Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode is going to be our first of two episodes on queer pirates.
LC: But first, we’re joined by resident pirate expert, Alyse, to play our new favorite game: Fact or Fiction.
EB: Hi, Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: Hi, y’all.
EB: I’m nervous. I always get nervous I’m gonna get these wrong. Like, our whole thing is supposed to be like, “We know things,” and then I’m like, “Oh, goddamnit Alyse, you got me.” Let’s see. I’m ready, though. I’m ready. Here we go.
AK: Okay, the skull and crossbones flag. Was it real or not real?
LC: I feel like I also interviewed Jamie Goodall for this, so I’m taking myself out of the race. Ellie, it’s on you.
EB: Oh my gosh, it’s always on me. Okay, so I do remember that we talked about pirates having a different type of flag.
AK: A cooler flag, I believe.
EB: A cooler flag. But I’m gonna say that this is also fact, and that they had multiple types of flags. And one of those flags was a skull and crossbones, because they would have been trying to intimidate the people that they were jumping on board for. And so it would definitely be something scary. So I’m going to say it’s fact.
AK: Yes, you’re right.
AK: This was a real flag. The skull and crossbones as a symbol of death actually goes back to, like, the late Middle Ages. It would have been used on tombstones. Some pirates had the classic skull and crossbones on their flag during the early 18th century, and others had even scarier flags, like a full skeleton, like, with an hourglass in one hand to symbolize that you only had so much time to surrender before the pirates would attack you. And in the other hand, you’d have, like, a bloody heart being stabbed with a spear, so that I think is an even scarier flag, which some pirates had.
EB: I love it. I’m glad I got it right. I get so nervous, but–
LC: It’s okay to be wrong, Ellie.
EB: No, it’s not.
AK: They called the flag the Jolly Roger. This might have come from “jolie rouge,” which is French for “pretty red,” “beautiful red.” And so that might have been like a way to symbolize violent pirates. But also there’s a thought that Roger was like a slang name for a penis. So it could have been like a homoerotic sex pun.
EB: I mean, but for that, especially as we talk about queer pirates.
AK: Yep, yep, yep.
LC: Very on point for this episode.
AK: That’s kind of why I picked this Fact or Fiction for today’s episode, because today’s episode is going to be about queer pirates.
LC: Our favorite topic.
EB: Thank you, Alyse. We love doing our Fact and Fiction with you. As we mentioned at the beginning of the episode, this episode, we’re going to be talking specifically about queer pirates.
LC: You’ll remember last week when we spoke to Jamie Goodall, who works for the US Army Center of Military History. Just a quick reminder that her views on this are her own and not that of the US government.
Jamie Goodall: It probably wasn’t as obvious to people. So it would be hard to give a number or like a percentage. But I would say that there was probably a decent amount of homosexuality among pirates–not any more than the traditional population, right? I feel like they’re just representative of the regular population. And we know that homosexual relationships existed in the 17th and 18th centuries, even though they were closeted and hidden. It’s not like pirates are more queer than the general population. It’s just difficult to say without the evidence to support it, but for sure it existed. And then as far as queer pirates, there are two books that I want to mention that deal with queer piracy. Hans Turley’s Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity. And then there’s B.R. Burg’s Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. And both of them sort of talk about the fact that homosexual acts were against the law, of course, at that time period. Theories exist that there were queer relationships among pirates, particularly because they had a system known as matelotage, which was a same-sex union among sailors, in particular pirates, where it was sort of an economic relationship. They would inherit their partner’s property if their partner died. In addition, they pledged to protect and fight for each other. And so some have interpreted that as a platonic, purely economic relationship. Others have viewed that matelotage as what we would consider a same-sex civil union or a same-sex marriage. So we don’t have a lot of evidence as far as queer piracy goes, but what we do have is very interesting.
LC: Okay, so what we’re saying is same-sex marriage was legal, so very, very, very long ago on pirate ships.
EB: The pirates are way, way, way ahead of their time.
LC: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
EB: Also, I’m like, are we gonna pretend like marriage isn’t an economic–purely economic–now too, you know what I mean? Like, it is still, okay. “This is my partner, let me make sure I’m married to them, so that when I die, they’re taken care of,” right? It’s not that crazy of an idea.
LC: I mean, gay couples used to adopt each other, so that they would have that same guarantee.
LC: So it’s all just about, like, the economics of it.
EB: But it’s like, you know, you care about that person, and you want them to be taken care of.
LC: Of course.
EB: So, did they care about them in a gay way? Or just a friend way? Honestly, probably both. Both and either, you know, but I love that. Okay, but how do we find these historical records, if they were so clandestine? Here’s pirate expert Rebecca Simon to answer that question.
Rebecca Simon: None of it was ever officially recorded. And it wouldn’t have been during that time period, because it just wasn’t really talked about. I don’t know if it was–I know there were laws against sodomy, and, you know, these are terms that were being used back then. So keep in mind, the terminology I’m using was terminology from the 18th century. So sodomy was considered to be a criminal offense, sometimes even an executionable offense. There were very strict laws often against, you know, sex and relationships on ships. And this could be because of complications. Does this mean homosexuality did not exist? No. Homosexuality has existed everywhere, in every animal kingdom, in every life form, since the beginning of time, you know. So in my opinion, it’s impossible to say there wasn’t homosexuality on a ship. We just can’t prove who. There’s assumptions based on certain pieces of evidence that maybe some pirates might have engaged in some form of relationships. There are records, a few, of pirates engaging in something called matelotage. And what this is–it’s kind of sort of entering into, not a marriage contract, but it’s a contract where you’re essentially kind of choosing someone who you’re close to, leaving a will, essentially, to leave all your goods to, in case you die in battle. We don’t know the relationships of people who had these contracts. There are some who very much assumed that it was because of same-sex love relationships, there are others who believe it was just kind of like an insurance thing, close friends supporting each other, or giving someone their goods so it could later be transferred to families, without being lost. So again, very complicated. There are some records, particularly two pirates, Robert Culliford and John Swann, who both kind of sail together in the 1690s, with Captain Kidd off and on. And they both settled in Madagascar on the island of St. Mary, I believe, near Madagascar. And the records say–and this is in the calendar of state papers, so a very legitimate source–that they lived together, or they lived next to each other. This could mean a few things: that it could be that there were two known pirates who just happened to be living together on the same island; it could be that perhaps they were neighbors; it could be perhaps they were actually living together in the same home. So it really kind of depends on the interpretation. And this is what makes this subject such a piece of interest, because we don’t know. There’s no proof “yes,” but there’s no proof “no,” either. There are a lot of people who are very hardcore, like, “No, homosexuality does not exist!” And then others saying, “It was everywhere!” I fall in the whole, “Absolutely.” There had to have been gay pirates, just because statistically, there would be. And sometimes there is what they call situational homosexuality, where when you’re isolated together for a very long time, you’ve developed these close relationships, and sometimes they turn sexual if, you know, they don’t have sexual release in any other way for a very long period of time. So, you know, that could be very common as well. And there are places where that does happen. Whether or not it’s consensual is a whole other topic of discussion. But again, we just don’t have records. But in my opinion, just based on what humanity is–sure, there were gay pirates. We just don’t know who, and we don’t know how many.
EB: So we’re saying all of the relationships on Orange is the New Black are situational homosexuality as well?
LC: “Look at this situation I’m in, I guess I’d better be homosexual.”
EB: “I’m with this other hot woman, what will I do?” I mean, that makes a lot of sense, though, right? Like these pirates are isolated together. And I think we’ve talked to a lot of historians who have talked about–even if there weren’t records of this. Like, if you think about a situation where two people are together and they’re the only people around, like they’re either going to be celibate, or they’re going to be together. Or I mean, they don’t have to be celibate. They can, you know–
LC: People can masturbate, Ellie.
EB: –take care of themselves, as well. There’s only a few options here, really.
LC: Absolutely. So this is a similar take as B.R. Burg–all these “R” names so hard to say as an Australian–position on this, which is basically: duh, of course it would have happened. And that’s also the attitude of Clint Jones, the historian from episode one who reads pirate societies as blueprints for social utopias.
Clint Jones: It seems to me inevitable that when you are living in close quarters with people that you are sharing life and death experiences with, it’s beyond the realm of possibility that no homosexual relationships would develop. It just seems beyond the pale. And like I said, there are some scholars who argue that it was not accepted, or it was still clandestine. Other scholars think that there was more openness about it. And I think it really depends on how you read a pirate ship. And so by parallel example, I’ll say this. In the Ancient Greek and Roman world, especially in the Ancient Roman world, it was not uncommon for soldiers in the field to develop homosexual relationships. And that was encouraged, because you’ll fight harder for someone you love. And so they weren’t meant to be merely sort of pleasurable physical relationships. They were meant to be sort of deeper connections. And so when I think about the utopian impulse and what that looks like, I don’t focus so much on same-sex, you know, homosexual, or heterosexual, or–I think of it more as sort of a realm of intimate possibilities. And so, I think on a pirate ship, you’re gonna have groups of individuals who are fiercely committed to each other, because they’ve served together for a long time, they’ve been through harrowing experiences, they understand each other, they trust one another. And you have all the hallmarks of a relationship. To assume that that wouldn’t, on some level, become physical–in my mind, you can’t reconcile that with logic, right? It’s just gonna happen. To think that these individuals were perhaps bisexual, in a lot of ways, I think does a disservice both to pirates and bisexuals. I think that pirates had a fluid sexuality that moved between ethnicities and races and classes and genders. Pirates are very flamboyant, you know. In a lot of the depictions we have of pirates, you know, there’s a lot of theatricality, and I think that–you know, even someone like Blackbeard, you know, he’s got the cannon wicks in his beard for the smoke, and he’s this fearsome guy. And I think that when you’re in this sort of realm of the imaginary, anything is possible. And so I feel like, even though there’s probably hard and fast examples of some individual being anti-homosexual, there’s just as many examples of individuals shrugging it off, right? As long as it doesn’t interfere with your work, we don’t care. I think that the utopian impulse embraces this fluidity, which acknowledges each individual’s right to explore and experiment their own boundaries, in the context of relationships that are supportive, and trusting, and built on shared experiences in such a way that it wouldn’t matter. I find it hard to believe that if I’m a really good pirate, my crew is going to be like, “We don’t want you on our ship anymore, ’cause you’ve got weird proclivities.” Right, like, I feel like they wouldn’t care.
EB: I love this so much, because, of course, pirates were super campy and flamboyant.
LC: There were boundaries you could cross, as a pirate, with having a life partner at sea, you may have even drawn people to piracy. So people who wanted to escape the oppressive societal norms–me, too–and live amongst other people who wanted to escape these norms as well. And actually, there was a really cool episode of Nancy, where they talked about a group of gay people in Australia who tried to start their own country on an island. So I just feel like the sea has been a place where the gays go to escape societal norms. Anyway, here’s Clint with more on that.
CJ: They’re rebels. And they come from such disparate cultures where things that are common in some places, and uncommon in others–when they come together, I think in that sort of back and forth between how you do things and how I do things, it’s not about abolishing, you know, one person’s way of life. It’s about finding ways to accept it and make room for it. And so some people obviously came from cultures where homosexuality would not have been a problem at all. Lots of indigenous pirates, lots of pirates from indigenous populations, wouldn’t have found homosexuality problematic at all. And so you have to believe, on a pirate ship, when they’re talking about homosexuality, there’s going to be a large contingent of people looking around, like, “What the hell’s the issue? Like, what is wrong with you weird European types?” You know, and so I think there’s something to be said for pirate communities that is much more accepting than not only we give them credit for, but we even are today. And so, on that score, I think we’d all do better if we were more pirate-like.
LC: So there are some things we should learn from pirates, but maybe there are other things we shouldn’t take from pirates. I’m just gonna throw that out there as a wild belief.
EB: Like what?
LC: Like a murder and rape and all of those great things.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LC: Probably not taking on those lessons.
EB: But I mean, Clint loves to talk about pirates in a utopic way, right? Like, his whole thing. But I do like the idea of–I mean, when we look at so many cultures in history, homophobia didn’t necessarily exist, right? Like, people just accepted that, of course, like, same-sex attracted people existed and wanted to be with each other.
LC: Yeah, fucking colonizers coming in.
EB: Yeah, I would love it if we could have less homophobia. That’s all, that’s pretty nice. We also spoke to Christopher John Farley, AKA CJ, an author who wrote an article called “Reclaiming Jamaica’s Gay Past,” about how the pirate histories of the Caribbean challenge stereotypes of Jamaica.
CJ Farley: Jamaica, for many years, had a reputation of being a very homophobic place. And there is very deep-rooted homophobia in the Caribbean. I grew up hearing some of it, you know, people that wanted to identify as something other than their assigned gender birth being ridiculed, or even assaulted. People who are lesbian, or gay, or transgender, just having a terrible time of it growing up. I worked with Staceyann Chin at Audible and did a book with her called MotherStruck. And Staceyann Chin is a terrific lesbian Jamaican poet. And in that book, MotherStruck, she told the story of trying to be a single mom in Brooklyn through in-vitro fertilization, and how difficult that was as a 30-something lesbian woman. And also she talks about the experiences of assault she faced in Jamaica, because of intolerance on the island. All that is true. One thing I wanted to point out in the article is that there are notes of hope. There are elements of Jamaican culture that speak to a different path. One thing I find interesting is that, you know, Bob Marley, for example, despite some of the homophobia in Jamaican culture, Bob Marley never wrote a song that somehow ridiculed gays or lesbians. And with that I found very striking, the absence of that, from the very many songs that he wrote. And also, the fact that there’s a legacy of great Jamaican poets who are gay and lesbian who produce great work that speaks to LGBTQ+ life on the island, and the fight for identity. So I wanted to shine a light on that aspect of Jamaican culture, in contrast to the way it’s often portrayed.
EB: I love that CJ can have hope.
LC: It’s amazing that anybody can have hope right now.
EB: It is amazing that anyone can have hope, that there is hope for more LGBTQ artists and experiences to shape the culture moving forward–in Jamaica, and plenty of other places–to make it less homophobic and, like, make it more like the history of pirates in Jamaica, which CJ talked about as well.
LC: Yeah. He even wrote a whole novel about the cross-dressing pirate women Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which we’ll hear about more in future episodes.
CJF: One thing that allows me to make assumptions about Jamaica is when you don’t know the history of the island, you don’t know the culture of the island. And when you do that, you can make assumptions about what the island is really about. And I think that–and you always hear this from people, when they find out about some cultural hero they didn’t know about going, “Oh, if I had only known that when I was a kid, maybe, you know, I would have had this hero to sort of live up to.” And I feel the same thing is true of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, that a lot of people don’t know about their story, they don’t know the trails they blazed, they don’t know about the fights that they waged. And had they known that, maybe they would have a different take on what, you know, cross-dressing is about, or what the island of Jamaica is about, and what the history of piracy is about. So that’s why I thought it was important to tell that story. It’s personal because, you know, I was born in Jamaica. I have written a number of books that deal with Jamaican life, you know: Game World is a fantasy adventure set in Jamaica; Before the Legend; The Rise of Bob Marley, which is a biography of the great Jamaican singer; and of course, you know, Kingston by Starlight. So again and again, I sort of return to the well of sort of writing about aspects of Jamaican culture. And so I want to make sure I capture what goes on the island in a very holistic way, and not to capture a very narrow slice of it, because there are always breakthroughs. I mean, it’s funny that in America, we still haven’t been able to elect a female head of state. And Jamaica has had a female prime minister. So despite its reputation of being very sexist–which, in many aspects, it really is–but there still have been these breakthroughs, and those are the kinds of things I want to celebrate in the stuff that I write. I want to again point out that, yes, Jamaica does have a really strong and established record of homophobia. People who have felt it, people who have grown up on the island have talked about it. And we don’t want to overshadow that, because, you know, people’s experiences are very negative when you’re from that community and you’ve grown up on the island. But that said, the great thing is how much great and thrilling literature and poetry has come from the island that speaks to the LGBTQ+ experience. And again, people like, you know, Claude McKay, the great Jamaican poet, who wrote that poem “If We Must Die.” But that’d be like–you know, he’s just a great poet. You know, people like Nicole Dennis-Benn, who wrote the book Here Comes the Sun. It got incredible acclaim in recent years. And so I think when people think about the island, I hope they check out some of these other books and aspects of Jamaica. So just to let them know that the island has crossed assigned lines of, sort of, gender and class and sex before. People continue to do that. There’s a whole rich legacy and bank of culture from Jamaica that does those things. It’s worth checking out.
EB: All in all, our conversations with these pirate historians revealed that, just like in season one, historical erasure is a huge problem. Here’s Rebecca again, and then CJ.
RS: There is a huge queer erasure in history. And, you know, why? Many reasons, politically, you know, it could just be that just a lot of straight-washing, you know, perhaps, you know, straight people or non-LGBT people who just–it doesn’t even quite dawn on them, that maybe there could have been a homosexual relationship. Or maybe it is deliberate erasure. You know, I hear all the jokes of like, these two women writing love letters to each other, living together, and never having children, but they’re just friends, right? And the same thing. You know, there’s examples of men doing that, writing lovely letters. In fact, even for instance, I think, just because it’s so popular, David McCullough, when he wrote Hamilton’s biography, there was examples of kind of loving language between Hamilton and John Laurens. But again, you can’t prove was that actual loving language, or is that just simply intimate language between friends, which was the type of language used back then, in letters and writings? So again, it’s kind of how we interpret. But no, I agree, there is a lot of LGBT erasure in history
CJF: At the time, and we’re talking about the 18th century here, you know, there really weren’t good places for women, you know. In many places, women couldn’t vote, they couldn’t hold higher office, they couldn’t inherit land, they couldn’t own land, they’re very much the property of their fathers and brothers and male relatives. The same thing with many people of color, particularly black people, you know, we were for sale, couldn’t own things, couldn’t vote, were bought and sold like goods, like animals. And the one place where black people and women could find some measure of freedom was on the high seas, was on these pirate ships. Because when they adapted or brought out these alternate personalities, people they really weren’t to begin with, finally they were able to own things, they were able to steal things, they were able to live the lives they always saw themselves living. So I always found it profoundly ironic and really beautiful in a true way, that the one way people can live an honest life in this time period was by being a criminal. And so when I began to picture it in that way, it all became very clear to me, and I still think to a certain extent, that’s true today, in that all these crazy bathroom laws being passed and voter suppression acts–in order to live an authentic life, in order to be the person you want to be, you often have to defy the rules and the laws that society is setting down for you. That’s what we’re doing today, when we’re out there marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter, or we’re marching on the streets for the right for people to adopt kids, or to marry. And that’s what these pirates were doing back in their time. They were really just fighting for the right to be themselves.
LC: Wow, I just love that this theme keeps coming up again and again. It’s my favorite.
EB: Surprise, surprise. I mean, that’s the whole point of this podcast. We’re trying to bring a little bit less queer erasure to our lives, so we’re going to bring all of this stuff to light. And I appreciate Rebecca and CJ talking about it.
LC: Yeah, CJ does like to remind us the history all comes down to who controls the narrative, which I think we’ve extensively covered, and will probably be a theme in this season, too.
CJF: Male and white–that shouldn’t be the default setting. We should go into it as a blank slate, and then use the evidence to figure out, okay, who was this person, really? And it’s funny–just the other day, I was watching a couple portrayals of–my family saw the Van Gogh exhibit, the interactive one that came to New York City. And so my daughter and I sort of watched some excerpts from various movies about Van Gogh, you know, Lust for Life, and the new one with Willem Defoe, At Eternity’s Gate, and Vincent and Theo. And one thing we noticed is how wildly different all the interpretations of Van Gogh were. It all depends on people’s point of view, on the actors, whether–and who’s directing it. The same is true of almost every historical figure. So we hear these things about these historical figures, we assume them to be straight, or male, or white. We poke into it and we go, “Oh, that’s maybe not the case. Maybe we need to learn more about that.” A couple of years back, I edited a special issue on Thomas Jefferson, for Time Magazine. And at the time, the assumption was, amongst many people–this is about, a number of years ago–a lot of the mainstream assumption was that Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have cheated on his family and had kids out of wedlock, because that’s not the kind of person he was. And then, thanks to DNA testing, people began to prove, yes, in fact, he almost certainly did have kids out of wedlock, and he did rape his slaves regularly. It’s who’s telling the story, what historians are looking into, what evidence are they assuming to be true. And I try to go into history with–it’s that, when I look at any historical figure, I go into it with those assumptions. I mean, the same is true of Ancient Egypt. You know, so many movies have been made. And the Egyptians, people who are playing the Egyptians, you know, look like they’re from London, or white Londoners. And they don’t look like the Egyptians we see today, or the Egyptians that lived in what we call Ancient Egypt, who historians say were even a darker shade. Again, it’s who’s telling the story. And that’s not just true of race–it’s true of gender. So I hope that, you know, throughout this podcast, you do go in there, guns blazing, throwing aside historical assumptions, and saying, “Let’s see who that person really was. Let’s see who they really loved. Let’s not just go by what history has already put down as the assumptions of what they’re about.”
EB: There is no better way to end this episode than to reiterate what CJ said. So, with that, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Nick Marsellas: Queer is identity, but also politics. And to me, queer also has a sort of latent leftist impulse, a sort of drive towards caring for one’s community and for one’s partners in a specific way. And I think that there’s some really complicated things that happen when we say, like, “This man is raping another man. Is that queer?” And I think you have a lot of different answers to that question depending on who you ask.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our third episode will be released on September 30th.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple Podcasts. You can also support us on patreon, at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you to our new Patreon supporters this week: Brittany and Holly. We’re so grateful for your support. You can now also subscribe for our bonus episodes using Apple’s subscriber feature. So far, we’ve covered Peter Pan and The Goonies. Upcoming episodes include The Princess Bride, Treasure Island, and the romp that is Cutthroat Island.
EB: I cannot wait. Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our production assistant is Thea Smith, and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Jamie Goodall, Clint Jones, Rebecca Simon, and Christopher John Farley. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website sweetbitterpodcast.com. And now we have an amazing pirate shanty by our favorite pirate expert, Alyse.
EB: It is called “The Jolly Roger,” which–just, you’re in for a treat.