I tell straight people about my book, Brethren: Raised By Wolves, Volume One, and they often say, “Oh, so you’ve written a gay pirate novel.” If they think they’re talented, they lisp, “Argh, me mateys,” with a stereotypical limp-wristed wave, and then they laugh, as if that will somehow defuse the situation. And I shake my head in wonder. First, I hadn’t realized that gay pirate novels were a genre, such that mine could be dismissively lumped in along with the rest. And second, and far more importantly, I am amazed and amused by the irony that mainstream America’s simplistic gay stereotype has somehow become wedded to the fictional pirate stereotype; especially when so much has been done by historians to misdirect the discovery of any truth about pirate and buccaneer sexuality.
Gay pirates have actually been a matter of silent contention for centuries: the truth of their sexuality has been a fact guessed at by any who read the historical records, and disputed by any who can not countenance the mention or practice of homosexuality. After my own research about the buccaneers of the West Indies, I came to believe they did engage in homosexual relationships, but that they were not effeminate and were often not homosexual by orientation; and furthermore, the ones most likely to have lived with other men bore little resemblance to the Hollywood version of a pirate so many of us grew up with.
A few years ago, I conceived of a story about two emotionally damaged men trying to form a relationship that would hold the hope of healing one or both of them. I knew one of them was gay, and the other was not. I knew they were warriors, and born as nobles. I knew the book or books would be titled Raised By Wolves. Initially, I didn’t know where their tale was set. I decided that they would be pirates because I had heard rumors that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gay noblemen might have gone to the frontiers, such as the Caribbean colonies, to escape censure and persecution. Of course, when I started, everything I knew about pirates came from romanticized novels and Errol Flynn movies. So I set about reading.
I soon learned that pirates, at least the classical ones most people think of when hearing the word, are not buccaneers, and vice versa. The images of outlaws sailing the seas in captured galleons, replete with parrots and tricorn hats, are a fictionalized version of pirates from what is called the Golden Age of piracy, 1690 to 1720. While some of those pirates were initially buccaneers, the true buccaneers were quite different from that stereotype. And so I found the Buccaneer Period, 1650 to 1680 or so, to be much more interesting and suitable as a setting for my protagonists.
Once I had a focus, I went beyond reading books of historical interpretation, such as David Cordingly’s very informative Under The Black Flag, and compilations of tall tales, such as A General History of Pyrates (of which there is a great deal of ongoing debate over who actually authored the book). I moved on to C.H. Haring’s The Buccaneers of the West Indies in the XVII Century, published in 1910; James Burney’s History of the Buccaneers of America, published in 1816; and the grail of Buccaneer lore, as it was written by the only man to sail with the buccaneers and write a book, Alexander O. Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, originally published in Dutch in 1678. Not everything Exquemelin says can be taken at face value, and it is obvious his publishers nudged the work in whatever direction they thought would sell the most books in its various translations, but he is still one of the best source materials we have. Burney and Haring, both historians devoted to exploring the political ramifications of the buccaneer period, and not in writing books necessarily to titillate the common reader, used other source documentation from the Spanish, English, and Jesuits, and wrote books that do not read like a tabloid, as Exquemelin’s work often does. Later in my research, I moved into David Buisserat’s excellent works, Historic Jamaica From The Air and Port Royal, Jamaica, (with Michael Pawson) based on archeological evidence about Jamaica and Port Royal.
From all of this I learned a great deal about a time of turmoil in which the European powers – Spain, France, England, and the Dutch – were jockeying for power in the both the Old and New Worlds. The Spanish had claimed almost all of the Americas for their own, ceding only part of it to the Portuguese, based upon a line drawn by Pope Alexander VI on the map in 1493. This was known as the Line of Demarcation: in later years it was simply referred to as the Line. On the Old World side lay Europe and its treaties, wars, and diplomacy between the nations. On the New World side lay Spain’s colonies, and there was open warfare, hampered only by the sheer area that needed to be guarded and fought over, the relative lack of population from any nation, even Spain, and the lack of resources the nations were willing to expend in terms of their precious navies, which they needed in the Old World.
Spain had begun to colonize the New World shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered Hispaniola in 1492. By the mid-1600s they had colonies that were over 150 years old, and large cities, such as Cartegena, Havana, and Panama. France, England, and the Dutch wanted a foothold in this vast land of plenty, and they wanted the copious amounts of gold and silver the Spanish were mining and sending back to Spain. To that end, they employed wave after wave of privateers, one of the most infamous being Sir Francis Drake, who sailed around the world to pillage from the Spanish in the 1500s. The buccaneers joined in on this endeavor of robbing the Spanish in the mid-1600s, and quickly and inadvertently took a pivotal role in shaping world politics – though no one truly wanted to own them and they did not wish to be owned. They were not pirates per se: they were privateers sailing under marques of reprisal issued by the other European powers, most notably England. So the buccaneers were not outlaws, but mercenaries.
The buccaneers came into existence around the turn of the seventeenth century. The island of Hispaniola was settled by the Spanish at the turn of the sixteenth century, right after Christopher Columbus found it. By 1600, the colonists there, having depleted all of the indigenous slaves and the gold, moved on to colonies on the mainland. They left behind a great number of cattle and swine which flourished in the tropical climate and lack of natural predators. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, all through the latter 1500s and most of the 1600s, the English, French, and Dutch had government and corporate-sponsored fleets sailing all over the trade routes trying to relieve the Spanish of their gold and establish colonies of their own. As is always the case, not everyone is satisfied with living in a civilized society. A person might be especially disinclined to remain in civilization if they had been pressed into indentured servitude or the military, due to debt, bad luck, or being a political or religious dissident. As a result, all of those European ships and colonies lost men here and there. Those escaped men and other adventurers began to congregate on the abandoned northern coast of Hispaniola, the high country known as “the Haiti”.
This disparate and desperate collection of men found they could live there quite comfortably. The climate was Eden-like compared to Europe, and food, whether cattle, hogs, or native fruits and vegetables, was abundant. The earliest members of this group, in the late 1500s, learned what they needed from the few native tribesmen left alive on the island. One of the indigenous customs was the making of boucan: essentially what most of us call jerky, smoked and dried meat. The escaped men on the Haiti would trade this boucan, and the hides from the slaughtered animals, to passing ships for powder and weapons. People began to call these wild cattle hunters, boucaniers, which of course was anglicized by the mid-1600s to buccaneers. The buccaneers called themselves the Brethren of the Coast.
They carried huge muskets and an assortment of pistols and knives. They wore blood-caked canvas or rough leather tunics and breeches. They lived and hunted in packs. They smeared themselves with hogs’ fat and slept in the open around smoky fires to keep the insects at bay. They were mountain men living in a tropical paradise. Their only enemy was the Spanish, who viewed them as heretic vermin and slaughtered them at every opportunity. The Brethren fervently returned the favor, complete with high seas robbery and the raiding of small towns.
By 1640, the buccaneers had grown substantially in number. A few of them had become a more traditional form of colonist, with a small plantation and possibly a wife, though that was very rare. Probably ninety percent of the buccaneers lived in an all-male society, whose members spent half the year hunting and the other half freebooting: roving as pirates against the Spanish, crammed together on small single-sailed boats. By the 1650s, the French and English were authorizing them to rove as privateers: issuing marques of reprisal that allowed the buccaneers to take any Spanish ship as long as the government issuing the marque received a percentage of the loot. By the 1660s, the buccaneers often organized into fleets of ships packed with men. They would also raid Spanish colonies on land. They were devastating to the local Spanish militias, because while the Brethren were obviously quite capable of mounting guerilla actions, they also excelled at the conventional military tactics of the time, such as musket volley lines to organize their firepower. At sea, they sailed circles around the Spanish with smaller ships, always staying out of range of a galleon’s cannon. They were the terror of the West Indies; and due to troubles in Europe, they were often the only protection some of the fledgling colonies in the Caribbean had from the Spanish, who averred that anyone not Spanish had no right to be across the Line.
Since the Brethren were a polyglot of individuals and iconoclasts from several different countries, and largely composed of men who had been disillusioned in one way or another by governments or religions, they wanted little to do with either. Until the 1660s most would give featly to none save one another. Then, unfortunately for them, between 1670 and 1690, many of them became absorbed in the growing civilized colonial presence in the West Indies and ceased being buccaneers, leaving only a handful of their number to become the pirates that spawned the Golden Age of Piracy at the end of the century.
Prior to their assimilation, they lived as free men for about seventy years. They had developed their own form of democratic government. They lived by a common set of customs known as “the way of the coast”. They resolved disputes by dueling. They drew up contracts before any group money-making endeavor, in order to provide a pension of sorts for those that might be maimed and to properly allocate the proceeds. One of their important customs was matelotage. Today, the word matelot is the French term for sailor and the name of a fish stew. Then, matelot was a Dutch- and Latin-derived word that meant “bunk mate.” Within buccaneer law, matelots were partners who shared everything and inherited from one another at death. According to all of the historical source material, buccaneers took matelotage very seriously.
However, though the historical authors openly talked about matelotage, they all evade the question of whether or not these were sexually active partnerships. They often imply it to titillate their readers, but they never state anything overtly. Matelotage is listed with the buccaneer customs commonly practiced by the Brethren of the Coast, and then no more mention is made of it. Instead, the various authors often go on and on about the drunken debauches the buccaneers engaged in while in port, as if to establish that the buccaneers were a bunch of raunchy heterosexual men. They trot out the same tale or two about how some buccaneer paid an exorbitant sum of money to see a prostitute naked, or how another captain sat a keg of wine in the middle of the street and threatened to shoot anyone who would not drink with him. These are obviously anecdotes and not representations of day-to-day life for the buccaneers.
I became fascinated with what was not being said. So I turned to B.R. Burg’s Sodomy and the Perception of Evil: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean (published alternately as Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition). Burg’s attempt to prove the buccaneers were gay is somewhat sketchy in its viability from a strictly historical thesis perspective, but he had a great deal of useful information about the time period and raises some interesting points. However, I feel he missed some of the obvious evidence, and his interpretation of matelotage varies greatly from anyone else’s, as he describes it as an unequal master/slave type of relationship. This is not borne out in anyone else’s interpretation. All others imply matelotage as a partnership of equals.
What Burg does make a case for, and I feel it is supported by everything else I have learned over the years about the historical perspective on homosexuality, is this: in Europe, in the seventeenth century, sexual acts between men were not considered emasculating in and of themselves, even for the receptive partner. A man who chose to sleep with other men was not branded a homosexual, and not just because the word was only coined in the last century. However, a man who only chose to sleep with men might be scorned, primarily because all men were expected to follow the social norms: to marry, produce children, and tithe to the church, etc. What they did on the side was their own business, whether it was a mistress, gambling, excessive drinking, or even a male lover. All would be overlooked as long as they attended to maintaining their place in the order of society in some fashion.
Burg also attempts to make the case that homosexual behavior was widely practiced by any group of men that did not have access to women; such as apprentices or indentured servants who did not yet have the necessary income to support a wife and family. And by soldiers and sailors, who would often be away from sufficient numbers of suitable women for months at a time. The buccaneers would definitely fall into the category of men without a sufficient supply of available women, and of men who chose to sail on long voyages. Women were a prized commodity for most of the seventeenth century in the West Indies. Unlike the Northeastern states, which were settled by the Puritans, the Caribbean was initially colonized almost exclusively by men. When women were brought over, they were already married, indentured servants soon to be married, or prostitutes. Men outnumbered women on Jamaica by about four to one in the 1670s, when there were over two thousand buccaneers passing through Port Royal. And very few of those women were available prostitutes. During the height of the buccaneer raids, 1660 to 1672, there is only record of one brothel in the city. The other taverns may have had prostitutes, but they would have numbered well under a hundred, and men had a tendency to marry them as soon as they had enough money to take up planting, and thus taking them out of the pool of available women.
Even if there had been enough women to go around, a buccaneer had very little use for one, if he were to remain a buccaneer. It can be assumed that most of the buccaneers were innately heterosexual. They would prefer to engage in sex with a woman if one were available. And it is a widely accepted fact that it is the nature of our species not to wish to share a sex partner we are emotionally bonded with; and even in situations where sexual services are purchased, emotional attachment can occur. In order to avoid men fighting over them, women are traditionally not allowed in environments such as ships, unless: the ship will not be at sea for very long and the men have their own women ashore; there are enough women on board to pair up with all the men who might be interested; or the woman is of a different social class, for example, the captain’s wife, and therefore not a possible sex partner for the common men of the crew. On Hispaniola, the buccaneers lived in somewhat nomadic packs of men. While roving, they spent half, if not more, of the year at sea crowded together on the deck of a ship. In both cases, even if every man could have had a woman, they would not have been able to house and feed them, much less provide for any resulting children. Every member of a hunting or roving party had to be able to do his share of the work or combat. In the seventeenth century, it was nearly unthinkable for a woman to be engaged in these tasks.
So, unless a buccaneer chose to keep a wife in port, or relinquish his buccaneer status and become a planter, he did not marry. Instead, a buccaneer apparently partnered with another man in matelotage. It should be noted that not all of these men would be homosexual by orientation. We have no reason to believe that the ratio of innately heterosexual to homosexual, or bisexual, males would differ from what we currently experience. Though, perhaps, if another one of Burg’s suppositions is true, there might have been a higher number of gay men in the West Indies, because they chose lives that did not involve women. Still, most of the buccaneers would have presumably been heterosexual. I make note of this, because some people might be inclined to dismiss pairs of matelots being sexually active on the grounds that heterosexual men would not engage in homosexual acts. But it is obvious that innately heterosexual men are capable of engaging in sexual intercourse with other men. It happens every day in our prison system.
Several years ago, I did extensive research for a script project on gender roles in male prisons. Maximum security prisons are all-male societies where some, if not many, of the members do not expect to be with a sexually available woman during the prime years of their sex drive. But inmates still feel the need to engage in not only sex, but relationships of some type. Due to twentieth-century social condemnation of homosexuality, prison inmates do not find the idea of becoming or even being perceived as a homosexual acceptable. So they rationalize that one is only emasculated, and thus shunned, if one is the receiver of a homosexual act. Thus, a man is able to retain all of his social masculine status as long as he is never penetrated in any fashion by any man, or engages in any sex with another masculine man. Yet, he can have sex as often as he wants, and even form an acknowledged bond, with an emasculated man. This is the real reason why prison rape is a matter of such terror. Beyond pain and humiliation, being raped irredeemably reduces a man to second-class status in a prison. Meanwhile, the individuals who performed the rape are able to maintain both their heterosexual and masculine status.
If Burg and others are correct, men in the seventeenth century were not afraid of social condemnation for engaging in homosexuality such as an American man is today. They would not feel the need to rationalize their actions in terms of masculinity versus femininity as prison inmates do. It can be supposed that men who form strong bonds with other men, and do not live in a society that will irredeemably condemn them for it, would be willing to share sexual activities with their partners while they were all in a situation devoid of women.
So, it is very likely the buccaneers lived in sexually active pairs even though historians and chroniclers of the period have not wished to commit to labeling it in that manner. Instead we are left with little glimpses of truth, such as the French Governor of the Haiti saying he needed to import as many women as he could, because he was tired of the men fighting in the streets, over each other. And Mrs. Thomas Lynch (Lynch was the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica) complaining of sodomites in the streets of Port Royal in a letter back to England. And then there is the Chocolata Hole.
(For the sake of clarity, proper proportions, and copyright issues, this is a map I designed for Brethren: Raised By Wolves, Volume One, and not a map from the period.)
My research yielded several maps of Port Royal from the period. All the maps from that time show the usual features for the cay Port Royal sat on, the forts that had been built prior to the map, the King’s House, the church, and a geographic feature named the Chocolata Hole. Initially I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to it, and then I realized that, though they explained the name of every other feature on the island, none of my reference books explained the Hole’s name. The best text simply referred to it as the shallow bay where the buccaneer sloops anchored. As you can see from the map, the Chocolata Hole is tucked away around the back end of the peninsula Port Royal sits on. This was in juxtaposition in location and concept to the deep anchorage and proper wharfs on the front of the peninsula where the English merchant ships docked.
A case could be made that, up until 1671, when a blight destroyed a great number of the cocoa plantations, many of the buccaneers who settled down and tried to be planters on Jamaica initially grew cocoa, and thus a lot of cocoa went through that bay to be transferred to English merchant ships. But, it could have just as easily been called the sugar hole, the pineapple hole, or the indigo hole to represent other lucrative products. Or it could have been named the booty hole, since most of the real cargo that came through that bay was loot from the Spanish. Those are not the names that show up on the maps from the period, though.
I think someone, either a buccaneer or one of the townsfolk, named that bay the Chocolata Hole with euphemistic intent and the name stuck. For me, it was the last piece of the puzzle and allowed me to decide that all of my reading between the lines in the other texts had not been completely misguided. It allowed me to feel with some confidence that, despite historical censorship to the contrary, the buccaneers did engage in sexual activity with each other, enough so that someone found it appropriate to salaciously name the water they anchored in.
So in all my research, I discovered a larger story in which to set my characters. Their tale became wed with that of the buccaneers; who have been cheated of a vibrant portion of their legacy by historians and others simply because the buccaneer lifestyle did not fit within the social mores of mainstream society, then or now. In the seventeenth century, the Brethren of the Coast were feared more by the colonies whose interests they protected than by their enemies, the Spanish, because they lived outside of the carefully-maintained social and political structures of the Old World. Of course, in the present day, gay men are feared and reviled for much the same reason: they are rebels existing in some frightening New World of ideals that are often seen as challenging the very fabric of society.
The ideas that I present here, and in my novel, Brethren: Raised By Wolves, Volume One: that the buccaneers were not the bumbling pirate villains of favorite childhood movies, but actually dangerous men who banded together in organized military units; is not a thing many modern-day people want to think about. And if they do harbor a concept of pirates and buccaneers as masculine archetypes, the supportable theory I advance that many of these legendary outlaws and mercenaries were probably gay makes those people defensive and uncomfortable, if not fearful of what macho image might be threatened next. When you add my supposition that many of the buccaneers were actually heterosexual men who engaged in homosexual acts as a component of their day-to-day culture, that they essentially married one another for love and economics, the whole scenario becomes the stuff of an average mainstream American’s nightmares. It is actually no wonder people feel a subconscious need to reduce the idea of a gay pirate to an absurd caricature when I say anything about the subject.