This essay is dedicated to Cosmo Jarvis, a 21-year old English singer-songwriter who is widely acclaimed in the UK but who is unfairly unknown this side of the pond.
Earlier this year Jarvis released a single, "Gay Pirates," which tells of the star-crossed love between a jolly buccaneer and a young shipmate. As good as the song is, it's actually surpassed by the music video, a youtube viral hit which Jarvis himself directed and starred in.
"Gay Pirates" was praised by gay celebrity tweeters Stephen Fry and John Barrowman and featured as Record of the Day and AOL's Spinner video of the day. Not bad for a song by a still-unknown, straight (but not narrow) young artist.
Capt. Jack Sparrow, the anti-hero of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, is cinema's most ambiguously gay pirate.
As played by Johnny Depp, Sparrow is a far cry from the swashbucklers portrayed by Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. Disney executives, critics and ordinary viewers alike did not know what to make of Depp's jolly buccaneer, one whom Depp had based in part on rocker Keith Richards. Desiree Cooper, of the Detroit "Free Press," wrote what was in many minds when she called Sparrow "one of the most brilliantly entertaining gay characters of our time." Though Depp refused to go so far, he did admit to Mark Binelli of "Rolling Stone" magazine that he deliberately made Jack sexually "ambiguous."
"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!'"
Depp told Binelli that he was inspired by "Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition," B. R. Burg's controversial study of English sea rovers in the 17th century Caribbean Sea. Professor Burg studied 17th century English life as well as same-sex societies throughout history to conclude that pirate society was "one of the most unusual homosexually oriented groups in history. . . . The presence of sodomites among those who make their livings from the sea is not a startling revelation. . . . Yet pirate homosexual practice is distinct from that common either to sailors or to men in other ages and in other societies where masculine sexual bonding has flourished. . . . Among pirates, either aboard their ships or while living on isolated West Indian islands, homosexual acts were not integrated with or subordinated to alternate styles of sexual conduct. They were the only form of sexual expression engaged in by members of the buccaneer community."
Needless to say, not everyone agreed with Prof. Burg's conclusions. Historian Hans Turley, author of "Rum, Sodomy & The Lash," dismissed them out of hand, arguing that "the evidence for piratical sodomy is so sparse as to be almost nonexistent." And pirate vessels were not 17th century versions of today's RSVP or Atlantis cruise ships, no matter how much we might want them to be.
On the other hand, Nigel Cawthorne wrote in his "History of Pirates" that "many early pirates were homosexuals who had little time for women. After years in single-sex buccaneer colonies ashore or at sea in ships, they turned to shipmates, sadism or the abuse of cabin boys for sexual gratification." All things considered, we may agree with Stephen Wayne Foster and Stephen Donaldson; who wrote in the "Encyclopedia of Homosexuality" that "while it is easy to criticize the dearth of documentary material offered by Burg, his conclusions cannot be readily dismissed."
Lacking an alternative, many pirates formed long-lasting partnerships with other pirates, in a system known as "matelotage." According to Cawthorne, "two 'matelots' would keep their property in common which the survivor inherited. When women joined the buccaneers on Tortuga Island off the northern coast of Hispaniola, matelotage continued but, if one man married, the woman was shared by the two partners."
According to Prof. Burg, "as practiced by buccaneers on Hispaniola early in the seventeenth century, matelotage was probably no more than a master-servant relationship originating in cases of men selling themselves to other men to satisfy debts or to obtain food. . . . However, the generally recognized bond it created between men and the understanding that an inviolable attachment existed between the two as long as the master wanted it to remain so gave matelotage a sacrosanct aura among buccaneers."
Pirate matelotage was common enough to be mentioned in pirate memoirs of the day, such as Louis Le Golif's "Memoirs of a Buccaneer" or Alexander Exquemelin's "The Buccaneers of America." The "General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates," written by Daniel Defoe under the pen name of "Captain Charles Johnson," tells the tale of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two female pirates who were also "matelots."
One of the most popular gathering of "pirates" (gay or otherwise) is the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, held each January in Tampa, Florida. The most recent Gasparilla Fest evoked an alarming piece from self-appointed moral guardian Eugene Delgaudio, warning that "radical homosexual pirates" were invading Tampa. Writing for the aptly titled "Inquisition News," Delgaudio screamed that "Radical Homosexuals have infiltrated as event organizers to promote homosexual events that are designed to prey upon unsuspecting college students by enticing them to join their 'krewes' and help build parade floats in exchange for free alcohol. When the young men are sufficiently intoxicated, homosexuals dressed as pirates whisk them away to God knows where to take advantage of them sexually."
Mary! If nothing else, Delgaudio's rant should make Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Fest a popular destination with gay pirates and pirate lovers everywhere. I can hardly wait.