For as long as men have sailed the seven seas, they’d tried to keep women off their boats. It’s a sad fact, but for hundreds of years – and in the case of certain civilizations, thousands of years – water and women simply haven’t mixed.
That’s not to say that as the ships have rocked and rolled on the high seas, the crew didn’t do their own kind of rhythm magic. Women might have been banned – with extreme penalties in many cases for any attempts to break the rule – but sex and the sea have always been part of a sailor’s life.
The logic behind banning women from being sailors appears sound – for about a minute: to keep the swabbies in line, and to prevent in-fighting among those who might be getting, and might not be getting, it was thought better to keep the ships all male. In response to the obvious homosexual outlet for all that testosterone juice, many admiralties prohibited sex between crewmates – with punishments ranging from simple monetary fines to floggings.
The fact, though, was that the bigwigs with the fruit salad on their chests were hundreds or thousands of miles away, so it was usually the discretion of the Captain on whether queer sex was a good thing or a bad thing.
Some captains and ships even bent the rules considerably, and thus was born the Captain’s Wife or Daughter: a courtesan brought on board simply to service the officers of the ship. Other Captains obeyed the letter of the law, while not embracing the spirit – and thus allowing their crews to “embrace” their own smuggled-aboard women, cross-dressed as fellow swabbies.
Even pirates, who some would think would be lax when it comes to rules and regulations, were much more stern in their sharing of the sexual favours of their fellow crews. Always concerned with equality among their crews, some pirate charters went as far as requiring “stranding” on a desert or severe floggings as punishments for bringing aboard women. It’s ironic that two of the more legendary pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, were women – and who managed to escape the gallows by the singular female plea of the time: ‘We plead our bellies’ meaning they were pregnant.
Pirates, by and large, during this time treated women – particularly women captives – rather well. Part of it was wanting to stay on fairly good terms with the authorities (nothing like ravaging some women to get your ship hunted down) but also because women fetched high prices as merchandise as well as in ransom from rich fathers and husbands. A crewman guilty of harming a female captive was treated as someone who had either stolen or damaged merchandise – a very serious charge in pirate law.
While women (when they weren’t Captain, that is) were banned from ships, sailors managed to keep their sanity by keeping any number of common-law wives in a variety of ports. The system worked actually rather well, since the pirates were at the whim of the wind and available profit – and many of their wives were also the wives of other pirates, sailing on other ships. The only time there was a problem was when there was a question of seniority, such as when a husband died and his goods had to be divided among his wives – in such cases the women he was married to the longest usually won out, unless the younger one had children. Pirates, for their much-maligned reputations, were remarkably civilized.
Other pirate societies, such as the buccaneers, created a form of partnership that often included homosexual love. Matelots were a form of permanent relationship between two men that served in many ways the needs of both financial as well as emotional well-being. Many men were more protective and emotionally tied to their matelots than their own wives – going so far as to will them their lands and goods.
Early Christian missionaries – and puritans in general who sought to kill or capture pirates – often used these forms of same-sex marriage to condemn their society, though it’s telling that the fact that these men were practising homosexual love and marriage wasn’t as damaging as the rumour that was also spread that some of the gay pirates were converting to Islam – a more accepting faith (at least at the time): religious intolerance obviously being a greater motivator than simple queer sex.
In more rough-and-tumble pirate societies, such as among the famous South China Sea pirates, sex and love between men became a political force as well as a sexual one. Kidnapped as children from raided ships, the boys would often form long-lasting sexual relationships among themselves as well as their captors that later helped hold together the scattered pirate tribes.
While women were always a question, at best, or a big problem, at worst, on ship there was a long-standing tradition of sexual release in the form of the cabin boy. For many years, the position of cabin boy required duties that weren’t on the usual cook/captain/first mate’s job description. Often, however – especially for those “boys” with experience – the other requirements were pretty obvious, in other words to sexually service either the officers or the entire crew.
For those not familiar with these duties, the crew had a special tradition to “enlighten” a new cabin boy. What makes this tradition interesting is the masking they used to lure the young lad into the bowels of the ship. The story they told was of an ancient maritime tradition (presumably concurrent with keeping women off-ship), where each and every ship – when its keel was laid – was given a special, good-luck, gold rivet.
It’s taken thousands of years, but finally women are serving without a problem on ships – both civilian as well as military (well, depending on the country). But if you’re on-board and get an invitation to view the lucky golden rivet, I would still think twice – unless you’re into that kind of thing, of course.