Monday, January 15, 2018

Homosexuality in the Royal Navy

Detail from The Guardian frigate, commanded by Lieutenant Riou, surrounded by
islands of ice in the South Seas, on which she struck 24th December 1789, in her
passage to Botany Bay, with the departure of the crew in the jolly boat
published by Carington Bowles, 1790, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library

Some time ago I posted a piece [link not safe for work] on the wildly popular eighteenth century erotic novel Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. In that novel, the author John Cleland wrote an explicit scene were Fanny and a common sailor do the deed. There is a brief moment of alarm on Fanny's part when he
was not going by the right door, and knocking desperately at the wrong one, I told him of it:—'Pooh!' says he, 'my dear, any port in a storm.'[1]
By referencing the nearly accidental act of 'sodomy,' Cleland taps into the popular impression that sailors engaged in homosexuality. This is one of the few primary sources that directly addresses this impression.

Rictor Norton, at his website Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Englandhas collected an impressive number of primary sources, though few reference sailors. Something that becomes clear in Norton's work is that there was little or no legal distinction at the time between those who engaged in a single same-sex act, those who were exclusively homosexual, and anyone who fell in between.

Indeed, as many historians have pointed out, the sexual spectrum is difficult to define historically. In his A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski points out that the very term 'homosexual' wasn't invented until 1869 'to help construct a narrative around a person defined by his or her same-sex sexual desires and actions.'[2] Richard Godbeer, in his essay 'The Cry of Sodom' likewise points to the insufficiency of modern definitions:
Sexual categories have no universal signification; they are cultrual products, emerging from and contingent on their specific context. Thus, if we are to understand past people's experience of sex, we need to jettison our own notions of sexuality in favor of the categories they used.[3]
We cannot say that sailors who engaged in homosexual acts identified as homosexual, nor can we say that others defined them as such before they were convicted. Here I used the term 'homosexual' to refer to inclinations and acts, rather than as defining the sailors themselves.

British society believed that a lack of access to women gave rise to homosexuality, and there was perhaps no place in the eighteenth century so exclusively male as the navy.

The legal notion that one is either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual can be seen in the case of William Bailey. In his 1761 trial for 'sodomy' at the Old Bailey, William called numerous character witnesses to his defense who testified that he 'always behaved as one that had an affection to women,' was 'frequently in women's company,' and that 'he loves the company of women a thousand times more than men.' Today we would recognize these facts as irrelevant to the act itself, but in eighteenth century law, a single homosexual act was equated with being exclusively homosexual. The jury at Bailey's trial was not wholly convinced of his innocence, and he was sent to the pillory.[4] That same year, seaman George Newton was accused of committing sodomy with Thomas Finley aboard the Royal Navy vessel Princess Anne. Newton called several witnesses to attest to his healthy appetite for women, and testified 'that he was very drunk and that he did not know he had done any such crime.' This last line may well be true. When caught in the act, Newton declared 'he had got...cunt.' David Cordingly, in his book Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, argues that Newton's use of the word 'cunt' may show that he was 'driven by sexual needs to use the boy in the place of a woman.'[5]

N.A.M. Rodger argued in his book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy that acts of homosexuality were not as common in the mid-eighteenth century Royal Navy as many assume:
There appear to have only been eleven courts martial for sodomy during the [Seven Years'] war, of which four led to acquittals, and seven convictions on lesser charges of indecency or 'uncleanliness'. This does not seem a remarkably large figure for a seagoing population which was for most of the war seventy or eighty thousand.[6]
Cordingly agreed with Rodger:
Considering that the navy cooped up thousands of young men for months on end without access to women, it is surprising how few homosexual incidents resulted in prosecution. When one looks through the massive leather-bound volumes in the Public Record Office that contain the summaries of naval courts-martial, one rarely finds case of 'unnatural crimes' among the multitude of other offenses.[7]
Examining a broader period and different service, Peter Earle echoed this assessment in his Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775:
Research by naval historians has...shown that such relations, though not unknown, were rare at sea...The research for this book tends to confirm these findings, just three references to sodomy having been discovered.[8]
Conviction meant death. The articles of war for the Royal Navy were very clear on this point, leaving no room for leniency, as is made clear in this printing from 1749:
Penalty of committing Buggery or Sodomy. XXIX. If any Person in the Fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable Sin of Buggery or Sodomy with Man or Beast, he shall be punished with Death by the Sentence of a Court-martial.[9]
Given this extreme punishment, Rodger argues that men of war were not suitable places for men to embrace each other:
The crime was...very difficult to conceal aboard ship where there was so little privacy. A Ship at sea was about the most difficult possible place to commit sodomy.[10]
Earle agreed that 'the crowded conditions of shipboard life made it difficult to conceal homosexual relations from other members of the crew.'[11] The close quarters of a ship are obvious to even the casual observer of maritime history, but the danger continued ashore as well. The eighteenth century as a whole had far less privacy than our modern world. This lack of privacy was both increased danger of detection and opportunity to meet and touch other men. Hannah Snell, who disguised herself as a man and served as a marine for years, shared a beds with at least three men while ashore on a single voyage without detection.[12] Mary Lacy likewise shared beds with men ignorant of her sex.[13] Sharing beds ashore and close proximity afloat gave ample opportunity for the physical mingling of male bodies, but it's worth noting that both Snell and Lacy escaped detection for years despite that proximity. With the threat of death hanging over their heads, the unlikelihood of finding a man with the same sexual inclinations, and the very real chance of detection, even those men with homosexual leanings faced many obstacles to actually engaging in the act.

In addition to the mortal punishment that could be meted out by a court martial, there was also a fear of a supernatural punishment in this world. Sailors believed in a God that would directly intervene, often immediately, based on the actions and morality of a given sailor. Early in the eighteenth century, the famous Puritanical preacher Cotton Mather made the connection between an intervening God and homosexual acts among sailors:
How much more abominable are the practices of the horrid Sodomites!...many a vessel has been lost in the Salt-Sea, because there have been Sodomites on board...God will have those dogs to be Drowned.[14]
Though rare, homosexual acts did occur. Homosexuality was often overlooked, covered up, or treated as the lesser criminal charge of 'uncleanliness' to avoid the death penalty. Rodger argues that officers preferred to sweep possible incidents of 'buggery' under the rug.

In support of Rodger's school of thought is this piece from Volume 31 of the Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1761 and forwarded to me by Casey Hill. It is the very same William Bailey whose trial I quoted above:
Wm Bailey stood on the pillory in Grace-church-street for sodomy; but by means of a press-gang, escaped without being pelted. A quarrel ensued between the press-gang and the butchers, in which the officer was terribly handled.[15]
This press gang showed no compunction about bringing a convicted 'sodomite' into the close confines of a man of war.

Officers' wish to overlook incidents of 'buggery' may have also had to do with the uneven nature of eighteenth century justice. There was no universally accepted point at which attempted 'sodomy' became the actual crime rather than the attempt. In 1745, Henry Barlow wrote The Justice of the Peace, a guidebook to enforcing the law for constables, magistrates, and justices of the peace. He attempted to strictly define 'buggery' in a way that would allow law enforcement to know precisely when to prosecute:
All unnatural carnal Copulation, whether with Man or Beast, comes under the Notion of Sodomy or Buggery...There must be some Kind of Penetration as well as Emission, but Emission is prima facie an Evidence of Penetration. The Patient and Agent are equally guilty, and so are they that are present, aiding and abetting others to do the Act.[16]
These guidelines are insufficient. Physically, a man can experience 'emission' without penetration. Under Barlow's definition, what precisely does 'unnatural' mean? Would fellatio count as 'penetration?' What if "the patient' did not consent to the act? Officers could foresee difficult and time consuming courts martial ahead if they followed through with all but the most obvious of cases.

Arthur Gilbert, in his paper 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' agreed that officers avoided accusing their comrades of engaging in homosexuality. This fact makes it 'impossible to judge the incidence of buggery in the military.' He makes a convincing argument that naval courts martial 'reveal a ferocity towards morals offenders far beyond that of civil society.'[17] Gilbert showed:
Buggery was as serious as murder and mutiny when we use capital convictions measured against total number of cases tried. While the conviction rate for buggery was less than for all other crimes except murder, those convicted of buggery were far more likely to receive death sentences than men charged with mutiny or murder. Further, only mariners charged with desertion to the enemy during wartime or striking an officer were as likely to be sentenced to death as men on trial for buggery.[18]
This meant that skilled sailors and good officers could and did hang. For what can be seen as a victim-less crime (at least in cases of consensual homosexual acts) officers would understandably be reluctant to prosecute seafarers.

An additional difficulty for the researcher is the reluctance of people in the period to speak about homosexuality. Suzanne J. Stark states the problem succinctly in her Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail:
The English had such antipathy to sexual acts between men that even naming such an act was avoided when at all possible, and a great variety of strong adjectives were used to describe the crime or sin: foul, unnatural, detestable, horrid, abominable. This was true over a period of at least seven hundred years.[19]
Rodger and Gilbert agree that records are sparse, but differ in the official approach to homosexuality. Rodger argues that homosexuality and homosexual acts were almost entirely absent in the navy and treated with indifference, while Gilbert believed it to be uncommon but undeniably present and treated with draconian brutality. As Thomas Foster summarized the differing schools of thought (albeit for the American colonies and New England in particular) in the introduction to Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America:
The absence of a very large number of sodomy cases...has led to two very different interpretations. Were there few cases because the population thoroughly embraced the official revulsion of to same-sex behavior? Or, was it because many managed to either avoid detection or were not actively taken to court by a sympathetic network of kin and community?[20]
Pointing to the remarkably few cases of 'buggery' brought to court during the Seven Years' War, Rodger believed that 'if senior officers were concerned about it, they gave no hint of the fact in their correspondence. Everything suggests it was an insignificant issue.'[21] 

Gilbert, meanwhile, argued that there was a general fear of perceiving the Navy as rife with homosexuality. He believed that fear of being painted as a homosexual institution motivated officers to be overzealous in punishments when they were forced to confront them in court. He argued that 'while it is difficult to determine whether or not the fear of sodomy was more acute in this period than in earlier times, there is certainly evidence to suggest that the phobic reaction to it reached a highwater mark during the eighteenth century' and that this is the cause of the harsh punishments meted out to all who were convicted.[20] Stark agrees with Gilbert: 'Englishmen, unlike other European men, did not approve of any show of affection between men,' because 'a male homosexual was a threat to the very concept of maleness. He undermined the comforting belief that men, by their very nature, were profound, virile, strong, and direct. A homosexual was stereotyped as effeminate; he, like a woman, was superficial, perverse, weak, and devious.'[22]

In short, Rodger believes that homosexuality was so inconsequential that it barely registered in the minds of officers. Gilbert and Stark, on the other hand, thought that officers feared a perception by the general public of the Royal Navy as an inherently homosexual institution.

Christopher Hawkins wrote that sailors could curse as much as they pleased, provided they did not use one particular word: 'bo-g-r.'[23] Hawkins' anecdote supports Gilbert's argument that homosexuality was widely feared in the Navy, but is the only reference I've come across yet that even implies homosexuality throughout the course of the Sailors' Memoirs Project. Such an obvious absence from even sensationalized works, like Hannah Snell's memoir, supports Rodger's perspective.

Absence from sailors' memoirs alone is not enough to settle the argument. The use of the word 'bugger' as an insult was probably more common than we know. Continental Marine Captain John Trevett of the sloop Providence wrote in 1777 of a British or loyalist privateer who 'Hailed us, and orderd the Dam Yanke Bugers to Hall Down the Cullers.'[24]

Both Gilbert and Rodger agree that homosexual acts were treated as a crime that carried an unusually harsh punishment, and for this reason was sometimes overlooked. This makes the task of exhuming the prevalence of, and attitudes toward homosexuality exceedingly difficult and sometimes, in the words of Gilbert, 'impossible.'

What can be said based on our current understanding of period sources is sailors of the time did not speak much of it. Whether out of indifference or fear, homosexuality was largely an absent or taboo topic for eighteenth century sailors.

[1] Cleland, John, The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, London, 1749, via Project Gutenberg, accessed December 26, 2017, <>.
[2] Bronski, Michael, A Queer History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011, page xvii.
[3] Godbeer, Richard, 'The Cry of Sodom' in Foster, Thomas A., Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, New York: New York University, 2013, page 82.
[4] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 08 January 2018), October 1761, trial of William Bailey (t17611021-35).
[5] Cordingly, David, Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, New York: Random House, 2001, pages 139-141
[6] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 80.
[7] Cordingly, Women Sailors, page 145.
[8] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 102.
[9] 'An Act for amending, explaining, and reducing into One Act of Parliament, the Laws relating to the Government of His Majesty's Ships, Vessels, and Forces by Sea,' 1749, Casey Hill collection.
[10] Rodger, Wooden World, page 80. Of note, Roger's The Wooden World had a serious influence on Patrick O'Brian, the famous novelist. O'Brian's character Jack Aubrey expresses this sentiment in The Commodore, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 247-248.
[11] Earle, Sailors, 102.
[12] Snell, Hannah, The Female Soldier, London: R. Walker, 1750, pages 29-30.
[13] Slade (Lacy), Mary, The History of the Female Shipwright, London: M. Lewis, 1773. in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008, page 126.
[12] Mather, Cotton, The Sailor's Companion, Boston, 1706, quoted in Daniels, Bruce C., New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, page 202.
[14] Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 31, 1761, page 532, via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed January 8, 2018, <;view=1up;seq=556>.
[15] Barlow, Theodore, The Justice of Peace, Savoy: Henry Lintot, 1745, page 78, via Google Books, accessed January 24, 2019, <>.
[16] Gilbert, Arthur, 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' in History of Homosexuality in Europe & America (Studies in Homosexuality), Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen Donaldson, ed., New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, page 132, via Google Books, accessed December 26, 2017, <>. Gilbert's piece, though criticized by Rodger in The Wooden World, is immensely influential. It is cited in To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850 by Paul A. Gilje, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker, and in Rodger's own Command of the Oceans: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, notably without comment.
[17] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 141.

[18] Stark, Suzanne J., Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996, page 118.
[19] Foster, Thomas A., Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, New York: New York University, 2013, page 3.
[20] Rodger, The Wooden Worldpage 80.
[21] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 148.
[22] Stark, Female Tars, page 118.
[23] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 39.
[24] Trevett, John, 'Appendix C: Journal of Marine Captain John Trevett, November-December 1777,' in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 11, Michael J. Crawford editor, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 2005, page 1169, accessed January 24, 2019, via the Naval History and Heritage Command, <>.


  1. "I have never been attached to a ship in the service on board which [masturbation and sodomy] were not practiced, the latter, of course, more rarely than the former. Other officers may deny that they have heard of them, but I know these vices to be common, and generally unknown only because uninvestigated or undiscovered.... the naval hygienist has no other alternative than to recommend frequent liberty on shore as the only practicable means of preventing the commission of secret sexual vices, though when these habits are established even this will not serve to eradicate them, as witness certain cases well known to medical officers in our own and the British navy among officers of high rank."

    [excerpt:] "Moral Influences." Medical essays, Navy Dept. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 1873, p 123.

    I might add that the matter has already been definitively settled with the publication of B. R. Berg's, An American Seafarer in the Age of Sail. The time is long past when we should move beyond those nervous denials and into the actual *economic value* of sex between men as a natural resource that could be harvested by shipowners in analogy to their harvests of our fisheries and forests.

    -- Mitchell Santine Gould, LeavesOfGrass.Org

    1. Certainly homosexuality was present at sea. The examples I cited above are ample proof of that.

      But we cannot argue from the sources for my time (1740-1790) that it was widespread. Again, that might be from naval officers sweeping it under the rug, or it might be from the discouragement of homosexual acts due to the oppressive punishments and violent reactions to homosexuality within the Royal Navy.

      I do not claim that my argument applies beyond those fifty years, and haven't done the research into the mid to late nineteenth century, from which your sources originate. I would love to see more on that topic, though!

  2. Strait folks understand perfectly well the distinction between consensual sex and outright rape. Rape is now--and was then--punishable. Probably during your era, rape was punished quite severely. If we can just expand our horizons enough, perhas we can appreciate that the same distinction would have existed aboard ship, but it was not a distinction which could possibly ever be articulated in the regulations. Perhaps the punishments you refer to were only designed to deter same-sex rape. I think it's likely.

  3. The poor young boys, painful lives