Ahoy! Avast! Matelot? Pirating Was About More Than Just Wenching
Ahoy matey. You scurvy dog. Argh. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of my pirate speak. However, in honor of International Speak Like a Pirate Day, I decided to expand my vocabulary beyond the basics. First I found this nifty difty pirate translator. So go forth and speak pirate. Some more googling and clicking led me to this awesome word: matelotage
Whatever does this kind of French sounding word mean? It means a legal union of two pirates. In fact, some historians have described this as a type of same sex marriage.
The pirates exchanged rings and pledged eternal union. After this, they were expected to share everything. Plunder and living spaces were obvious, but couples in matelotage were also known to share other property, and even women. If one of the partners was killed in action, pirate captains were careful to make sure that the surviving member received both shares of plunder, as well as appropriate death benefits.
A very close (sometimes romantic) pirate buddy was called a matelot on French ships. The English picked up the term that described these close same sex friendships that were so different than the relationships between English sailors. Eventually they shortened matelot to mate.
The problem with pirates is of course that literacy was low and there was no real centralized government. They died young, lived dangerously, and left relatively few documents. On top of this, “pirate” is a very nebulous term that describes the crews of any number of semi-legal and illegal trade ships as well as maritime bandits. However, there is an increasing body of research suggesting that a lot of pirate cultures were relatively permissive when it came to same sex relationships.
Many people compare this to “situational homosexuality”. Other historians theorize that people who would be rejected by society for their sexuality or breaking other taboos would be more attracted to the relative acceptance of the pirate life. It would only be natural that these communities would be more open to breaking rules about sexuality when they’re already breaking so many other laws. Keep in mind that at this time, sodomy was punishable by death in the British navy.
In 1645 the governor of Tortuga was sufficiently concerned about same sex relationships among French sailors that he requested the government send hundreds of prostitutes to keep the sailors occupied. It didn’t really work. The pirates enjoyed the prostitutes, but kept their mates as well.
Again the idea of pirates as a single entity is deeply flawed. Each ship basically functioned as I its own governing body. Although there may have been cultural norms that transcended individual ship’s laws, there was a lot of variety too. Each ship had its own articles that were the basic rules and laws of the ship. Most codes haven’t survived, but there are a few and some of those do address sexual conduct.
The articles of Bartholomew Roberts include
6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man shall be found seducing any of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise he shall suffer death.
Boys and women are grouped together in this one as potential sexual objects, which makes me assume that there was a degree of knowledge of same sex relationships. Also there seems to have been rules around what kind of sexual interactions may or not be acceptable. The other mention I’ve found was in Captain John Phillips’s articles. He didn’t address same sex relationships, but he did state
9. If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death.
So much for the stereotype of pirates as rapist thugs. At least some ships had clear rules against such conduct. In fact, Captain Phillips’s 9th article was the only one of his 9 articles to carry a guaranteed death penalty.
It looks like pirating was probably about more than swabbing, plunder, and pieces of eight. Although it was brutal, illegal, and sounds largely unfun, piracy also created a space for people to escape the very confining social mores of the time. Men had the freedom to express their affection for men or women. There was significantly more social mobility as well. It was also this more permissive society that allowed women to make their mark as more than wives and daughters. Definitely, go check out Anne Bonny and Mary Read for more on some awesome women who took to the pirating life. Also, if you’re interested in learning a whole lot more about same sex lovin’ on the high seas, check out Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean.