Bisexual Bucaneers: LGBTQ+ during the age of Piracy

James Ryan

When people hear the word Pirate, love is not usually the first thing that comes to mind

When people hear the word Pirate, love is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, pirates seem like otherworldly beings with their swashbuckling tales of violence, robbery, and debauchery. But one needs to remember that despite their almost mythical status these pirates were real people. Real people who felt love and affection. Regarding LGBTQ+ relationships among pirates, what we know is few and far between. Granted, any form of relationship that isn’t the stuff of folklore and legend is also few and far between. Pirates have this big problem called romanticism; the more people become fascinated and horrified with them, the more extravagant and taller their tales become. Even to this day, there are many gaps in pirate history that need filling; Blackbeard’s surname for instance is still very much up for debate. However, we do know a little bit about homosexual relations among 17th and 18th century pirates. During the golden ages of piracy and buccaneering, this almost exclusively male-dominated environment developed a custom called matelotage (from the French word for seamanship). Matelotage was a form of same-sex civil union among sailors in which partners (or matelots) would share income and, in the case of a partner’s death, inherit each other’s property. It’s possible that the famous pirate term “matey” derived from these partnerships. Now, it’s important to remember that not every matelotage was out of love and affection, but it did appear to have become synonymous with LGBTQ+ relations.
Bisexual Bucaneers: LGBTQ+ during the age of Piracy
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Perhaps the most well-known of these matelotages is that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.

Perhaps the most well-known of these matelotages is that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann. Culliford was probably born in Cornwall around 1666. His pirate life began aboard the French privateer ship Sainte Rose; sailing alongside the notorious William Kidd. After war kicked off in Europe in 1689, Kidd, Culliford and six other British sailors mutinied and captured a French brig. A year later Culliford mutinied against Kidd, and left him stranded in Antigua (hey it’s a pirate-eat-pirate world!). It’s entirely possible that Culliford met John Swann aboard the Sainte Rose; otherwise, we do know they were imprisoned together in India before escaping together in 1696. The biggest clue to a homosexual relationship together comes from a register in the Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series which stated that Swann was a “great consort of Culliford’s, who lives with him” on the pirate haven of Madagascar. Naturally, this could mean absolutely anything but given the context of the time, place and figures involved it clearly suggests more than just an economic partnership. Unfortunately, written agreements of matelotages are extremely rare and no other detail regarding how close or physical their relationship was, exists. What is known is that upon returning to the sea Culliford did ask Swann to join him but was turned down. After both accepted royal pardons, Swann moved to Barbados and decided not to follow Culliford anymore. Culliford and Swann’s partnership/relationship/whatever you want to call it was just one of many matelotages that occurred throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, at the time such a relationship was against the law (but then so too was piracy). Some governments went to extreme cases to try and prevent such partnerships from taking place. Take the Caribbean island of Tortuga. During the 1600s this French controlled island was a popular destination for seamen of the dishonourable kind. In this haven for pirates, same-sex relationships became accepted by the buccaneers who tormented Tortuga. However, they were not accepted by the island’s governor Le Vasseur. To combat this plight as he saw it, he came up with a radical idea. In 1645, Le Vasseur wrote to the French government requesting 2,000 “undesirable women” be sent to Tortuga to engage in prostitution and sway the inhabitants from homosexual desires. To Le Vasseur’s surprise, this plan did not work. For one thing, some remained in their matelotage relationships whilst marrying prostitutes at the same time! Finally, one cannot discuss LGBTQ+ pirates without mentioning the most famous power couple: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The two women cross-dressed to live the pirate life before falling for each other. Captured and facing the death penalty, Mary died in captivity whilst Anne disappeared from records. Whilst their story is important to LGBTQ+ history, they were just one of many, many equally as moving stories from the high seas that have sadly faded away to the world’s end. It may be just a matter of time before another surfaces onto the world stage.
Bisexual Bucaneers: LGBTQ+ during the age of Piracy

James Ryan

James Ryan lives in Inverness and works at Culloden Battlefield, site of the last pitched battle in Britain, where he works in educating and interpreting the history behind Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite defeat. In his spare time, he can be found either exploring museums or out in the field looking for fossils. His passions lie in both human and natural history; particularly in Scottish history, the golden age of piracy, and Victorian natural history - the latter of which he volunteers in at the Hugh Miller's Birthplace Museum in Cromarty with the museum’s fossil collection.
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