Piracy in some form or another seems to be as old as man’s mastery of the boat. The first documented examples of maritime piracy as we know it today can be traced to the 14th century BC, when attacks against ships in the Aegean and Mediterranean were disrupting trade routes.
The name ‘pirate’ draws from Ancient Greek, being first recorded in the English language around the year 1300.
The image of pirates that informs popular culture today draws primarily from the Caribbean — the period of 1650 to the mid-1720s is generally referred to as the ‘golden age’ of piracy.
There are a range of political, economic, and social factors that led to the ascendancy of piracy in the Caribbean during this period. The islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga — which have come modern-day Haiti — were initially the main hubs of activity, but the pirates followed the money throughout the Americas as the fortunes of the competing colonial powers waxed and waned.
But how gay were pirates? It depends a little on your interpretation of the custom of matelotage. From the French language, ‘matelotage’ is equivalent to seamanship and refers to a custom practised generally among seaman but also particularly by pirates. Matelotage was a partnership between two shipmates that saw them share goods and wealth, and also involved survivor’s benefits should one of them die.
We don’t really have any detailed specifics of how a matelotage worked — they weren’t written agreements — and while some historians non-sexual partnerships focused on property, it’s not hard to imagine that in a world where women were rarely encountered that the two men that formed a matelotage were bound by more than just the loot that they shared.
Robert Culliford and John Swann are often cited as an example of a matelotage that closely resembled a gay relationship as we would recognise it today. Culliford was an English pirate, active in the Caribbean in the late 1600s. Swan was his shipmate, and Culliford and Swann were partners by matelotage. There seems to be evidence of Culliford and Swann continuing to live together when not on ship, with some contemporary accounts indicating that the two men were in a relationship together.
Bartholomew Roberts was a Welsh pirate captain active in the Caribbean around the year 1720. He’s viewed as one of the most successful pirates of the golden age, and it’s widely accepted that he was gay. Roberts was a particularly organised captain — noted for documenting the Pirate’s Code. These are probably the rules that were commonly observed across most pirate ships at that time, but it’s an indication of his efficiency that a copy of the code enforced by Roberts has survived. What’s also notable is the affection that Roberts showed to George Wilson — a young surgeon that Roberts and his crew encountered on their voyages. This was no matelotage, the two men were described as intimate and spent considerable time together.
It seems that the pirates of the golden age were pretty gay.