Yo, ho, ho! Shiver mi timbers! And all that kind of stuff. Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day, an unofficial celebration of all things piratey, except all the plundering and scurvy. Talk Like a Pirate Day began in 1995 as a humorous idea by a couple of American friends and has been increasingly adopted by various people around the world since then.
I’ve written about pirates several times on this blog, whether is was about fighting Barbary pirates, someone with pirate ancestors, or debunking the alleged Pansy Pirate. Just type “pirate” into the search box on the left to find out more.
When we think of pirates our first image is probably of Long John Silver from “Treasure Island”, Captain Hook from “Peter Pan”, or Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean”. These are all highly stereotyped and romanticised versions of the real thing.
For our purpose we’ll look at pirates of the 17th to 19th centuries, the so-called Golden Age of piracy. We’ll see what kind of same-sex arrangements were practiced by them.
There was a form of same-sex “agreement” called matilotage. The word matilotage comes from the French word for “seamanship”. English sailors were often referred to as “matilots”. Basically, matilotage was an arrangement made between two male sailors whereby one would share the other’s possessions, property and “spoils of war” and inherit them if the other one died. This arrangement was especially important to pirates because they were less likely to have any family, or contact with them, and this would prevent other pirates fighting over whatever possessions were left behind.
There wasn’t any real homosexual connotation behind matilotage at the time. It should also be noted that matilotage also including sharing a bed. The prudish Victorians turned this into something that always implied something sexual, as is still vulgarly implied today. Sharing a bed with the same sex was common and had no sexual implication in the hundreds of years it had taken place before then. But it is obvious to see that any gay pirates might take advantage of this type of arrangement.
Modern scholarship on matilotage was influenced by “Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition” by B. Richard Burg (b.1938), currently Emeritus Professor of History at Arizona State University, published in 1995. Because this was the first major publication on the subject it received a lot of attention and praise. Since then, however, other researchers have pointed out that there was a lack of scholarly debate and criticism of Burg’s research at the time, and it was accepted virtually without question. Burg’s interpretations were his learned opinion, and not all of it was supported by documented evidence. Nevertheless, homosexual relationships are still an aspect of matilotage that cannot be ignored and Burg’s work remained a starting point for research that came later.
There are very few examples of matilotage that can be verified. Here are some that could be genuine.
One written matilotage agreement that does survive between pirates is that made between Francis Hood and John Beavis on 10th March 1699. The agreement was signed at Port Dauphin on Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. You may have thought that pirates only sailed in the Caribbean, but there were pirates in every sea and ocean. Madagascar is particularly associated with pirates. In fact, there is an alleged pirate colony called Libertatia that is said to have been founded on Madagascar at around that time. There’s no real evidence that Libertatia existed, but Madagascar was known as a pirate haven, and many pirates spent time there, more so than any Caribbean island.
Back to Francis Hood and John Beavis. Nothing is known about either of them. Their names suggest they were British, or American colonists. This may also suggest that they were active pirates in the Caribbean before seeking refuge on Madagascar. Their written agreement states that each would receive the other’s “gold, silver, and any other thing” should one of them die at sea.
Another couple for whom there is no evidence but are highly likely to have entered into a matilotage are Olauduh Equiano (c.1745-1797), who used the name Gustavus Vassa in adulthood, and Richard Baker. Although neither were pirates they were both shipmates in the British navy. Vassa was a former African slave in colonial America who became famous for his internationally best-selling memoir which was first published in 1789. It is claimed by some historians that this memoir was one of the most significant factors in Great Britain abolishing the slave trade.
In his memoir Vassa writes lovingly about Richard Baker. He describes how extremely fond of each other they were and inseparable. He describes how they shared a bed-space, laying in each others arms for comfort when they were going through periods of stress. Not once, however, is there any implication of physical sexual acts between them, but their relationship has led many historians to label Vassa as bisexual. Vassa married and had children after he left the navy. His memoir has inspired me to write an “Extraordinary Life” article about him next year.
This can also be said of Richard Culliford, an actual pirate captain, and his partner John Swann. Culliford and Swann met during the former’s pirate activity in the Indian Ocean, and they settles on Madagascar for a dew years before splitting up amicably. On Madagascar they were reported by other pirates to have been an open couple, with Swann being described as Culliford’s “consort”. They probably entered into a matilotage, but there’s no record of it.
Before I finish I have not forgotten the most famous pirate couple of all, Mary Read and Anne Bonney. They, too, deserves an article to themselves. This is also in the pipeline for next year.
It’s such a pity that there are not more matilotage agreement in existence, whether between pirates or ordinary sailors. Pirates have been very popular in recent decades and it is an aspect of their lifestyle that might change our image of pirates forever.