Pirates have long been celebrated as queer icons, in part because it’s just too damn easy to speculate on what a ship full of daring devil-may-care social deviants would’ve gotten up to at sea.
“I liked the idea of [Pirates Of The Caribbean character Captain Jack Swallow] being ambiguous,” Johnny Depp told Rolling Stone magazine in June. “Because women were thought to be bad luck on ships and these pirates would go out for years at a time.
“So you know, there is a possibility that one thing might lead to another. You’re lonely. You have an extra ration of rum. ‘Cabin boy!'”
Apparently Depp was inspired after reading Barry Burg’s academic work Sodomy And The Pirate Tradition, first published in 1983.
“Those who signed aboard vessels destined for the Caribbean or the eastern seas, whatever their reasons or sexual preferences, found themselves in situations where the only manner of fulfillment was with members of the same sex,” writes Burg. “Homosexuals may have congratulated themselves on having blundered into good fortune. Those with no preference could easily adapt.”
Burg isn’t the only one to have speculated about the sexual preferences of pirates. In Rum, Sodomy And The Lash: Piracy, Sexuality And Masculine Identity, literary historian Hans Turley speculates that queer men would have been drawn to a life of piracy precisely because it offered freedom from social constraints. But he repeatedly reminds us that not all pirates would have engaged in the aforementioned swishbuckling.
“Both the pirate and the sodomite are attracted to and gravitate toward other men,” writes Turley. “For the sodomite, this attraction is explicitly eroticized. For the pirate, this attraction is homosocial, but implicitly eroticized because he is culturally deviant, yet his sexuality is neither questioned nor determined.”
Turley notes that men weren’t the only ones who recognized the possibilities presented by piracy. Two of the most famous pirates were women who defied the supposed superstition that kept women off of the high seas: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Much of what is known of the pair comes from A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pirates, published in 1724 and attributed to Captain Charles Johnson (though Johnson was quite possibly a pseudonym of Daniel Defoe, the man who gave us such homo-romantic works as Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton.)
Born around 1700 in Cork, Ireland and raised in South Carolina, Anne Bonny is described as a hot-tempered redheaded hellion who dressed in men’s clothing and burned down her father’s plantation when he disinherited her for marrying pirate James Bonny. The couple moved to New Providence on the island now called Nassau. Though James proved to be a pathetic pirate by all accounts, Anne fared far better. She planned her first raid in conjunction with her gay buddy Pierre Bouspeut (sometimes called Pierre The Pansy Pirate) to steal a shipload of velvets and other rich fabrics from a French merchant vessel.
Soon after, Anne ditched her hubby, took up with Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham and joined the crew of his pirate ship, Revenge. It was there that she met Mary “Mark” Read, who had joined the crew disguised as a man. Although the exact nature of their relationship will likely never be known, they were certainly close if not lovers.
(Interestingly enough, one of the earliest recorded usages of the word “dike” was apparently made in reference to the pair around 1710, referencing their crossdressing habits rather than rumours of their romantic entanglement.)
Ultimately, the Revenge was taken down by pirate hunters and Anne and Mary had to “plead their bellies” (claim to be pregnant) in order to avoid the gallows. Mary is reported to have died in prison, while Anne mysteriously vanishes from all accounts.