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, despite Cleland's implication to the contrary, 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.

The idea that one is either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual can be seen in the case of William Bailey. In his 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.[2]

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.[3]
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.[4]
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.[5]
Given this extreme punishment, Roger 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.[6]
Earle agreed that 'the crowded conditions of shipbord life made it difficult to conceal homosexual relations from other members of the crew.'[7]

Though rare, convictions still occurred and so did homosexual acts. When they did occur, they were 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 Roger'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.[8]
This press gang showed no compunction about bringing a convicted 'sodomite' into the close confines of a man of war.

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.'[9] 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.[10]
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.

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 his book 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. Where 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?[11]

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.'[12] 

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.[13]

In short, Rodger believes that homosexuality was so inconsequential that it barely registered in the minds of officers. Gilbert, 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 please, provided they did not use one particular word: 'bo-g-r.'[14] 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 Roger's perspective.

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] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 08 January 2018), October 1761, trial of William Bailey (t17611021-35).
[3] Roger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 80.
[4] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 102.
[5] '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.
[6] Roger, 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.
[7] Earle, Sailors, 102.
[8] Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 31, 1761, page 532, via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed January 8, 2018, <;view=1up;seq=556>.
[9] 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 Roger 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.
[10] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 141.

[11] Foster, Thomas A., Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, New York: New York University, 2013, page 3.
[12] Rodger, The Wooden Worldpage 80.
[13] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 148.
[14] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 39.

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