A REVIEW OF BOYS AT SEA BY B.R. BURG
Barry Richard Burg received his doctorate in early American history in 1967 from the University of Colorado. His research combines social history and various aspects of anthropology in the study of all-male sexuality within military organizations--pirates, ships' crews, cabin boys, and the like. Boys at Sea was published by Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007.
Riggin' the Friggin'
B.R. Burg's Boys at Sea is primarily an anthology of Royal Navy courts martial records that deal with accusations of homosexual behaviour, and to that end it makes for fascinating reading. In the introduction, Burg states he wishes to "define the social parameters of sexuality on board the navy's ships." But on this score he's less impressive; his occasional commentary tends more toward reconciling the evidence with a modern audience's expectations and prejudices. By the time we get to the penultimate chapter, devoted to the notorious "man-fucking" HMS Africaine, the commentary steps up a notch as Burg sees hints of innate homosexuality and a proto-gay community.
As the book's title suggests, the vast majority of recorded homosexual activity, from roughly 1700 to 1850, was between men and boys. Judged by the standards of homosexual history, this is unsurprising--to be expected, in fact. Burg, though, explains that the men involved, the officer class in particular, "chose only those in the lowest tiers of the naval hierarchy." It's something of a theme in his writing, both in this book and earlier publications. The boys are physically weaker and belong to an inferior social class: ergo, exploitation. All it leaves out is the human dimension. Authors such as Adolfo Caminha and Herman Melville, men with nineteenth-century sailing ship experience, write of way attractive cabin boys could become pampered princes, waited upon by men of all ranks. There are more hierarchies in heaven and earth, Mister Burg, than are dreamt of in your Foucauldian philosophy.
While Burg eschews contemporary "abuse" terminology in relating the record of man-boy sex--as he says, it simply had no meaning at the time--he has nothing but his one-dimensional power analysis when it comes to explaining the phenomenon. He mentions in passing that the court martial judges never invoked the historical concept of Greek love--which is hardly surprising given their resolutely God-fearing character. The fact that Burg himself isn't interested in the broader history of pederasty as an aid to understanding is less forgivable.
But, importantly, Burg's commentary is not intrusive, and doesn't detract from a book well worth reading. The commentary is, if anything, disappointingly small-scale. But there may be a good reason for this. In 1983, some twenty-four years before Boys at Sea, Burg published his first book, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. And this one is awash with commentary--of the most extraordinary kind. It's quite mad, frankly. In it he contends, on the basis of what goes on in modern prisons, that the seventeenth-century pirates of the Caribbean were vigorously and exclusively--in fact prescriptively--homosexual. You present the shank or walk the plank in Burg's wide-eyed world of perfervid piracy. He's not prepared to state whether buccaneer homo-sex was restricted to devoted pair-bonds or let loose in unfettered group sex, but the 1970's gay community vibe is apparently not in doubt. Reviewers weren’t kind. He seems since to have keelhauled his approach somewhat.
It's instructive that Burg, even when letting his imagination swell like the ocean blue, can only bring the past to life by pinning it down with contemporary received wisdom. Three quarters of the way through Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, we arrive at that pesky mote in the rainbow eye: the boy. The homosocial description he gives redounds to the pirates' credit and puts the purported pederastic activity in the mainstream of honourable practice:
A number of commanders [of buccaneering vessels] had youths for their exclusive use, and usually they were assiduous in securing their welfare...
Aboard Kidd's Adventure Galley even the ship's physician, Dr. Robert Bradenham, had a little Negro boy of his own. Blackbeard was especially cruel in his treatment of captives and crewmembers alike, but had a Negro boy that he raised with considerable care. Captain Charles Swan, who also made sure his lad received a share of the loot, was equally considerate in the details of child-rearing. He evidently had loved his boy since first setting eyes on him when the child was only seven or eight years old. He was determined to have him, and ultimately resorted to kidnapping when all else failed. The boy was taken aboard Swan's ship and despite the tearful pleas of the parents, the pirate would not return him. He promised the mother only that he would "make much of him," and the captain was as good as his word. He trained the lad carefully, according to surviving testimony, to be witty, brave, and possess considerable dexterity.
One might, after this, be put in mind of the contemporaneous Turkish boy-raids into the Balkans, or the ancient Cretan custom of "kidnapping" loved boys, or the many other recorded tribal practices where boys are inducted into the male group. But no. Burg instead follows up with an extended discussion of the pathology of the "pedophile", curtesy of up-to-the-minute sex abuse research. These pirates, apparently, show the classic signs: wilt in the presence of women; awkward around men; turn in frustration to the trembling, passive child. Burg suspects these boy-loving pirates "probably suffered continually from feelings of inferiority and insecurity similar to those of pedophiles interviewed by researchers." Avast ye! Where is Blackbeard when you really need him?
Burg lards on the pedophile nonsense despite the fact he had earlier said
Seaborne plundering and raiding of coastal villages occasionally resulted in boys as young as ten or 12 years old serving side by side with seasoned buccaneers, but available evidence indicates that most youths captured or pressed into service by pirates were in their middle teens.
In many another historical context, mid-teen boys are deemed "young men" as we all sail happily into a rainbow sunset. Trying to walk the boards of modern homosexual historiography can make the uninitiated sea-sick.
Fortunately this grade school-level psychobabble is thrown overboard for Boys at Sea. After a scene-setting opening chapter, he begins a detailed presentation of the legal records. Two sections in the Articles of War dealt with homosexual acts: boys thirteen and under couldn't be charged; the death penalty was only applied if anal penetration was proven (sometimes emission also needed to have occurred). The Articles of War was introduced in 1660, but the first prosecution wasn't recorded until 1704. It was a rather tentative start: "John Brese, a crewman of HMS Warspite was accused of soliciting a twelve-year-old ship's boy, Richard Hoter, to commit sodomy." Brese was convicted and received ten lashes.
Two years later produced an unusually dire case. William James was discovered buggering the boy James Emmeson. Both admitted the charge and both were sentenced to hang. The boy's age wasn't given, but he had to be at least fourteen as anyone younger was immune from prosecution. The man was duly hanged but whether the boy's sentence was carried out remains unknown. The last we hear of young Emmeson is in a letter from the judges to the admiralty asking for "the execution of the boy to be respited for a month or further if the admiral think fit." The law, when stirred to action, was harsh and implacable, but the officers of the courts martial don't come across as zealots. The hysteria being stoked in London at the same time, by the likes of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, doesn't seem to inform the Royal Navy's firm stance against aberrant behaviour.
Only two other boys are hanged over the following hundred-odd years, after admitting to consensual involvement. Thomas Finley, a boy of at least fourteen, admitted in 1761 to willingly having sex with Seaman George Newton. Burg records it as "perhaps the saddest example" on record. In the trial the boy also admits to having "customarily visited London's Bird-Cage Walk," which indicated he may have sought sex with men. The boy's father provided strong testimony that Thomas was "a good son and used to help him in his business as a butcher, but that he had a mind to go to sea." Both prostitution and seafaring have often proved a lure to boys looking for adventure. In this case, however, the lad's adventure was to last only twenty-two days before he was convicted and hanged.
The dozen or so courts martial involving men having sex with men all arise from a third-party discovering them in the act. A constant on-board problem is the very limited and perilous nook-and-cranny privacy available to sailors. Behind a cannon, a bit of awning, a shred of canvas--any wing-and-a-prayer port had to serve in a storm of passion. Witnesses report, at most, trousers lowered to half-mast. Boys sometimes had a convenient hole torn in the back of their breeches (usually with a gallant but unreliable promise of a new pair). This is a segregated male society conducive to pederastic relations, but oppressively hostile to its expression. Given the overwhelming majority of homosexual activity was man-boy, it's interesting that so little third-party reporting of it took place. Officers, of course, had private cabins in which to conduct their affairs, but even the common sailors, with nothing more than darkness and haste to work with, were rarely arraigned without a boy's reporting him for unwanted attention.
Once a boy brought an accusation to someone in authority, it often emerged in the trial that the man was a flagrant brute with plenty of form. Midshipman Francis French was accused of coming to sixteen-year-old Henry Pomble's hammock
"with a knife in his hand, and swore that if the witness would not let him enter him, or if he heard a word of it from his mouth, he would cut his throat directly. The prisoner then went into the boy's hammock and put his yard into the deponent's backside, and entered him a little way, about an inch, which hurt him very much, and the prisoner kept shoving it backwards and forwards for some little time, and then the deponent felt himself very wet, and then the prisoner went away."
French repeated the act at least three more times on Pomble, and "made various attempts of a similar nature upon other young people in the ship."
This is one case where French's status as a young gentleman destined for the quarterdeck appears to have saved his life. He was convicted only of the lesser crime of indecency rather than the capital crime of sodomy. It's probably the most cut-and-dried case of a violent rapist deserving to hang, and it sits oddly beside those cases where commissioned officers are sentenced to hang for lesser crimes. "Difficult to understand" is how Burg describes it. Still, French's punishment was no slap on the wrist: "three hundred lashes with a halter about his neck, then to be put ashore with a letter about his neck detailing his crimes. In addition, he was forever prohibited from serving in the navy." A life forever dogged by his infamy seems fair.
More often the court records show a man acting with a confused and clumsy mix of courtship and impatient force. The oppressively close living conditions, the dire consequences of discovery, cannot excuse a man forcing himself on a resisting boy, but they do provide some context for a man's rushed and brutish actions. Wooing a boy in an honourable pederastic culture is something that takes time and commitment. It gains from publicly enforced custom, peer-policed behaviour. What else is medieval courtly love but a tricked-up hetero-steal from preceding Arab-Islamic and Greek boy-love? Such is the civilized way of channelling male lust toward good outcomes. On board these sailing vessels, however, cramped male lust will occasionally erupt chaotically from its repressed container, like a jam-packed sardine tin imperfectly sealed with Godly fear and loathing.
A very complicated 1761 case saw Captain Henry Angel accused of indecency and attempted sodomy by Rice Price, a boy who was only a passenger on Angel's ship, on his way to Antigua to fulfil a three-year shipwright contract. In a written statement Price alleged of the captain:
"By his calling me into his cabin and doing those actions which I think [illegible] not proper to be kept secret. By his receiving me in this manner in grasping me round the waist and kissing me the same as if a woman. Then by his forcing his hand towards my private parts which I defended. Then again by force drove his hand into my breeches took hold of my private parts which I forced away again. Then in a little time after he put his private parts in my hand and give me a hard cheg [?] to his belly which I beg of him to be easy and look in his Articles of War. Then taking and kissing me the same as before. Then seeing such actions, I beg to be excused which as last putting his hand into my bosom and then dismiss me. Then his calling me into his cabin the second time doing such like actions kissing me when at the same time put his tongue in my mouth and repeating these words. Telling me he should be glad to see me [on] shore saying I knew what he meant."
In defence, Captain Angel launched a counter-accusation that the boy had been the instigator of "familiarity", as he was after a lucrative position on his ship. Several men provided testimony that an intimate relationship had existed:
Lieutenant Bazely thought Angel's familiarity with the passenger [Price] so extraordinary that he mentioned it to Lieutenant Orde, Spence the surgeon, and Lieutenant Forester. In his own testimony the surgeon confirmed Bazely's judgment, stating, "I have seen him [Angel] talking very familiarly at different times with him [Price] and smiling on him." A Midshipman Nichols seconded Spence's words, saying the captain walked and talked with Price on several occasions and once gave him small beer when the crew had none. Price was also provided with victuals from the gunroom mess rather than the sailors' fare that was his due, according to Mr. Miller, the boatswain.
It proved impossible to untangle this one and the charges against Angel were dismissed--something that happened in only a small minority of cases. Whatever really transpired, it does seem that an initially intimate friendship went awry.
Wooing gone wrong, or crudely cut short by impatience, is often present. The boy who accused John Black in 1809 of forcibly sodomising him also informed the court the man "had given him at various times half a guinea, a seven shilling piece, four shillings in silver, and new trousers and shoes." This story was affirmed by a third party who "added that he knew the defendant once offered the boy £1 for sex."
Similarly, thirteen-year-old Robert Walker accused Master John McCasky of what the court recorded as "unwarrantable indecencies with and forcibly attempting to commit an unnatural crime." According to Burg, the boy "poured out a familiar tale, explaining how McCasky both courted him and used force, first to fondle him and ultimately to compel him to submit to intercrural intercourse when he failed to enter him anally even after lubricating his penis with spittle and trying to expand the boy's orifice by inserting a finger." The ship's surgeon testified that "the master treated him like a son, buying him clothing and proffering paternal advice."
And in a final example, Sailor Richard Chilton was hanged in 1762 for buggering the boy William Hoskins. Although witnesses described "public displays of affection" between the pair, the boy reported the man after he forcibly sodomised him and then threatened him to stay silent. The court case revealed Chilton to have been involved with multiple boys before this without reports being made.
Leaving aside the inevitable cases involving Machiavellian motivations--as Burg says of the era, "blackmail and sodomy kept close company"--time and again the courts martial reveal a man rushing an initially willing boy into painful and probably frightening experiences. Even then, the boy hasn't gone to the authorities until repeated incidents have occurred. What we have precious little evidence for, of course, given the nature of the record, is affairs where a man has acted discreetly, ethically, and with genuine affection. Close friendships between men and boys are known and gossiped about by the crew, but unless the activity becomes flagrant and disruptive, or a boy makes a complaint, it isn't a cause for investigation. Burg summed up the situation by approving novelist Patrick O'Brien's take on naval pederasty in Master and Commander (1969):
Jack Aubrey, the Royal Navy's most famous fictional captain, knew masters, and he knew a good master's worth. When informed that one of them, who was the consummately able navigator of his sloop, had a taste for boys, he replied, "Don't tell me about rears and vices; I have been in the Navy all my life." That ended the matter. The man was not investigated, arrested, or clapped in irons, nor was any other action taken. Aubrey, like his brother officers in real life, well understood that proficient warrant officers made successful captains, and the use of young backsides by some of them was best ignored unless it grew too conspicuous or troublesome.
We do have a few hints of the under-the-radar consensual activity, as in the above-mentioned affair between William James and his boy James Emmeson. A singular aspect of the case was that both parties confessed to sodomy. Successful anal penetration had to be proven to secure the death penalty--only for the man if it was forced, for both if it was consensual and the boy at least fourteen (no cases of boys pedicating men were recorded). Surgeons were always called to report on the state of the boy's anus, and his auguristic predictions of the recent past were given significant weight. A boy's inflamed anus spelt a man's certain doom. The James-Emmeson case--both hanged for sodomy--occurred in 1706, one of the first prosecuted under the 1660 Articles of Law. Perhaps they were confused about this new element in naval life. A simple denial from the boy that penetration had been achieved would have seen the lesser charge of "uncleanness" applied, lashes and expulsion the likely sentence. A hundred years on, this occurred several times.
Seaman John Brown and his lad, Charles McCarthy, were charged in 1804 with sodomy when discovered having sex "under a hammock atop a chest." What seems more deserving of a Cirque du Soleil award went to court martial. The boy admitted Brown "had to do with him" but denied penetration was at any time achieved. His testimony was believed and the lesser charge applied.
Charles North was a marine reputed to be a sodomite. He and the boy Henry Noel had been observed hugging and kissing on board their sloop. They were also seen lying "back-to-belly" in a rocking hammock, North afterward heard whispering to the boy "how nice it was." At the trial the boy insisted North had only inserted his penis between his thighs. Again, his testimony got the man off an otherwise certain death penalty.
Burg says, "The trust placed in the word of the boys under these circumstances is difficult to understand." Well, perhaps it is if your interpretive lens is carefully narrowed to see only class exploitation at work. Burg is convinced the courts martial treat boys as inferior beings, their accusations receiving undue scepticism. The powerful officer class, you know, by definition, exploit the weak. This does happen in individual cases, of course, but at the level of institutional justice the evidence doesn't support Burg's claim. Two competing strands come through. First, there is a firm commitment to severely punish any homosexual behaviour brought to trial. Even when a boy's testimony is doubted, conviction for the lesser indecency charge is the norm. The Christian belief that buggery will imperil the Royal Navy's martial capabilities is real--the existence of the realm they're sworn to protect will be endangered by any laxness on their part. Alongside that is an unwillingness to hang men if any doubt exists, informed, it often seems, by a latent knowledge that men and boys will sin, despite our loftiest wishes it were otherwise. When the evidence rests solely on the word of a boy or boys, with no corroborating evidence, that unwillingness often prevails--however it's rare that a full acquittal occurs. Burg himself points out a lot of ship boys were recruited from the criminal underclass, vagrants, orphans, pickpockets, etc. These would often be boys with the street smarts to know damn well what they wanted and how to get it. It may be anathema today to doubt a single jot or tittle of any sex-abuse allegation--or to apply anything but the most crushing punishment available--but a sceptical questioning of an accuser's evidence and character was an integral part of these court martial processes. That scepticism could just as easily be interpreted as officialdom taking boys more seriously as autonomous agents.
The upshot is this: in practice the laws aimed to maintain, within reason, good Christian order and to protect boys against sexual assault. The unquestioning acceptance of a consenting boy's testimony strongly supports this interpretation. In 1809, in fact, a consenting boy's word scotched the fanatical determination of a ship's captain to hang sailor Edward Martin. What caused the captain's animus is history's secret, but once he had word that a boy, Michael James, was sharing Martin's hammock at night, he immediately had the boy flogged. The boy was then told he'd receive more of the same if he didn't testify that Martin had buggered him. But the record shows:
Q [Prosecutor]: Did you inform me that the prisoner had committed that unnatural crime on you twice?
A [James]: Yes, but I was afraid the captain would flog me.
It was a rare instance of all charges being dismissed. How life went for the duo after that isn't recorded, but let's hope the enjoyment of the captain's humiliation was as sweet as it sounds. There is, incidentally, no mention of the captain facing any censure for his maliciously flogging a lad to pursue a personal vendetta--the protection of boys, then as now, can often seem a paradoxical enterprise.
While Burg seems to have no interest in the broader history of the subject he's studying, he does make some interesting observations. He contrasts the naval approach to combating homosexuality to that practiced in London. And the difference is stark. At the same time courts martial were starting on Her Majesty's ships, the crusade against homosexuality, led by the likes of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, was getting underway in London. There, pederasty rated barely a mention as a new city phenomenon, the molly, an effeminate man who identified as exclusively homosexual, took centre stage. The language used to condemn mollies rose to luridly fulminating heights, fuelled by an unslakeable tabloid thirst for every shuddering detail. The hate and hysteria focussed mainly on these "women-hating" men's abominable and degraded effeminacy. At no stage did the naval courts martial employ such language. No accusations of effeminacy or innate homosexuality were made, even in the cases involving two men. For the navy, sodomy was a grievous sin committed by an otherwise ordinary man. It suggests a lingering, shadowy connection to an older pederastic tradition. Henry VIII founded the Royal Navy in 1546, and signs of rudimentary seafaring culture can be traced back into the mists of Arthurian legend. We have ample evidence that despite Christian condemnation, Hellenistic-style pederasty continued well into the early modern period. A sex-segregated society, devoted to martial excellence, inducting boys into the group via apprenticeships, had far more in common with ancient Athens than giddy, theatrical London. A certain conflicted but pragmatic wrestling with this reality does seem to speak from between the legal sentences.
Other fascinating microcosm-mirroring-macrocosm effects can be seen as the legal records evolve from early eighteenth century through to the dawn of the Victorian era. The trial records begin with a cursory paragraph or two. Man buggered boy-convicted-hanged about covers it. But later, crossing into the nineteenth century, the swelling bureaucratic apparatus produces hundreds of neatly inked pages. Language and sensibility evolve hand-in-hand. In 1706 a typical boy is recorded as saying the accused man "thrust his finger into my arse" and soon after "put his cock in my arse" and when asked if anything else happened, added "he wriggled about and pissed in my arse." A hundred years on and hesitant lads have to be gently prodded--"don’t be ashamed"--to reveal that a man wanted to "commit dirty tricks with me," or that he was "poking me about." "Sodomy" and "buggery" become an "unnatural crime" or "unnatural situation." Today, I would suggest, we've transcended both positions to arrive at a medically explicit language that has been ruthlessly sterilised and stripped of any earthiness. Nothing could be less red-blooded than the modern progressive's insouciant deployment of the word "fuck" just to flash his credentials. Wink.
Another trend, not noted by Burg, is the increasing incidence after 1800 of men's attempts to seduce boys with money or gifts. Although whether that's a product of changing sensibilities or more detailed record-keeping, it probably isn't possible to conclude.
Given all the hangings and floggings being dispensed one might expect some gallows humour to arise, and it does exist. The accused man had to rely on his own wits to mount a defence, and it often fell rather painfully short of the full Perry Mason. Boatswain Robert Garbut was accused in 1762 of attempted sodomy on the boy John Pyle. At the trial, Garbut called a shipmate as witness:
"Did you ever see or hear of my being guilty in an affair of this nature?"
The man replied, "I never saw you guilty of any practice of the kind, but I have heard of it."
It was common knowledge amongst the crew that Garbut often propositioned boys, and that he'd been regularly entertaining young Pyle in his cabin. Apparently no one told Garbut. In desperation he next decided to cross-examine the boy:
Q [Garbut]: When you came into my cabin did I pull down your breeches?
A [Pyle]: Yes.
Q: Where was I then?
A: Sitting on your bedside.
Q: Did I ever ask to bugger you?
Upon this, the defence took a well-earned rest. Actually, it was the boy who displayed the most nous in this case. It was widely known he regularly visited Garbut's cabin, and when he was finally collared emerging from one such encounter, he denied anything had happened. When that proved untenable, he immediately took the position, and stuck to it, that buggery had been attempted but penetration was never achieved. Avoiding the death penalty was Garbut's only real hope here, and he did. Whether buggery did or did not occur wasn't really the point. It was young Pyle who had the final life-and-death say.
In 1806 Master's Mate Hepburn Graham was accused by fourteen-year-old George Parr of attempting forcible sodomy five times and succeeding twice. Before the trial, Graham managed to concoct with the boy a story to get him off the charges. Given Parr was bringing the accusation, and clearly unhappy with Graham's brutish mix of wooing, threats and force, it seems odd Graham thought this a cunning plan worth pursuing. Brimming with his pre-arranged witness-tampering, he called the boy to the stand:
Q [Graham]: Did you then inform me that you had a complaint in your head which you did not know what you said at any time?
A [Parr]: No. He [Graham] said to me if anyone asked me I should say I had [illegible] my senses, that I was trying a set of pantaloons that he had given and he was seeing if ever I had been flogged.
Cunning plan in tatters, Graham decided it was best to carry on:
Q [Graham]: Did you inform me before I was made a prisoner on the twenty-ninth of November that a certain gentleman gave you a guinea to have connections with him, and then offered his watch?
A [Parr]: No, he [Graham] told me if any asked me, to say that a gentleman promised me a guinea to do as he did. He did not mention a watch.
Q: Did you inform me in coming from your work that a gentleman met you about a mile from your own house?
A: He told me to say that a gentleman met me in a field.
Q: Did you inform me that he gave you a guinea?
Graham was apparently in foolishness stepped in so far, stopping were as tedious as going under. The record shows plenty more of his throwing up of pre-arranged questions only to have them rudely smacked out of the ballpark. When asked if he had any final statements to make in his defence, Graham said "he had little to state in his defense". Took a while in coming, but he at last got something right. One can't help wondering at times what sort of merry dance some of these sharp lads led their blundering, bewitched dopes.
Quartermaster James Ball, accused of forcibly sodomising thirteen-year-old Walter Jones, kept his defence simple. He apologised to your Honour, but he had thought the boy was a hermaphrodite. The law forbade sodomy with males, females, and animals, so perhaps Ball thought he'd found an ingenious loophole. His hanging, though, put a permanent kybosh on that line of defence.
* * *
The last two chapters of Boys at Sea provide a couple of intriguing examples of cultural developments taking place as we approach the Victorian era. The penultimate chapter looks at the notorious 1811-1815 case of the "man-fucking" Africaine. It's a rather ungallant nick-name. While the amount of androphile sex is certainly unusually prominent, boys play a significant role and their activity doesn't involve fucking the men. Six boys and fifteen men were charged with multiple homosexual crimes and misdemeanours. Judging from the overview of activity given by Burg, at least half the incidents seem to involve men with boys. And at least one of the men who was arraigned, nineteen or twenty at the 1816 trial, would have been in his mid-teens when it all started.
However, Burg is justified in presenting this ship's homosexual milieu as showing signs of a proto-gay community nature. There were, for example, known "beats" on board, areas more or less set aside for sexual assignations. The twenty-one men and boys seem to have been "bound together in a loose confraternity of some sort by their sexual activities." Nothing like this is found anywhere else in the records. And it was a situation where "most of the boys in the Africaine’s sexual fraternity participated with enthusiasm." Striking evidence of how, if a boy did not feel wronged, a significant amount of sexual activity was possible. As a singular occurrence in the courts martial record, one has to be careful about drawing conclusions, but it's an interesting exercise to investigate its potential as a cultural marker.
It seems fair to suggest the Africaine homosexual milieu was influenced by the molly subculture which had now existed for over a hundred years on land. Again, no imputations of effeminacy were recorded, but as an underground, enclosed, self-identifying group, it certainly has parallels. The mixing of boys in such a culture was also evident in London. Panics about boys being "recruited" begin in earnest here.
Remove Christian-derived homophobia from English society, and is the Africaine community ipso facto to be tolerated? That would be taken for granted today--leaving aside, of course, the boys' involvement. I tend to think the two--homophobia and gay community--can't be so easily separated. Molly culture was born of the strain of homophobic repression existing in a large urban centre. It evolved as a self-consciously "alternative lifestyle", something which stood in defiant opposition to a hostile mainstream. This is obviously untenable on board a naval vessel, where a single united fighting group is essential. Possibly only Britain's achievement of unchallenged naval supremacy in 1805, bringing an inevitable relaxing of war-readiness, allowed the Africaine to happen.
Molly-derived homosexuality is an inversion of the principles which informed the older pederastic traditions of harnessing man-boy love in the service of society's greater goals and aspirations--something which encompassed everything from mentorship of adolescent boys through to the development of high-quality fighting units. This dynamic is seen not only in ancient Greece, but in the Islamic middle-east, Tokugawa Japan, and is even more overtly evident in many preceding hunter-gatherer tribes. The newly emerging molly community sees homoeroticism being expressed, perhaps by necessity, in opposition to all this. A split has taken place which continues to this day.
Subordinating sexual relationships to higher social goals, whether in heterosexual marriage or pederastic mentorship, is not a notion that appeals today. In sex, one must first and foremost seek to find and express one fullest personal identity--not forgetting to also claim one's rightful helpings of guilt-free fun. In the 1970's, we tried applying this principle to a finally-tolerated homosexual community. The man-fucking Africaine finally came in. The on-board party quickly surged into bounding promiscuity and the 50-knot good ship soon crashed disastrously upon the rocks of AIDS. The role the law had played in checking this new homo-activity was now taken up by Mother Nature. And she made the hanging judges of the eighteenth century look like milksops. The law did continue to bar boys from engaging with this freewheeling homo-subculture and it would be hard to argue that was a bad thing. It took nigh on two thousand years, but we finally created an expression of homosexuality that met our fondest phobic fantasies--one that was a danger to boys.
The story told by the court records, however, don't conclude with tragedy but with farce. In 1829:
marine privates John Peach and Edward McGee faced charges of indecent and immoral conduct after being discovered in bed together in their barracks. Their only actions were rooting about and giggling under the covers, but the Royal Marines were not amused by whatever humoured the two men. Their indiscretion earned them each three hundred lashes and ejection from the service.
Like with little girls' dolls, genitals now seem to have been discreetly airbrushed from proceedings.
Then comes the final case against Lieutenant Richard Morgan. It is, according to Burg, by far the most copiously documented proceeding. It is also a tedious rats' nest of tight-lipped sexual anxiety. It is 1839 and the future is full steam ahead. Morgan was an older generation seadog and apparently his salty behaviour upset quite a few of the younger midshipmen. The driving force behind a succession of charges for inappropriate sexual conduct was Midshipman Frederick Rose. He first convinced Midshipman Robert D'Arcy to press charges. The crime was never fully clarified, but Morgan upset D'Arcy by twice touching him...it may have been on the thigh or even the "privates." On one occasion Morgan, hand perilously close to thigh, was said to have commented on how the young man had grown. The captain of the ship wasn't quite sure what to do, but then D'Arcy had a change of heart. He admitted to the captain that he may have misinterpreted everything and probably nothing much had happened at all. He wrote Morgan a letter of apology and all was...just beginning.
Midshipman Rose "disliked Morgan intensely," that much is clear. He continued to spread stories round the ship of Morgan's "indelicate conduct." Three charges made their way to official ears and a court martial was assembled. Lieutenant Morgan was accused of "placing his hand on Midshipman [John] Boyd's thigh in an unseemly manner and later putting his arm around Signalman William Chapman."
Midshipman John Boyd was a close friend of Frederick Rose. They were known on board as "Substance and Shadow" and "the inseparables" and, quite wittily, the "Seamice Twins." So Rose's animus obviously finds significant motivation here. He provided the trial with yet another example of Morgan's indelicacies toward his friend:
I was in Mr. Morgan's cabin leaning over the after part of the gun reading Jack Bray... [Boyd] was sitting at the foot of the bed and Mr. Morgan was lying at full length on the couch. He, the prisoner [Morgan], said to Mr. Boyd, "Lay up here and lay upon my belly and keep my cock warm." I immediately went up to Mr. Boyd, laid hold of him by the collar, and said it was high time he was out of the cabin. When Mr. Boyd was gone, I remonstrated with Mr. Morgan on the impropriety of speaking in that way at all to anyone.
Are we still in the navy, or an early episode of Some Mothers Do Have 'Em? One pines for an early eighteenth-century scamp to barge in and tell these sailor-spinsters to pull their cocks out of their arse. But the future only knows one direction.
Plenty of character witnesses come forward "testifying to Morgan's gregarious, uninhibited ways", his "playful manner and familiar habits with messmates." But of course this merely restated his crime, and Lieutenant Morgan was duly convicted and dismissed from His Majesty's service. Game, set and match to the shameless blushing Rose of a new era.
Burg goes on to outline the zealous decency campaigns now gaining momentum, but it's unnecessary. It's all right there in this final novel-length trial transcript. Behold the nascent bureaucratic monster, growing fat and filigreed on decency's motherlode of sexual repression. It's interesting that in this final farce we find no sex, no genitals and no boys, formerly the stars of this mad bawdy seafaring life. Now it's an adults-only drama of hushed hostility, piously celebrating the brave frowns of the phobic and the prissy. One doesn't have to go to sea to smell the still dizzying fumes of all this sexual neuroticism.
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Anonymous 82, 3 February 2022
For information on sodomy cases in the British navy after the Victorian era there is a chapter in "A New Naval History": "The Admiralty’s gaze: Disciplining indecency and sodomy in the Edwardian fleet".