Wednesday 19 September 2018

De-flowering the Pansy

Aarr, Jim lad! Shiver mi timbers! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day! No, I’m not kidding. Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day.

In recent decades there has been a reinterpretation of some of the ways of the pirates. No longer do historians believe that pirates were the lawless, indiscriminate marauders of legend but had an organised set of rules and regulations, ranging from the distribution of captured booty to the time all pirates must be in bed every night.

Part of that reinterpretation has been to rethink the gender and sexual stereotypes that pirates have been given over the centuries. The famous female pirates Anne Bonny (c.1700-c.1782) and Mary Read (c.1690-1721) have gone from being female mavericks to same-sex lovers.

Another pirate who caught the attention of lgbt historians in the 20th century was an acquaintance of Anne Bonny who has come to be known as Pierre the Pansy Pirate.

The Pansy Pirate’s real surname is uncertain. Various sources give it as Bouspeut, Bosket, Delvin, or variations of any one of them. What little we know about him comes from stories about Anne Bonny. However, what concerns me about Pierre is why, when, and by whom did he start to be called The Pansy Pirate? And what does the name mean? If, as I suspect, it means he was an effeminate gay man then it is one of the most disgraceful attempts to put a modern, out-dated, stereotype onto a historical character ever. I can find no use of “the Pansy Pirate” being applied to Pierre before the year 2000. I’ve spent five years trying looking.

In my first “Flower Power” article way back in 2012 I looked at how the word “pansy” came to be associated with effeminate gay men. I’ve looked again for earlier uses and still can’t find any source printed before the 1920s.

So why do people call Pierre the Pansy Pirate? To me it looks like a very clear case of “gay-washing” – putting modern stereotypical interpretations and a derogatory name onto one individual with no historical foundation. It’s a modern fake name. It appears all over the internet, with everyone copying each other when it comes to describing who he (allegedly) was.

Pierre lived on the pirate paradise of New Providence on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas. The internet tells us that he owned a coffee shop, a hairdressing salon and dressmaker’s shop. From this information someone has assumed that owning these makes a man a “pansy” or effeminate. Why? There’s nothing effeminate about these occupations except what was created by the often offensive stereotypes popular in film and television in the last century (and in many so-called comedies the US still make).

Let’s look at what Pierre was more likely to have been and we’ll start with his hairdressing salon. Hairdressing salon? They didn’t exist in his lifetime, at least not as we would recognise today. Pierre would have owned a regular barber-surgeon’s shop just like any other, and probably made wigs as well. He didn’t sit his customers in front of a mirror to clip and style someone’s hair, and he would certainly not have used shampoo and conditioner. The life of a barber in Pierre’s day is well documented and can’t be termed a “pansy” profession by any standard.

Next there is Pierre’s dressmaker’s shop. In reality he would have been a tailor. Most of his clothes were made for men. He would have made dresses as well, but so did all tailors. Again, at the time and place in which Pierre lived women didn’t make clothes (trust me, I worked in a costume museum for a while, I know these things). Women often span yarns into cloth, and some on New Providence may even weaved them into fabric. Tailored clothes were for rich people, and only men made them. Poorer people made their own clothes at home from whatever fabric they could afford - they were basic and easy to make, unlike the fancy men’s fashions of Pierre’s time.

Which brings us to the only story of Pierre being involved in piracy. It’s an apocryphal story and who knows if it is based on fact. Anne Bonny got to hear of a French merchant ship carrying rich fabrics and silks heading for the Caribbean. She persuaded Pierre to join her on a raid on the ship. To Pierre the prospect of getting him hands on lots of free fabric must have been heaven-sent.

The story goes that Anne used one of Pierre’s tailor’s dummies, dressed it up and put it at the helm of her ship. Two problems with that are that Anne had no ship of her own, and that tailor’s dummies weren’t invented until after Anne was imprisoned and “retired”. It is more likely she used an abandoned ship and made a dummy figure herself. Anne covered the dummy in blood and stood over it brandishing an axe. When the French ship saw this they surrendered and handed over their cargo.

There’s no actual evidence that Pierre was on Anne’s ship. As a tailor he probably stayed in his shop and waited for her to bring the cloth to him. There’s no evidence that he was ever a pirate, but that’s the whole mystique about pirates – their legends are more exciting than facts.

Anne Bonny was closely associated with the famous Calico Jack Rackham. There have been rumours, again first mentioned only recently, that Pierre was Jack’s lover. There’s nothing to indicate this in the large amount of factual information there is about Calico Jack. Although it is well known that he was a flamboyant dresser, which is how he got his nickname, that doesn’t make him camp or effeminate. It was a fashion of that time. It’s likely that Pierre the Non-Pansy Non-Pirate made all his clothes for him.

Pierre Bouspeut/Bosket/Delvin has become a victim of a misunderstanding of historical society. The person who first put the Pansy Pirate label on Pierre does not seem to have had any knowledge of past attitudes and social conventions. He/she put a modern version of a hairdresser and dressmaker onto a barber/tailor.

That’s my opinion. You may have your own. Further research may well prove me wrong. Until more evidence surfaces about Pierre I cannot see how he can be considered to be anything like a “pansy” or a pirate. Nothing about his known life indicates he was either.

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