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  • Review: Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition November 20, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    There is a Beachcombing family tradition that involves Mrs B. lying on one side of the great bed reading her Reflections on the Gospel of John or True Stories of the Umbrian Christian Mystics, while Beachcombing lies, by her side, engrossed in bizzarist books that leave, in Mrs B’s eyes, a lot to be desired.

    Beachcombing has always found the contrast refreshing and he has particularly enjoyed in the last days how Mrs B looks up archly whenever Beachcombing quotes from B.R. Burg’s Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. Beachcombing has, despite these appalled glances, been delighted in his choice of reading matter: good books on pirates are a rarity. But books on, to use the title of one of Burg’s chapters, ‘Buccaneer Sexuality’ number just one.  

    Now, sex is something that most historians shy away from, ceding the field to anthropology and sociology. But this is to surrender a large and important part of human nature to – let Beachcombing be frank – some of his nicest but most ideologically dubious colleagues. Sometimes there are historical specifics: the English Reformation, for example, was sparked by a persistent erection – Henry VIII’s. But there are also general rules that are worth taking into account. So asexual men, just under two percent of the male population according to Kinsey, have always been overrepresented in the ranks of ‘honour’ (i.e. power), as homosexuals seem to cluster in the artistic professions. Indeed, asexual individuals – think Churchill, Hitler… – are a forgotten minority in these happy days of gay rights.

    Burg’s refusal to shy away from sex means that he produced (back in 1984) an extraordinary book. His argument? Burg claimed that, on early-modern pirate ships, homosexual acts became an uncriticised norm. He established this (to his own satisfaction) demonstrating: first, that homosexuality was not particularly demonised in seventeenth-century England; second, that the male-female balance in the Caribbean – at least among the white population – was skewed towards men; and, third, that homosexuality was normal within pirate ranks. He then finished with a reflection on how this unusual society evolved and how it differed from other male-only societies. Modern prisons are frequently mentioned and Beachcombing recalled, from time to time, nightmarish scenes from Oz.

    Given that pirates were not keen writers (‘yes, you keep the pieces of eight and I’ll grab that quill and parchment’…) and given too that homosexuality was not a polite topic in drawing rooms (‘the unmentionable vice’) our historian had to do some heroic grubbing – for example, determining gender balance from casualties in Caribbean settlements after various natural and man-made disasters. Here, indeed, Beachcombing’s second rule of history applies: ‘Second-rate historians discover new sources, first-rate historians discover known ones.’

    This dependence on sources seen from unusual angles means, of course, that many of Burg’s arguments are inferences. And, while some of these are convincing, e.g. the paucity of white women in the early modern Caribbean, others, such as the unlikely-sounding (at least to Beachcombing) seventeenth-century ‘tolerance’ of homosexuality, remain open and interesting questions.

    But what Beachcombing found most refreshing was the complete absence of Foucault and Derrida and other beasts from the ‘post modern jungle’ in the main text.

    Beachcombing has recently – for his sins – been reading a series of sociological articles and has discovered that it is today necessary to begin any sociological work with a methodological reflection that lasts about three sides and that is, in terms of knowledge, worthless. Skipping through such passages reminds Beachcombing of his readings of medieval Biblical commentaries, written to reinforce established learning, originality of any kind being discouraged. The difference is that Beachcombing would far prefer an hour in Leviticus with a Danish Dominican than an hour in the company of one of the drones of sociological modernity.  

    Instead – and in this Beachcombing remembered Ronald Hyam’s brilliant Empire and Sexuality – in Burg’s work there is a careful attempt to build on the work of sexologists with a dash of common sense and a minimum of necessary methodology. This leads to some rather uncomfortable readings given Beachcombing’s delicate, lilly-white heterosexual constitution, though Beachcombing accepts that this is his problem – the word ‘oral-genital’, for example, cropped up a little too often for this bizarrist’s liking. Having said that anyone who can write history with the following sentence has to be worth reading: ‘The same research on homosexual psychopaths indicated that all men in the sample whose crimes had been committed against adult males had little success inducing orgasm in females on the occasions when they attempted heterosexual intercourse’.

    The heroic age of these sexual-historical works is now sadly over and few truly fine studies (such as this) were produced in the forty odd years between Elvis first gyrating his hips and September 11. Within another decade there will be rigid orthodoxies and sensibilities and this kind of exciting pioneer work will be a distant, smirked at memory – an even worse reaction than the embarrassment with which some historical journals treated books like Burg’s at the time of issue. The frequent occurrence of ‘toward’, ‘gender’ and ‘semiotics’ in sex book and article titles are the harbingers of evil and the field will be overrun by Durkheim and his battle-axe-wielding orcs.  

    Beachcombing is looking forward to the rumble:  Hige sceal þe heardra…

    Any other good bizarre sex works? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com