Were Some Pirates Poofters?

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:24

    Were a lot of pirates poofters? Or to put that more politely: Was there much homosexual activity in pirate society? On the surface it seems one of those Pope-Polish questions. Gay historian B.R. Burg, in his classic, and controversial, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (originally published by NYU Press in 1983), simply assumed that of course there was, and offered no-nonsense analogies: Is there homosexual activity in prison? In the Navy? In the Army? Among Catholic priests? In the Boy Scouts? At David Barton?

    All right, I added that last one. His point was that anywhere you find an exclusively male society you find (a) gay men attracted to the milieu (that the priesthood and the military are great social networks for gay men is well-known and well-documented) and (b) other men who, deprived of female companionship, become "situational homosexuals," like in prison.

    So was there homosexual activity in "this roving cruising Life" as one of Daniel Defoe's pirates calls it? As an Esquire hed quipped in response to Burg's work, "They All Said Athwart, Didn't They?" Or, as a female colleague of mine put it, "You know how you men are. Alone at sea, months at a time? After a while that knothole's all wore out and you're gonna start eyeing each other."

    Burg, Esquire, my friend?and the Village People, Saturday Night Live, Captain Pissgums and Winston Churchill?all notwithstanding, English professor Hans Turley says it's not so simple as that. Indeed, nothing is simple or straightforward in his new book, except maybe the nice title, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash (also from NYU Press, 198 pages, $30). While he seems to accept that premise of piratical homosexual activity as obvious and a given, he never just comes out and says it. Instead, he discusses at great length the "implicit homoeroticism" in pirate literature and lore. He posits that while pirate society was obviously what scholars call homosocial, there's surprisingly scant direct evidence that it was also homosexual. In truth, he says, there's very little reliable evidence about how pirates lived in any respect. Guys like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd didn't leave diaries. Everything we know about them was written by outsiders, from balladeers and pamphleteers to government propagandists and novelists like Defoe. Sources and motives, even in the best of pirate "histories," are open to considerable question. One of the most often-sourced, Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), doesn't distinguish between real and wholly fictional pirates?and "Charles Johnson" may have been a pseudonym for Defoe.

    In sum, Turley argues, we can't speak with real authority about the pirate at all, but only about the pirate as we know him in the literature?what he calls, coining one of those awful late-90s pomo deconstructionist terms, the "piratical subject." And that figure ain't your typical foppish sodomite mincing across the stage in a Restoration farce. If the pirate we see in the literature is implicitly queer, he's a big, bearded, "hypermasculine," murdering, marauding, thieving wild man of a queer, a radical, a rebel and "deviant" from his contemporary British society in every sense. He was the "hostis humani generis, the common enemy against all mankind." And isn't it intriguing, Turley muses, that a figure so outlaw and outlandish, so rogue and reviled, should also fascinate us, be so romantic and erotically charged, that for 300 years now he's been the center of so much myth, legend and story?

    Burg's book and Turley's illustrate the shift in gay academic politics between the first-generation gay studies of the early 80s and the deeply entrenched queer theory at the end of the 90s. It's the difference between straightforward modern scholarship and convoluted postmodern theorizing?the distance between an earlier gay scholarship that sought to "normalize" and mainstream gayness versus next-generation queer theory celebrating the deviance and "transgression" of queerness. You might say that Burg was an assimilationist, Turley's a separatist.

    Burg was writing at the dawn of gay studies (Jonathan Katz's landmark Gay American History had only come out in '76; Burg's book capped research begun in '75), a time when scholars were working overtime to find pre-19th-century examples of gay culture peacefully existing within the mainstream. The operant theory was that for the bulk of history homosexuality was far more accepted and acceptable than it became in the 19th and 20th centuries, when, due to various social pressures, the whole notion of hetero vs. homo gets invented and homosexuality suddenly becomes this shocking vice that "dare not speak its name."

    I'm inclined to believe Burg was exaggerating when he claimed that "[s]eventeeth-century Englishmen on all status levels were remarkably indulgent with homosexuality..." He argued that though by the beginning of the 19th century sodomy or buggery (interchangeable terms) would become a capital crime, for the 200 years prior homosexual behavior raised few eyebrows in British society. In the legal system it was treated as a far lesser crime deserving of far softer punishment than other sexual misbehaviors, such as rape. In an era when you could be hanged or burned alive for anything from petty thievery to papist beliefs, a buggery conviction earned you "[t]he least severe of all punishments available to English judges, sentencing to the pillory... [S]odomy was simply another crime, another work of the devil with little inherent capacity to evoke passionate detestation."

    Certainly the ruling classes had been long acquainted with homosexuality, from James I's notoriously poofter court to Charles II's luxuriant excesses. Burg cites Restoration comedies like the 1680 farce Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, in which Boloxinion, King of Sodom, decrees anal intercourse for all males, and The Successful Pyrate of 1713, about sailors on a female-less island, with characters named Jollyboy, Lesbia and Sir Gaudy Tulip. Buggery might be derided or looked askance upon, but not, Burg argued, treated with the utter revulsion that would later accrue to it.

    Meanwhile, Burg argued that on the lowest rungs of British society in the 1600s and 1700s lots of surplus boys were produced who, unable to find gainful employment or servitude, were likely to aggregate in roving, all-male packs of vagrants, beggars, thieves?and pirates and buccaneers. On board ship?whether in the King's navy or as rogue pirates?the exclusively male company (females were literally considered a curse; Blackbeard tended to strangle those he captured and cast their bodies into the sea to avoid bad luck) attracted lifetime gays in large numbers, and converted others. European women were also scarce in the Caribbean colonies where pirates made their home ports, reinforcing the likelihood of homosexual activity. "All Sodom's Sins are Centered in thy heart," a colonial wrote of Barbados in 1710.

    Writing almost two decades later, Turley brusquely dismisses Burg's entire thesis in one sentence (he calls it "popular" but "problematic") and, I think, two brief footnotes. Yet his counterargument is far from a clear one, and often swings too uncomfortably far into deconstructionist obscurantism to be very persuasive. Here's an example; he's discussing seamen in the British navy at the time of the pirates:   Because women were absent from shipboard life does not mean that sailors were "homosexually" inclined. On the contrary, the social structure on board these vessels was part of the whole economic enterprise of England, and it would do little good to try to theorize a homoerotic paradigm for nonpirate sailors. If we imagine a piratical subject, however?a merging of the economic criminal and the cultural transgressor who "declares war against all mankind"?we should be able to understand the implicit link between homoeroticism and piracy. Pirates, in other words, were not bound by any social conventions except their own.

    Pardon me, but that's doggerel. Notice how blithely he glides in this brief passage from seeming to address conditions in the real world (Was there or was there not any homosexual activity on board these ships?) to a soup of pomo deconstructionist fancy, in which suddenly we're supposed to "theorize a homoerotic paradigm" and "imagine a piratical subject" and "cultural transgressor" (that most beloved of late-90s academic heroes) who allows us to make that "implicit link" and (as Love once eloquently sang) bloop blip blip bloop blip blip.

    After reading this passage a dozen or so times I've decided that what Turley may be saying is that there could not have been homosexuals in the British navy, because the "homoerotic paradigm" was exclusively the property of his beloved culture-transgressing piratical figures, because...well, because that's the way he wants to "imagine" it. That's the kind of deconstructionist shite that's been deployed to confuse, bore and depress university students through the last decade, turning their minds into quasi-"radicalized" mush.

    The whole book isn't as dopey as that passage, although it is often as dull and hard to read. The pirates themselves come to Turley's aid?whether real or fictionalized, they're such great, bizarre characters. (Turley bluffly dismisses another book of pirate lore, one of my all-time favorites, Philip Gosse's 1932 The History of Pirates. It may not meet Turley's scholarly standards, but it's one fuckload of a lot more fun to read. It takes an academic to turn out a book about pirates that reads as cold as this one.)

    Take Blackbeard, "the Fury from Hell." Sexually conflicted, capable of mad brutality and yet so careful and dainty with that famous beard, which "he was accustomed to twist...with Ribbons, small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramellies Wigs, and turn them about his Ears..." Blackbeard had all sorts of difficulties with his wives, of which he was said to have 14 or more, scattered all over the Atlantic. Burg speculated the obvious, that he was queer and the wives were "beards." Turley, characteristically, is cloudier in his judgment. In one of the few sexually explicit scenes in golden-era pirate lit, cited by both Burg and Turley?and, well, everyone who writes about pirates?Johnson noted of Blackbeard that "...it was his Custom to invite five or six of his most brutal Companions to come ashore, and he would force her [his wife] to prostitute her self to them all, one after another, before his Face." Bigamy, voyeurism, sadism and a gang bang all in one?think he was overcompensating much?

    Although they were great heroic or antiheroic characters, most pirates were, crucially, working-class antiheroes, and tended to express their grandest, most poetic urges in organic, pragmatic ways that are awfully likable. In one of the great, Miltonic scenes of pirate legend, Blackbeard turns to some of his crew and says, "Come...let us make a Hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it." He meant that literally: As Johnson relates, they "went down into the Hold, and closing up all the Hatches, fill'd several Pots full of Brimstone, and other combustible Matter." Blackbeard lit them up, and the competition was to see who could stand it the longest. Who do you think won?

    In a similarly down-to-earth gesture (Turley says it's probably apocryphal), when the young Captain Kidd decides to become a pirate, before he sails off he goes ashore and buries his Bible in the sand?an unambiguous and yet poetic signal to God and man that he was choosing Bad over Good.

    Then again, in a very enlightening bit, Turley examines the court records from Kidd's eventual trial and conviction and finds, instead of damn-yer-eyes defiance and I'll-see-ye-in-Hell bravado, a rather frightened and worried man wheedling the judge over details of trial procedure. On the morning of his execution, the chaplain was appalled to find Kidd drunk and unrepentant at first. Then the hangman's rope broke the first time they dropped him, and in the awful moments before they strung a new rope and hung him right, Kidd confessed his sins and begged God's forgiveness.

    That's a real guy, not one of Turley's piratical constructs, and the more interesting for it. Afterwords   Met a nice guy, Viktor Allen, broadcaster, actor, toured with some classic Living Theater back in the day. For the last two years he does a talk show, Chelsea Journal, on channel 67 (RCN channel 110), kind of Charlie Rose without, I suppose, Charlie Rose's fee. I'm a guest this Sunday, July 18, at 5:30.   Remember last week I speculated about a Struwwelpeter renaissance? More evidence: This week's Economist has an article about the Tiger Lillies' "junk opera" version, Shockheaded Peter, which is planned to come to New York in the fall. The article deadpans that Lillies frontman Martyn Jacques is "a British composer," failing to mention that he's known as "the criminal castrato" and earlier "compositions" include songs about fucking bugs and sheep and poxy whores. Can the Struwwelpeter-inspired fashion spread in Black Book be long in arriving?   James Wolcott's "Brill's Bully Pulpit" in the August Vanity Fair is the replacement article editor Graydon Carter ordered up after he spiked staffer Jennet Conant's piece on the same topic. (Conant resigned.) The conspiracist version was that Conant was too rough on Brill and media heavy Barry Diller. The countering word from VF was simply that Conant's piece was a B effort that covered no new ground, so Carter spiked it (he'd killed a couple others of hers in the preceding year) and reassigned the story.

    I didn't see Conant's piece?copies circulated, but not to me?but I wouldn't say Wolcott's redo is more than a B either. If Carter sent Wolcott out to do a hatchet job on Brill he didn't hand him the sharpest ax in the shed. The piece is entertainingly nasty in the particulars, but it's not what you'd call incisive or sweeping, and it breaks no new ground, either.

    True, on the personality level Wolcott paints an unflattering portrait of Brill as a social-climbing, overachieving mook from Queens whose primary motivation is to make the preppie overlords pay for the snubbings he feels he's endured?"the Rudy Giuliani of the print trade." But Wolcott never comes out and speaks directly to the core hypocrisy of Brill and Brill's Content. It's not remotely an expose or deep analysis, just a witty media critique, all surface barbs that may hurt Brill's feelings but won't have any serious effect?and may only give him more fodder for his I'm-pissing-off-the-big-guys spin. In the end, Wolcott doesn't think anything about Brill's Content that you and I don't think.

    Still, there is his spiky humor, which at least makes it fun to read:   Shunned by the media elite since his debut issue, Brill has attempted to turn their cold shoulders to his advantage by repositioning himself as a populist executive, a Steve Forbes with Glengarry Glen Ross gonads.   Like David Foster Wallace's fiction, Brill's Content annotates itself so anal-retentively that any semblance of inner life suffocates under a heap of hypertext.

    There are some zingy insults, including a reference to Todd Gitlin's "fortune-cookie non sequiturs ('Juicy gossip serves as social cement')," a "white-noise Q and A with J.F.K. Jr. (trying to get good quotes from him is like checking a burro for gold teeth)" and calling the New York Post's John Podhoretz "that junior auxiliary gasbag."

    On the level of media critique, Wolcott does make a couple of good points. One is that "...the hybrid nature of the magazine?part public-affairs journal, part consumer guide; part yenta, part swinger?makes finding a hit formula difficult. The more that Brill's Content tries to make itself pop and accessible, the more it resembles Frankenstein's monster trying to dance. It can't help planting its foot too hard." And another is:   Lacking a political point of view, Brill's Content bags small game for minor infractions and lets bigger ogres roam free... Like George, Brill's Content covers its beat as if it had no stake in the outcome. But in a battle of ideas, a partisan struggle, who roots for the referee? Despite its title, Brill's Content isn't really concerned with content, but with process, corporate branding, and inside baseball.

    Mean and smart as it is, Wolcott's piece isn't a home run?he pokes the beast but fails to slay it. What does it mean that even Time is biting back at Brill (as Alex Kuczynski reported in this Monday's New York Times)?that Brill is, you know, "having an impact" on the industry (a spin he can sell to naive subscribers), or just that everybody's sick of his bullshit and feeling it's safe to fire back?