Tuesday 19 September 2023

Pirate Couples

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.

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Two Olympic Transitions

NOTE: The information in this article is accurate on the date of publication. New information discovered after this date may alter or replace some of the details.

Today we learn about the third “Olympic first” associated with the lgbt community. The previous were Prince George of Greece and Denmark and George Poage. Today I feature two Olympians who possess other “firsts”, each of those firsts differing in their specific details but significant in their own way. Both can be regarded as the first transgender Olympian. They are Leonard Chalmers (1911-1990) and Léon Caurla (1926-2002). Both competed an identified as females before undergoing transgender surgery.

First of all, let’s differentiate their respective “firsts”. Leonard Chalmers is the first Olympian to compete (Berlin 1936) who became transgender (c.1961), while Léon Caurla is the first Olympian (London 1948) to have surgery (1950). I hope that makes sense.

Another thing they have in common is that they did not actually compete in the games they attended. Both were listed as members of their respective National Olympic Committees, and both were listed as entrants in their events, but are recorded as non-starters. This may be for several reasons. Those early Olympics may not have been so formal with regards to entries and starters. There are many athletes listed who also did not start their listed event, though their names appear in official Olympic records (Léon was one of 6 non-starters recorded in his event). Another reason is that they were what we now refer to as “alternates”, athletes who are designated to fill in for another in cases of illness. Until 1992 all alternates were listed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and were regarded as full Olympians. Since 1992, however, the IOC have not regarded alternates as Olympians. This is where I and many Olympic historians chose to differ. In my lists of lgbt+ Olympians I include all lgbt+ alternate athletes.

Let’s look more closely first at Leonard Chalmers. He was born biological female and baptised Lilian Florence Elizabeth Chalmers. Confusion about his actual date of birth is resolved on his birth certificate and the 1939 Register of England and Wales (a national census taken to assist in the distribution of ID cards during the war) which give his birthdate as 5th December 1911. Wikipedia (as of today) gives the wrong date. I will use the female pronoun as used by both Lilian and Léon during their athletic careers.

Lilian Chalmers’ prowess on the track seems to have begun in 1932. The first real record of Lilian as a member of an international English team is at the 2nd British Empire Games (retrospectively referred to as the 2nd Commonwealth Games) in London in 1934. Lilian won the bronze medal in the women’s 100 metres sprint.

Lilian’s next major event was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, being listed as an entrant in the women’s 4x100 metres relay. As mentioned above she was a non-starter in this event. The team won the silver medal. The claim that I have seen online that Lilian’s non-start was due to criticism from other female athletes about her gender is not substantiated.

In 1937 Lilian became the British women’s 200 metres champion. This was repeated in the 1939 championship, to which she added the 400 metres title. Also in 1939 she competed at the Internationale Stadionfest (ISTAF Berlin) in the stadium that had hosted the 1936 Olympics. A few weeks later war was declared in Germany.

During Lilian’s athletic career she worked as a machinist in Coomer’s Cardboard Box factory in Portsmouth. Her last known race was in 1951. Sometime after that she moved to London, and in 1961 Lilian underwent gender surgery and adopted the name Leonard on 21st December of that year. Leonard Chalmers died from a stroke in 1990.

Although Leonard was the first transgender athlete known to attend the Olympics he was not the first to undergo reassignment surgery. As mentioned, that distinction currently belongs to Léon Caurla. It should be pointed out that, in all probability, Léon Caurla was intersex.

Léon was born in the French town of Etain and was assigned female at birth. He was baptised Léa. Her first major competition was the 1946 European Athletics Championships in Oslo. She won a bronze medal in the 200 metres. In the first heat she was racing against the Polish sprinter Stanisława Walasiewicz (later known as Stella Walsh), a fellow intersex athlete.

On the same day as winning her bonze medal Léa won a silver medal as part of the 4x100 metres relay team. Stanisława Walasiewicz also competed in this event (her team came last). On Léa’s team was Claire Brésolles. Shortly after the Oslo championships Claire transitioned and adopted the name Pierre. He does not appear in any Olympic records. It is claimed on Wikipedia that Léa and Claire were lovers. This is not true.

In 1948 Lea was listed as an entrant in the women’s 200 metres at the London Olympics. As with Lilian Chalmers in 1936, Lea may have been an alternate athlete. But there could be another reason.

Gender verification in sport has a long and complicated evolution and history. In 1946 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (now known as World Athletics) introduced regulations requiring all athletes competing in female categories to provide a medical certificate before each competition verifying their female gender before being allowed to compete. Léa must have provided one in 1946 in order to compete at the European Championships. However, moving two years on to the Olympics and a physical examination had become mandatory. It is recorded that Léa refused to take this physical examination. The outcome was certain. Léa was barred from the French athletics federation and from the Olympics. I’m still trying to ascertain the date this happened. This must have been after the Olympics or Léa would have been disqualified from entering, and her name would never have appeared in official records.

It was at this time that Lea decided to live as a man and undergo surgery. In late 1950 the surgery took place, and Léa emerged as Léon, revealing his transition to the press in March 1952.

Details of Léon Caurla’s life after this are scarce. We know that he joined the French Air Force at some stage, and that he married and had children. By the 1980s he had returned to his hometown of Etain, where he had several jobs – a travelling salesman, owner of a florist shop, and he also rented out property.

While we cannot say with certainty that Léon Caurla was the first transgender Olympian, bearing in mind he was probably intersex, we can say that Leonard Chalmers was the first Olympian who definitely was, even though he wasn’t the first to have surgery.

With transgender issues being even more of an issue in sport than ever before we wait to see if and when transgender athletes will ever compete at the Olympics in the future.

My opinion doesn’t count for anything, but I think it is time for sport to drop its current method of scoring results. Athletic results already take into account wind speed and altitude, so, if transgender athletes have an alleged unfair advantage, why can’t someone come up with a formula that takes this into account. Let transgender athletes compete in whatever gender category they wish. Applying the formula would ensure a fairer result, even if it means finishing first and being declared third, or whatever. In the future, if it is decided that transgender athletes should never have been subjected to the formula, that formula can be removed retrospectively. The athletes not subject to the application of the formula retain their positions and medals, but if that then means there are two gold medallists, fine. Its an idea that needs a lot more work put into it.

We can only hope that sports organising bodies, transgender athletes, and transgender critics can work together for once and come up with a solution that pleases everyone.