- wow, you have so much useful, thoughtful information. Thanks and God bless!

    LGBT Community Blog
    Gay Community Blog

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  16. nice job. i'm writing a story about this and this was super useful. thanks.