Written by Aslan 6/25/22
Choppy waters collided against the hull of the ship as the sound of cannon fire rang out across the dark seas. Coming from the enemy ship sounded like a cheer straight out of hell– chants of an armada that promised death to the pirates of the seven seas. Despite the encore of death, crews of pirates fastened their grip around their swords, and embraced each other with the drumming of their hearts falling into sync with one another. This was brotherhood. This was found family. And in some cases– this was love.
The Golden Age of Piracy was full of adventure. It was full of opportunity for sailors that were drowning in the depths of their kingdom’s suppression. Not only the kingdom’s– but the people’s as well. Out on the sea, many saw it as the faraway hope for freedom. A freedom away from their impending responsibilities and the mundaneness of life. Others saw the ocean as an untamable monster, ready to swallow the land– but seamen craved the taste of the salty ocean– and so began the Golden Age of Piracy.
Suppression is all too familiar to the LGBTQIA+ community, and although not established in the 1600s-1700s, queer people still existed. To any heteronormative person not worth their salt, this may come across as an absurd thought- but it is the truth, and Pirates were as queer as it got. Away from the law-abiding world, Pirates were given the chance to express themselves like no other. This attracted people of all sorts to the Pirate life– people who couldn’t be themselves because of the watchful glare that was society. People who didn’t fit the ‘normal’ agenda. This included not only wild eccentric characters, but queer people as well.
In fact, the Pirate world was much more modern than we realize. There was a such thing as same-sex civil unions which was known as matelotage. Buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin wrote: “It is the general and solemn custom amongst them all to seek out.. a comrade or companion, whom we may call partner.. with whom they join the whole stock of what they possess.” These partners were referred to as matelots, which can translate to bunkmates in French.
The concept of matelotage evolved out in open waters where crewmates knew one another better than the wives and children they had left behind on land. Pirates regarded matelotage as a very serious bond regardless of the nature of each relationship. Some were affectionate, even fraternal, while others were romantic and potentially sexual. Historians note that matelotage was originally thought to be a strictly economic partnership: one pirate would agree with another that they would be able to inherit the lion’s share of their fortune after leaving “part to the dead man’s friends or to his wife,” according to The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Lesson. There may have been partnerships like this– but history clearly shows that these bonds went much deeper.
Contemporary writer Captain Johnson recorded the depth of these pairings, and noted that one pirate would rather drown than abandon his matelot on a sinking vessel. Matelots also went into battle together and fought side by side, and in some cases, died together. If that’s not an intimate bond– I don’t know what is!
Cross-dressing was also prevelant in the Golden Age of Piracy. Mary Read and Anne Bonny are the most notable. Their masculine sides were very evident. Mary had known herself as Mark since she was a child. Although Mary Read did not identify as a trans man, some reports suggest she preferred to play the role of a young man. As for Anne, during her childhood, her father dressed her as a boy and called her Andy. In light of the fact that he fled his wife’s family with her, he may have been trying to disguise her.
Later on in both of their lives, Mary Read and Anne Bonny quickly became intertwined with one another. Originally, Bonny met Pirate Captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, and they became lovers. Not long after, Read joined them. Upon first meeting, Bonny and Read assumed each other were men; however, Bonny later revealed she was a woman and was attracted to her. Read then revealed she was also a woman. Quickly, this relationship blossomed and they embarked on the Pirate life together. Assembling a crew, storming capitals, capturing ships and amassing plenty of treasure. A queer-life romance in the flesh!
The pirate life was gritty and hard, but it offered a safe space to the people who craved acceptance. This same narrative follows every queer person today. We all desire a safe space– and The Golden Age of Piracy has carried over into today to offer that.
On March 3rd, 2022 HBO Max released the show ‘Our Flag Means Death.’ The show attracted audiences of all kinds. From pirate trope enjoyers to avid TV watchers– and most notably, the queer audience. Unlike other media that has queer-baited audiences, Our Flag Means Death proved to be the very real thing we’ve all been craving– representation. The show does an excellent job of portraying non-binary characters and gay men, all the while following the concept of pirates! Not just any pirates either. The show spun the storyline off of historical pirate figures such as Blackbeard and The Gentleman Pirate. It also followed the historical events of these two pirates' lives very closely, while adding a fictional touch. It’s the representation we’ve all been looking for– and possibly one of the best pirate romantic comedies out there!
The representation doesn’t stop there. It also follows into literature, and it’s all the more growing. Queer pirates have become a favorite trope in the world of reading, and popular works such as A Clash of Steel, The Black God’s Drums, A Song of Silver and Gold, and In Deeper Waters are only a few examples!
The world of queer swashbuckling pirates has transpired to the world now– and we have the Pirates to thank for creating safe spaces, just as we are doing now.
Reid-Smith, T. (2017, September 19). The incredible true history of gay pirates and their strangely modern world. GSN. https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/incredible-true-history-gay-pirates-strangely-modern-world/
Mary Read - Famous Pirate - The Way of the Pirates. (2022). The Way of the Pirates. http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/mary-read/
S. (2022, February 5). Blow The Man Down: Same Sex Marriage Was Practiced By Pirates? SOFREP. https://sofrep.com/news/blow-the-man-down-same-sex-marriage-was-practiced-by-pirates/
© Down To Earth '22