Ellie Brigida: Before we start this episode, we want to give you all a content warning that this episode does explore themes of sexual violence.
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, we continue our conversation on queer pirates.
LC: Be sure to stay tuned until the end of the episode because our resident pirate expert, Alyse, wrote us a sea shanty for this one. And she’s also here now to play Fact or Fiction with us. Alyse, what have you got for us?
Alyse Knorr: Hey, y’all.
EB: I’m so excited and nervous again. But let’s do this. We’re ready, we’re ready.
AK: Okay, so today’s pirate Fact or Fiction is: I’m going to list four pirates for you, and you have to tell me whether they were real pirates or not.
AK: Captain Kidd, Bluebeard, Long John Silver, and Blackbeard.
LC: Okay. I feel like I know that Blackbeard is real.
EB: Yes, I can agree with you on that. I know that Blackbeard is also real.
AK: True. 100% right. He was a real pirate.
LC: I don’t think Bluebeard is real.
EB: Yeah, I’m gonna say no to Bluebeard and Long John Silver, and yes to Captain Kidd. I don’t know, I’m so nervous. Okay, so yes, Captain Kidd. Yes, Blackbeard. No, Long John Silver. No, Bluebeard. That’s my final answer.
LC: I’m going to agree with Ellie. Let’s see what happens.
EB: You guys are 1000% right!
LC: Woo! What do we win?
AK: You win my endearing esteem.
EB: And is there a Redbeard? Is there a Greenbeard?
AK: There should be.
EB: What color beards?
AK: No, so, I’ll tell you about each of these. Okay, so Blackbeard was a real pirate. He was absolutely terrifying. His ship was called the Queen Anne’s Revenge. He would light firecrackers and put them in his beard and his hair to freak people out. And he really, like, used fear and his intimidation as a tactic, as many pirates did. Bluebeard is also scary, but not real. He comes from a French folktale about a wealthy man who keeps marrying women and then murdering them. So it’s not that that doesn’t happen. It’s just that this specific guy, Bluebeard, in the stories. Captain Kidd–
AK: –Captain Kidd, very real. He was a Scottish pirate in the Golden Age. And then Long John Silver, not real. He kind of is one of the biggest sources of popular conceptions of pirates, but he was in Treasure Island, the Robert Louis Stevenson novel.
LC: The Muppets movie, you mean?
EB: I was like, I’m pretty sure. I’m like, isn’t Long John Silver’s also like a restaurant?
AK: Yeah, totally, I mean…
EB: It’s like a seafood chain, right? Isn’t it?
LC: I was like I’m pretty sure I can eat there.
EB: Yeah, brilliant marketing.
LC: That was Tim Curry playing Long John Silver in the Muppets. He said it was the favorite role he ever played, because he loves the puppets. Anyway, listen to our bonus Patreon episode on Muppet Treasure Island.
EB: Alyse, thank you for–I’m so excited we got that correct. So thank you for that. My heart was beating.
AK: You nailed it.
LC: I think this is the first time we’ve been 100%. 1000%, actually, is what you said.
AK: Right. Yeah.
LC: So, what a moment in Sweetbitter history.
EB: We have to commemorate it.
AK: Y’all are crushing it. So those are four, you know, really cool pirates, some fact, some fiction. But I wanted to have Jamie Goodall open this episode by talking about a pirate who sort of has like a really interesting backstory. True life pirate. Blackbeard got involved just for a little fun snippet. And so she’s a historian from the US Army Center of Military History. And her views are her own and not that of the US government.
Jamie Goodall: So Stede Bonnet was a gentleman planter from Barbados, and he just got really bored with his life. He got tired of his wife and kids, and business was boring him. So he just decided to sell his business, ditch his wife and kids, buy a ship, hire a pirate crew–which is the worst way to get a pirate crew is to hire them–and decided to go pirating. So he had sort of a midlife crisis during that time period, and he was the worst pirate. He just–he had no sailing experience. He had no experience with commerce raiding, and so he relied very heavily on his crew to do the heavy lifting. The problem being, they would only continue to operate so long as he paid them. Because rather than the traditional pirate, which is a ‘prey for pay’ kind of model where you only get paid if you attack a ship, they were like, “Well, you already paid us once. You have to keep paying us. That’s the deal.” At one point Blackbeard sort of takes him under his wing and tries to help him out. But even Blackbeard realizes he’s a hopeless case, and eventually locks him in his cabin and is like, “You stay there. Let us do the hard work.” And eventually Blackbeard ditches him, because he’s like, “This is just–this is just nonsense.” He’s eventually captured, and he thinks that his status as a gentleman will grant him reprieve from execution, but it does not. So he ends up–I think he ends up being hanged for his crimes.
LC: So I think we’ve spoken about this before, right? Like, this is the, I guess, old school version of all of these millionaires who are going to space?
LC: Yeah. Isn’t the ocean really just the space of the planet?
EB: Yeah, I mean, to be fair, there’s like–we probably know less about the ocean that we know about space. That might be like an over exaggeration, but there’s a lot we do not know about the ocean. It is freaking huge. And there’s a lot of shit under there. We have no clue.
AK: Yeah. And I mean, Jamie just has all these, like, stories about pirates in her head and all these–it’s stranger than fiction, and more exciting than fiction. But it all really, really happened. And so, she also told us a really, really great story about Blackbeard. So real quick, here’s Jamie’s favorite pirate story.
JG: My favorite pirate story is actually about Blackbeard. There’s a period where Blackbeard’s sailors, like his crew, are very sick. A lot of them are suffering from various STDs and other ailments. And he’s in desperate need of medications to treat these illnesses. And so he’s off the coast of South Carolina when he sees a ship that’s full of Charleston’s most prolific and important members of society, if you will. And he decides he’s going to kidnap them and ransom them. And he tells the South Carolina governor, “Either you send me a chest of medicine with all the items that I need, or I’m going to kill these people.” And of course, Blackbeard has a reputation, even though we have no evidence that he actually ever killed anyone, which is interesting. The governor is like terrified. He’s like, “Oh, absolutely.” So he sends the chest of medicine and, true to his word, Blackbeard lets them go, but he’s got a reputation to maintain. And so he sends these prominent men back to shore basically naked, and they have to row themselves naked back to shore. And I just–I think that’s one of the funniest stories of pirates that’s out there.
EB: I think in a previous episode, we talked about pirates basically being frat boys on the sea.
LC: We did.
EB: Right, and I feel like this is so much that. Like, you know, if you like lose in beer pong and have to do a naked lap. Like this is like literally it. They’re like, “Oh, you lost, so get naked. Sorry.” Like, I’m–I just, that visual is killing me.
LC: So we did–didn’t we talk in a previous episode about there being a famous story about the Roman who had to go back in a toga? I feel like this is the same thing.
EB: Yeah, the toga. Yes, pirates have a great sense of humor. Like they’re–you know, they’re just pranking people. Like, they don’t want to–like, they do hurt people. But I feel like there is this thing where, like, they don’t necessarily want to fight people. Like they will if they have to, but their bigger intimidation tactics are humiliation, or like hardcore intimidation of like, “I could hurt you. But how about you just surrender before I do?”
EB: Yes. Alyse, thank you yet again for joining us. Those stories are incredible.
EB: We always love having you. We will be back after a quick break. Last episode, we discussed queer pirates in a pretty idealistic, utopian way. This episode, we’re going to offer a counterpart to that.
LC: Our guest today is Nick Marsellas, a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh. They wrote an article called “Swashbuckling Sexuality: The Problem with Queer Pirates.” The question is how much we should celebrate pirate sexuality, given how it was often centered around rape.
Nick Marsellas: So I’ll say that I was really enamored with the idea of queer pirates right off the bat, as I think many people are, and finding it a really comfortable home for a lot of queer leftist sentiment coming up. And so looking for historical precedents and being really excited by the work of older scholars–Barry Burg, Hans Turley–who are really aligning pirates’ queerness with a sort of historical record, cultural record, and then also with older work in piracy studies that paints pirates as the sort of heroic proletariat figures, these people who are resisting the state and doing their best to buck the norms of the system, as it were. Out of that, I was really excited about pirates at the beginning, right? I was sort of, “Oh, these homosocial spaces that people are suggesting.” So I was really excited about these spaces right off the bat as potential examples of what queer community could look like, what community outside of the bounds of the state could look like. That was really exciting, right up until that excitement started to shift into a little bit of worry. I noticed that some amount of the scholarship was really not careful with the distinction between rape and consensual sodomy, which is, I think, par for the course historically and legally in that situation. And so I think ultimately, the issues that were coming up in the article were: how do we handle this stuff appropriately? How do we still look at the pirate as this queer figure, while acknowledging that a lot of what these earlier scholars were talking about was potentially quite harmful, or at least representations of harm on these pirate ships?
LC: Kind of reminds me a little bit of pederasty.
EB: Bringing it back to season one.
LC: Exactly. We’ve always got to bring it back. Hey, y’all, if you haven’t listened to season one, go back and listen. But it reminds me a little bit of this, because they talk a lot about pederasty, which obviously is, you know, sex between a man and a younger man, which isn’t really consensual by today’s definition.
NM: Yeah, so I’d say in Hans Turley’s Rum, Sodomy and the Lash–which came out around 2000 I think, maybe a little bit before that–he describes this violent, forced prostitution, group rape of Blackbeard’s wife, as a homoerotic exchange. And there’s no real acknowledgement of the violence of that situation. It’s sort of written off because it is a representation of violence, right? That it doesn’t feel like the violence needs to be addressed. But if we’re looking at these representations as moments of queerness, as moments of homoerotics, then I think it also feels really important to be looking at these representations as violence as well. That’s really sort of the question when it comes to piracy, right, is how much of the historical record can be used? How important is it that it is accurate? I think any question about how prevalent violence was, or consensual relationships were, it’s going to be a really hard question to answer because so much of what we know about pirates comes either from legal documents, right, which are ultimately about nonconsensual sexuality, or framed in such a way that it wouldn’t recognize consent between men. Or you have these very fantastical representations that I think are taken as history, certainly, but even the oldest historians we have of piracy are still writing to a literary audience. They’re writing to entertain, and I think it’s really hard to make any definitive claims.
EB: There was a Tweet I saw that was like, “Can we stop depicting rape in TV and film?” Right? Like, the amount that we depict it in, like, ways of entertainment, even, even now, is so excessive, compared to like–also, like, as someone who’s a survivor, like you don’t want to see that on screen. Right?
EB: That is so just–it’s just traumatizing.
LC: It is. I think the issue also being that, oftentimes, men are writing television shows, and it’s like something they insert into a female character’s story as the only way they can think about giving them any kind of history of trauma–
LC: –or it’s like, they’re doing it and they’re not even realizing that it is assault in the story. It’s not even acknowledged as assault, and look, just all the more reasons to have more people of different backgrounds writing the stories that we hear, because they can be more interesting stories than rape for women, or men.
NM: It’s important to acknowledge the vast range here, right? So you do have men in nonconsensual sexual relationships with young boys who are their slaves, right? That’s really terrible. That is really terrible, and something that Barry Burg brings up as an example of the homosocial world, homosexual world, aboard pirate ships. And so on the one hand, you could really condemn Burg’s work, but at the same time, you have all of these examples of queer matelotage and men marrying men essentially, and vowing to be loyal to one another, and to always fight in battle with one another, and to–even to have some amount of life insurance paid into together, and to share their wealth in life and then after, right? So it really runs all across the spectrum. I think it puts rape in this uncanny valley, where it’s understood as something that pirates do, but we all acknowledge it, we all play along, and it’s part of the flamboyant character of the pirate, right? You have Johnny Depp showing up at a port saying, “I’m here to rape and pillage.” You have, until 2018, Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride featured a bride auction where pirates sold unwilling women bound by ropes, right? 2018. And I think that there’s just this idea that the rape and pillage that gets–it’s very much tied up in the image of a pirate, right–is in no way connected to just rape. And I think that in the era of Me Too, right, in this space of thinking about all of these issues of consent really carefully, that scholars who are doing work in queer studies, that these are questions worth thinking about when it comes to representations of pirates, and when thinking about the scholarly work that they’re doing. And the ways that we’re seeing pirates as testing grounds for our own ideas, or thoughts about how you can exist outside the state.
EB: That Pirates of the Caribbean ride featuring a bride auction was just three years ago? Which is absolutely wild to me. But I think we also do know that, like, that is the representation of pirates in pop culture is, like, they’re gonna go rape and pillage and plunder and take what they want and not care about–like, I don’t really feel like we see a lot of pirates in pop culture who are like, “Let me get consent before I do these things.” Like that is–that’s not what we see. It makes a lot of sense what Nick is talking about.
LC: Absolutely. And just, oh my god, the bride auction, I cannot even.
EB: In their article, Nick even questions whether the word “queer” should be used around pirate sexuality, given how violent it was.
NM: Apart from LGBT, right, which are identity markers, queer is identity, but also politics. And to me, queer also as 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, “Okay, this person, this man is raping another man.” Is that queer, right? And I think you have a lot of different answers to that question, depending on who you ask. Yeah, I think it is, and I think it reflects, in a lot of ways, the problems that we have right now with queer culture and leftist culture, and this pursuit of purity and validation, right? That, I think, when we see ourselves in pirates, we don’t want–we want to have fun, right? We want to–we want a utopia where we’re living on an island with all of our queer polycule. That sounds great. And I think to poke at that is to do the work that a lot of activists and organizers are doing in leftist spaces and in queer spaces that are saying, “It can also happen here.” That rape, that assaults, breaking consent, can happen even in these spaces that are oftentimes quite liberatory, right. And that I think that there’s a lot of defensiveness that people will feel around that, and that that can lead to a slippery thinking, and a rejection of just how complicated the situation can be.
LC: I always think this idea of labeling is very interesting. And I know we had a lot of issues with this in season one with how to identify Sappho, because saying, like, “woman who loved women” is very wordy. And obviously “queer” is just an all-encompassing word. That’s a bit of, you know, it’s a bit of shorthand to say what we’re trying to say. But I think this is a really interesting perspective.
EB: Yeah, for sure. And I mean, words in general, even within the community, are so loaded, right? There’s all kinds of words about our identity that some people find offensive, some people find that it doesn’t actually define what you’re talking about. Also, with Nick talking about the problems in queer pirates also being the problems of queer spaces today, I find very fascinating, and also very valid. Like, queer assault does happen. And so to look at pirates as this utopia is also juxtaposed with looking at queer society now as this utopia, like, “We love being gay and queer.” Yes, we do. But that doesn’t mean there’s not issues with our culture, and our, like, subculture. So I think it’s actually a really perfect juxtaposition of the pirate past and our society now.
LC: Absolutely. So there was one last concept Nick introduced us to that we found really fascinating: the idea that the ocean itself is queer.
NM: I’m definitely not the first person to say this. I think it’s an extension of one aspect of queer theory, which is to say, “Oh, is this thing not normal within the bounds of a cultural understanding of normal? Well, then it’s queer.” And so you have, I think, the ocean as this liminal space that cannot be marked by a map, except in the most rudimentary way. That it’s much more accurate to think about the ocean in terms of currents, but that even those are in constant flux. The way that the ocean is sometimes portrayed as feminine and yet also often really masculinized and really intense and powerful. And it’s–yeah, it’s really interesting the way that Farley plays with that as well, right? That the ocean teaches the characters of Bonny and Read–Bonn in the novel–to be a man.
EB: Even when you think about, like, the words that we use to identify sexuality, like we talked about, like, sexuality is fluid and, like, moving. Like, water itself, we use a lot to identify ourselves, like as this thing that’s constantly moving and changing. So I love that concept.
LC: It was the ocean all along.
EB: Yeah, it was. We were the ocean, the whole time. I love that interpretation. And yeah, like, there’s so many things that are out of the norm that we can call queer, and so I love that as an overarching thing for this season of, like, “Let’s talk about these out of the norm things, that are queer, that are pirates, that are living on this queer ocean.” Like just, the mermaids are queer, like let’s be real. Like, mermaids are canonically gay culture. I think there’s a lot. There’s a lot about the sea, that dolphins are gay, right? Like they have history of same-sex interactions.
LC: There are gay dolphins, for sure.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, lots of stuff. I love it. There’s lots here. Thank you so much, Nick. I love everything that they’ve said during this episode and really appreciate all of their insights. With that, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Rebecca Simon: It is, yeah. And, you know, there have been studies about transvestitism on ships and in the army, and what it was like during that time period. The idea of a woman kind of dressing as a man kind of, you know, it freaked men out.
Laura Duncombe: It’s almost like they’re human beings that contain multitudes and, you know, were good and bad and, you know, heroes and villains, and all of those things that we are in a given day.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on October 14th.
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: Joshua, Melanie, and Transfer Productions. We love you.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Samori and Jabari Touré. Our production assistant is Thea Smith, and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to Joshua Nelson, who made both this week and last week’s shanties sound amazing. Thank you also to our guests this week, Jamie Goodall and Nick Marsellas. 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, without further ado, our amazing shanty this week by Alyse Knorr with sound by Joshua Nelson.