When people ask me what I write, I usually say: “Penny dreadfuls. But they cost more than a penny and aren’t dreadful.”

A historian might point out that this statement is not really correct (and some may argue that, indeed, my writing is quite dreadful), because penny dreadfuls firmly belong in the 19th century, while I aim for an 18th century feeling. Amandine de Villeneuve’s woodcut-like illustrations for my books are in the style of the 18th century, too. And in the 18th century, it was the chapbook that ruled the readership.

Penny dreadfuls were stories published in parts over a course of several weeks, costing one penny each. And for that, the 19th century teenager got Adventure! Drama! Swordfighting! Highwaymen! Pirates! Vampires! A damsel in distress! Spring-heeled Jack and Knights of the Road!

The Victorians did a pretty thorough job at cleaning up the act of the “Penny Merriments”. There was also a shift in the readership. While chapbooks had been read by all ages and classes, penny dreadfuls were mostly aimed at male teenagers with a working class background.

The origins of the chapbook can be tracked back as early as the 1600s, and it could be just about anything from religious pamphlet to printed gallows speech to folk tale to coverage of the Great Fire of London. The natural lifespan of a chapbook was short; due to its very poor paper- and print-quality, it usually ended as toilet paper. It was intended for quick consumption and disposal. As a consequence, much of our knowledge is guesswork. Luckily, Samuel Pepys was an avid collector, so at least a few copies survived the centuries. His collection is held at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

Given the nature of many chapbooks, it’s not surprising that Samuel Pepys, naval administrator, diarist and Lothario was so fond of them.  To quote Steve from “Coupling”:  “When man invented fire, he didn’t say, “Hey, let’s cook.”  He said, “Great, now we can see naked bottoms in the dark!” As soon as Caxton invented the printing press, we were using it to make pictures of, hey, naked bottoms!”

Some months ago, the national press reported of a rare and exciting find:

STASH OF ‘SAUCY’ LITERATURE UNCOVERED AT HISTORIC LAKE DISTRICT HOUSE

“They often contained rather saucy and even rude tales, which were found to be very amusing by their 18th century readers.”

Here’s an excerpt from “The Crafty Chambermaid”, dating back to 1770; the tale of a chambermaid who tricks a young man into marrying her/of a London merchant who tries to romantically pursue a chambermaid (it depends on one’s point of view, I suppose…)

The Merchant he softly crept into the room,
And on the bedside he then sat himself down,
Her knees through the Counterpane he did embrace,
Did Bess in the pillow did hide her sweet face.

He stript of his cloaths and leaped into bed
Saying now lovely creature for thy maidenhead,
She strug led and strove and seemed to be shy
He said divine beauty I pray now comply.

Love and lust, presented in a raunchy, saucy and rude manner – what sells today also sold back in the 18th century. From erotic to pornographic: the chapbook catered to a great variety of needs and interests. And as this is the Macaronis-blog, the question begs to be asked: were there chapbooks with gay, lesbian or bisexual content as well?

Answer: as with so many details in history, we can only guess. There are some indications that such content was published, but one has to read between the lines, and there’s a significant difference in the way same-sex experiences were portrayed: what might have been acceptable for women was absolutely taboo for men.

Sexuality between women often featured in heterosexual erotica and pornography. However, this wasn’t a portrayal of sexual orientation, it wasn’t about lesbian or bisexual women: the ladies would always end up with the dashing hero in the end. The stories left no doubt that they were 100% heterosexual, and any same-sex experience only served the purpose of preparing a woman for “the real thing”, as an introduction to sexuality and preparation for her future (male) lover, often with the help of a more experienced woman.

In her book “Lascivious Bodies – A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century”***, Julie Peakman writes:

“Thus, in erotica, the reader is guided through the rules of sexual initiation in a three-stage process: masturbation, lesbian sex and, finally, heterosexual intercourse.”

Women were expected to be loving and affectionate, so being loving and affectionate in public was normal. Correspondence between women that we’d think to be “love letters” today were not unusual. Society would often turn a blind eye when it came to very close friendships which may or may not have been of a sexual nature as well, especially if the ladies were discrete. The case was different for women who tried to wear the breeches (especially if those were equipped with artificial “yards”!) and threatened the superior status of men in society, though. But that’s for another day and article.

Now, even if scenes of lesbian sex were written with the erotic imagination of male readers in mind, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they were consumed and enjoyed by female readers as well. In any case it was much easier for a woman to get her hands on such content than for a man to find erotica involving male-male sex.

Homosexual men – “sodomites” – were almost universally despised. In the hierarchy of society, they were at the very bottom. Sodomy was a crime punishable by death, so it would have been very risky to publish erotic material which portrayed male-male love in a positive light.  “The most detestably sin of buggery” was sometimes brought up in a satirical way, but the connotation was always negative.

However – where there are customers, there are suppliers. Morals are good, but so is money. If a business could be made, it was very likely made, though not in public. An underground press for homosexual erotica – why not? After all, there was a potential audience. No matter how harsh the punishments and how determined the guardians of public virtue were in the prosecution of gay men: they still met, they still loved, they still had sex.

And if one looks at the professions of those “sodomites” who were brought to court, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if we’d learn one day that, among the butchers and blacksmiths and clerks and furniture makers, there also were a typesetter and printer who weren’t caught…

*** Review to follow.

‘I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood



That ladette of the Royal Navy (movie “Carry On Jack”)

It usually starts with the question “… and what are you writing about?”

I’ll reply “historical gay romance” to keep it short. Actually, I write historical adventure with supernatural elements and gay romance. However, “romance” is all people hear, and they immediately wrinkle their noses. They think of the novelettes about handsome rich doctors and beautiful poor nurses you can buy at the newsagents. Or of a 800 page novel with a cover showing a half-naked damsel in distress, kneeling in front of Fabio with a torn shirt. To them, romance is icky. It’s not intellectual. It’s written by women wearing fedoras and read by women with no career or too much time at hand. Romance is the equivalent to stepping barefoot on a slug.

Once they learn that my stories are set in the 18th century and the main characters are serving in the Royal Navy, things get pear shaped. Accusations of “supporting imperialism and war crimes” are thrown around. The 18th century, so I’ve been told, can’t be used as background for any romance because it was a brutish age full of injustice, and placing a loving couple right in the middle of it would be far too frivolous.

Darn it, there go Aimée and Jaguar.

(more…)

I’ve recently had the great pleasure to talk with Alex Beecroft, author of “Captain’s Surrender”, about her work, her plans, fanfiction and God, and I’m very happy to share this interview with you. Special thanks to Alex for putting up with me!

Emma Collingwood: Do you remember when you first had the wish to write? Did it start in your childhood, or later?
Alex Beecroft: I think it started when I was about 11. That was the time that I started writing things down in little booklets, and hiding them!

EC: What did you write about?
AB: I think I wrote typical bad fic. I was a big fan of “Emerson, Lake and Palmer”, and I wrote about them being in an intergalactic band, having adventures in sleazy space stations and saving the universe with the power of music. It was a sort of crossover between my love for progressive rock music and my love for Star Wars. I have to say though that I never inserted myself into the stories. No Mary sues for me!

EC: What a pity. Mary Sues are fun! One could say your first stories were SF then… being into Star Wars, have you ever considered heading for SF with your writing?
AB: I did. For a long time science fiction was what I wanted to write, but as I got older I realised that my scientific knowledge was not really up to scratch. The kind of science fiction I enjoyed was the hard science fiction, but after I failed physics at school I rather lost my confidence in being able to cope with the science. So I switched to being into fantasy and writing fantasy. Although that is simplifying matters really, because if think about it now I loved fantasy too in parallel.

EC: From Asimov to Tolkien…?
AB: Tolkien and Asimov together. I think what I really liked was the experience of being in another world – a world that wasn’t like the one I lived in.

EC: Has your environment been supportive of your writing ambitions?
AB: In general I’d have to say – no. I was always too busy, and I’ve never had a lot of energy, so when I came home from work I would be too exhausted to do anything. I honestly don’t know how people cope working and writing at the same time. When I had my children, I left work, and then I immediately took up writing, even though my first novel had to be written during the one hour a day that the first baby was asleep. I think it was the only way I stayed sane!

EC: I can well imagine! Things are different now?
AB: Yes, they are. Both of my children are at school now, so I have from ten o’clock in the morning to three o’clock in the afternoon to write. Naturally, this has led to a drastic reduction in the amount I actually get done – procrastination is my worst enemy!

EC: You can treat your writing like “a real job” now, then. Have you settled into this routine?
AB: Yes, I have. I do in general sit down and write or edit from 11-3. The rest of the time I am answering e-mails or doing self-promotion or writing blog posts. I don’t count writing blogs as part of my writing time! But I’m a very slow writer. Today for example it did take me the full four hours to do just under 800 words.

EC: Does blogging count as “promotion time”?
AB: I think writing for something like the Macaroni’s Blog counts as promotion, but fiddling about on Livejournal counts as relaxing and enjoying myself )

EC: When did you first share your writing, and where/who with?
AB: I first allowed another person to read my writing about seven years ago. I had discovered fanfiction on the internet, and I started writing a Star Wars novel based on the new film “The Phantom Menace”. It was somehow easier to share fanfiction because I already knew that other people were using the same characters and settings. It wasn’t quite the same level of exposure as showing somebody my original work.

EC: Fanfiction as a “training ground”?
AB: Not really. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing, and while I could look at my own writing and say ‘that’s not as good as anything you’d see published’ I did not want anyone else to see it at all. Not even in fanfiction. Only when I got to the stage that I could pick up published books and think ‘I have done better than that’ was I ready to allow people to see it. But fan fiction got me used to the idea that I was writing for an audience – that my writing was not some kind of elite art form that didn’t have to mean anything to anyone apart from me. It got me used to the idea that I was writing to entertain people. And also it got me accustomed to the idea that there were people out there who would enjoy what I wrote, and therefore there was some point in my continuing to share it. It was a great easing in to the idea that my writing wasn’t just self therapy, it could sometimes be entertainment as well.

EC: One could say then that the way your work was received (with enthusiasm and admiration, as far as I can tell!) moved you from the audience to the stage?
AB: *g* Yes. It gave me the confidence to know I was doing something right.

EC: You did!
AB: Thank you!

EC: After Star Wars, there came LOTR…?
AB: Yes, I don’t quite know how that happened. I’d grown up on Tolkien, reading and reading “The Lord of the Rings” over and over. And then the first film came along, and I still felt no desire to write anything in that universe. I think what sparked me off was finding the Henneth Annun site and seeing what other people were doing with the material. And then of course I found out that nobody liked my favourite character – and after that I had a crusade!

EC: Tell me more…
AB: LOL! In my multiple readings of Tolkien, I had become very fond of Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband. He was rude and acerbic, and he had his own agenda, and he dared to criticise Gandalf, and he was like no Elf I’d seen before in Tolkien. I thought he was really cool. Unfortunately, everybody else seemed to think that he was a henpecked husband who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. He tended to get ignored, or at the very best he was written as a character with no personality of his own, who existed merely to worship Galadriel. I wanted to put some of the aggression and lordliness back into the character.

EC: Fully agree with your perception of Celeborn. How were your stories received?
AB: Surprisingly well, really! Considering that they were mostly dialogue pieces where I examined politics and prejudice in Elven life!

EC: Tolkien’s language is a very formal, even archaic form of English, especially the way Elves communicated. Did you find it difficult to adapt to this style?
AB: I was quite at home with Tolkien’s language, as I studied the Anglo-Saxons at university, and had read a lot of Saxon and later medieval poetry. I did manage to do two novel-length stories where something other than dialogue happened though. ‘Oak and Willow’ was the tale of the courtship of Celeborn and Galadriel, which contained lots of First Age history.

EC: Lots of research for those ones, I suppose…?
AB: There was actually very little research in ‘Battle of the Golden Wood’, because the whole thing was based on two paragraphs in one of the Appendices of LotR. But ‘Oak and Willow’ and some of my later stories which revolved around the issue of Calaquendi/Moriquendi politics and racism took a lot of hunting through the 12 volumes of the History of Middle-earth. I admire Tolkien’s ability to make a history for his world which feels just like real history – all the same gaps and lacunae and differences of interpretation. The man really was extremely clever! And ‘Battle of the Golden Wood’ was the first really large scale story with battles, siege warfare etc. that I’d ever tried. In that respects it was almost like writing historical fiction.

EC: Which is what you are doing now. “Captain’s Surrender” has been published and received lots of praise – how does one get from the Golden Woods aboard a ship of the Royal Navy in the 18th century?
AB: *g* I got into the Royal Navy via another film. Ironically enough it was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. I say ironically because it seems to have made the majority of the world fall in love with pirates, but it made me fall in love with the clean cut boys of the Royal Navy. They were so sarcastic, and so fine in their wigs and stockings, and so totally impervious to danger. I had to find out whether any of it was really like that. And to my amazement, a lot of it really was! (Except possibly for the sarcasm.)

EC: So you started researching and writing as a reaction on the movie?
AB: Yes. I made the very good impulse decision to buy Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’ – the first novel in the series. And that was so fantastic that I was hooked. I settled in for about two years of massive Royal Navy joy. I moved on from Patrick O’Brian to Forrester’s ‘Hornblower’ (which I didn’t like as much) and textbooks like ‘The Wooden World’ by N.A.M Rodgers. And I made friends with a wonderful group of fellow enthusiasts on LJ – one of whom is of course the estimable Emma Collingwood. I think we spurred each other on with our enthusiasm.

EC: That’s definitely true! You’re certainly not a writer who exists in a vacuum. And shared love is better love. All the discussions and research shows in your work. Having read “Captain’s Surrender”, I can only compliment you on your ability to write a three-dimensional setting. Reading about it is really like actually being there. So you have not created a new world (to go back to your Star Wars days), but successfully resurrected an old one. Do you write from a “watcher’s” pov or rather as somebody who feels she’s right in the middle of the action?
AB: Thank you! One of the advantages of writing as slowly as I do is that you do have plenty of time to think between words. ) I do often find myself thinking ‘hold on, three paragraphs have gone past without mentioning the setting. Do something descriptive now!’ I tend as a writer to ride along inside my characters’ heads, and sometimes I get so immersed in what they’re thinking that I have to stop and remember what’s going on outside them. So yes, very tight third person view. I don’t ever see both characters at once. I wish I could, sometimes! )

EC: As far as “Captain’s Surrender” is concerned – in whose head did you spend the most time?
AB: Without going back and adding up the pages, I think it’s about equal between Josh and Peter. Possibly slightly weighted towards Josh, because Peter is so oblivious that he’s hard to use to observe things with!

EC: Josh and Peter – that brings us to one of the core points of your book, which is the relationship between the two men. Homosexual love in the Royal Navy of the 18th century – how did that come to happen for you?
AB: I think I’m just hardwired to tell m/m stories. The first one I remember writing was a little vignette about Khan and Joachim from the movie ‘The Wrath of Khan’. I was in my teens then. For a long time, in fact, I tried not to write m/m because I’m a Christian, and I thought then that it was a wrong thing to do. My fascination with the Royal Navy coincided with the point where I really worked out my issues and prejudices and came to realize that God is love – and that therefore if I wanted to celebrate the love that I clearly was born wanting to celebrate, then I should do it. Apologies for talking religion!

EC: No need to apologise. Has your religion influenced your writing?
AB: Oh lots! Or not at all! ;) It influences what I think about things, and that influences what I write. I hate the revenge plot, for example. You know, where the hero’s family is killed and he sets out to murder all the people who did it? I firmly believe that forgiveness is the right way to go, so I could not approve of a hero of mine behaving like that. I also am interested in engaging with questions about how ones belief in God affects ones’ life. Both Peter and Josh, in Captain’s Surrender, have to work through what their religion is telling them about them, and come to self acceptance at the end. I suppose I’m aware of it being a big influence on people’s characters and the way they behave, for good or ill. So it enters the work like that. But I wouldn’t dream of attempting to preach. That puts me off a book!

EC: “Captain’s Surrender” has been published by Linden Bay Romance – how did you find that publisher?
AB: Oh, I found out about Linden Bay by a wonderful coincidence. A friend of mine in the RN appreciation society on LJ reviewed Lee Rowan’s ‘Ransom’, which she loved. Lee replied to her to say thank you for the review. We all ended up chatting and I mentioned that I had been thinking of doing something like ‘Ransom’ myself. Whereupon Lee said ‘well, my publisher’s running their annual competition at the moment to see who they will publish next – why don’t you submit it to them?’ I thought ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and spent a month turning the series of short stories I had into a novel. I submitted it to Linden Bay, and it won the competition and here I am! )

EC: That’s fantastic! Not only for you, but also for us readers! What was your first reaction when you got the big news?
AB: Hee! I clapped both hands over my mouth and squeaked. Then I said ‘no way!’ and got up and walked ’round the house – bubbling over with joy – then I came back, read the email again and did it all over again about five more times. I wanted to tell someone but I didn’t really believe it, and I was afraid to jinx it. In fact apart from telling my husband, I sat on the news until I’d signed the contract – just in case it all fell through somehow.

EC: As I’m having the book in front of me now, it all worked out well! Was a lot of editing involved?
AB: There was a lot less editing than I expected. I was very impressed with the editor, whose comments made me feel that she was a safe pair of hands. I could see why she was saying everything she said, and it gave me such confidence in her that it was a really positive experience making the changes I did have to do. She was a bit worried about Emily thinking Walker was an ass! Would a well bred lady think such a thing? That was a bit of a poser, as I couldn’t explain in the book that Emily meant donkey, not arse.

EC: Anything you’d change about the book if you could? Or are you completely happy with the way it turned out?
AB: If I could I would have spent more time on Josh’s sojourn with the Anishinabe couple. I think the development of his relationship with them happened too fast, and it would benefit from happening slower and in more detail. But I was limited to a word count of 60,000 words and I couldn’t fit anything more in.

EC: I’ve really learned something new there, btw. The Anishinabe might make a good book as well.
AB: Yes, having spent several weeks immersed in the inter-tribal wars and politics of the era (not to mention what the French and British were up to with their allies) it is obviously a period that needs *way* more time to do it justice. I had to have Opichi and Giniw be Anishinabe because they were the closest tribe which had the two-spirit tradition; which is what Josh was there to learn from them. The Iroquois, who were the natural candidates to rescue a stranded Brit did, according to my hurried research, not approve of same sex relations, so they wouldn’t have done for this story. But I’d love to go into the different cultures and politics for a different one.

EC: Your book – beside the obvious entertainment value – really does encourage readers to do some further research, which is something I appreciate a lot in a book. Now that your first “baby” is on the market, what’s next? You’ve published another book in the meantime, haven’t you?
AB: I published ‘The Witch’s Boy’ which is a dark fantasy. It’s sort of closet m/m, as I wrote it before I worked through my issues. So there are lots of m/m platonic relationships, visibly straining at the seams. ;)

EC: But you haven’t abandoned the navy, have you…?
AB: At the moment I’m working on another Age of Sail novel, provisionally called ‘False Colors’. It has different heroes from ‘Captain’s Surrender’ and is more action packed, I think. Lots of pirates in this one, but none of the pirates are particularly nice people! I’ve also got a short story coming out in an anthology by Freya’s Bower. The anthology is called ‘Inherently Sexual’ and the story is called ‘90% Proof’, which is a sort of AoS love triangle.

EC: Most pirates *weren’t* particularly nice people (I just like to mention here the recent capture of a French ship and the subsequent violence), yet people love them. It’s refreshing to see a different approach.
AB: Thank you! I feel exactly the same. It is a mystery to me why people love armed robbers on the sea when they wouldn’t like them on land.

EC: You used to be a member of fandom – now you might have your own. Has anybody written fanfic about Captain’s Surrender yet?
AB: Not that I’m aware of! That would make me so proud, if it ever did happen, though. I’d really feel that I’d arrived, then )

EC: Thanks a lot for your time, Alex.
AB: Thank you!

(c) 2008 Emma Collingwood

There are the facts in the history books, and then there’s the fiction in my books. That’s the basic problem I have as an author – establishing a balance between the two. I’m a bit of a perfectionist; if I write a story set aboard a ship of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, I want the setting, the language and the characterisations to be as historically correct as possible. But there’s a group of people I’m not allowed to forget in my navy-induced euphoria: my readers! Some of them would appreciate a book written in the language of the 18th century, or lengthy descriptions of uniforms; they’d greatly enjoy tons of naval terms and information regarding a purser’s handling of payments and book-keeping.

But the majority wouldn’t. I write to entertain (myself and my readers), and I can’t expect the audience to buy three lexica, four guides and a special edition of The Young Officer’s Sheet Anchor just to understand what the hell I’m talking about. My work must be understandable. It’s a difficult balance act to find the right words and terms to keep the characters and their actions in the correct timeframe but not bore the readers out of their skulls. And don’t say that couldn’t happen – it happens faster than you think! Yesterday I went through a chapter I’ve been very proud of, only to realise that, from a reader’s point of view, it was about as exciting as an article about the mating rites of dung beetles. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t folks out there who would find great pleasure in the love-life of bugs, but – you know what I mean. The chapter had to go.

Too much realism or historical accuracy can ruin my work. I write historical naval adventure with supernatural elements and male/male romance, not a history book or a naval manual. Reading about a supper the heroes enjoy is probably more enjoyable than the details of the food’s contents. Of course, no Age of Sail story without mentioning weevils at least once, but personally, I draw the line at whipworms, hookworms and pinworms. It’s great if a reader thinks at the end of the story “Mmmm, now wouldn’t it be nice if Captain Denningham walked right through that door and stayed for dinner?” I don’t want said reader to add “…but I’ll have him deflea’d, dewormed, thoroughly bathed and sent to the dentist first before we move on to the dessert.” It might be true and historically accurate, but – no. Just no.

If I wrote gritty, realistic drama, things would be different. There couldn’t be enough dirt and stench and whips and whipworms, I guess. But I’m a 21st century person. I have to create a scenario in my head that allows me to throw some romance into the adventure, and that scenario does not allow too much dirt and parasites. Well, not of the animal-kind.

Looking at the final draft of “The Purser, The Surgeon, The Captain And His Lieutenant” now, I can say that all the characters are fitting into the time-period and behave accordingly. But the only character who’s really “authentic” to the core is the purser, Sebastian Quinn. And while many of his actions are ruthless from our modern point of view, they make perfect sense for the man he is and the time he lives in.

Actually – and that’s really a weird thing I noticed – I had more problems writing the chapters set in modern London than those in the 18th century! It was more difficult to describe something I actually know! Switching from one time period to the other really wasn’t easy, especially as the language of the characters differs greatly between the two centuries.

Denningham is not a problem, nor is his sister, but Quinn and Barnett? Somebody pointed out to me that these two are really bad role models, and that it might not be such a good idea to describe the “good guys” as drinking, smoking and swearing. But what can I do? They are swearing. They are drinking. They are smoking. It’s part of their lives and personalities.

I’m all for “cleaning up” the 18th century setting (far thee well, beloved ringworms!), but I refuse to clean up the characters for reasons of political correctness. This is non-negotiable. But maybe I’ll put a special warning label on the front cover: “Being the purser is hazardous for your health! Especially when the lieutenant is close by!” It might increase sales…

(c) Emma Collingwood

BOYS AT SEA
Sodomy, Indecency, and Court Martial in Nelson’s Navy

by Professor B. R. Burg (Arizona State University, USA)

Hardcover, Palgrave/Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-52228-2

B. R. Burg

“(…) ‘Boys at Sea’ is a study of homoerotic life on board ships of the Royal Navy in the age of fighting sail. It deals not only with sex among ordinary crewmen, but reveals that the most conspicuous feature of prosecutions for sodomy and indecency from the reign of Queen Anne almost to the dawn of the Victorian age involved officers forcing their attentions on unwilling ships’ boys. (…) It provides a probing look into the careers of youngsters who served on board Britain’s warships, revealing a dark and terrifying aspect of their lives. (…)”

* * *

I’m aware that my researches have always been one-sided – had to be, because I have neither the means nor the connections to get insight into archives. I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer of Age of Sail adventure with a touch of supernatural and male/male romance. I write Penny Dreadfuls, not the 50980986th biography of Nelson. While I try to keep the historical settings correct, I’m well aware that the characters I write about are fictional not only because I created them, but also because they would not have behaved the way they do in my stories if they had been real. That’s why it’s called “fiction”. But this doesn’t mean I’ll wear blinders when it comes to the dark side of history.

History, so they say, is written by the winners. That’s true, but I’d like to add: history is also written by those who could actually write. When researching information regarding the Age of Sail, we find journals, reports and letters by the officers – but it’s very unlikely that a ship’s boy or powder monkey would have kept a diary. At least I don’t know of any such case. Those who could write might have sent a letter, but oral tradition and the odd article about a mutiny in the papers aside, the voice of the lower deck is a faint whisper compared to the mighty choir the higher ranks have left us as a legacy.

One of the few occasions where “Jack Tar” could be heard was in front of a court. The words of the illiterate have been immortalised by clerks, the records are now in libraries and museums, for us to read and study. Professor B. R. Burg’s book is mostly based on court martial records, which gave the ones who couldn’t leave a track in history their own voice.

“(…) a large majority of the defendants were officers and that in almost every case the officers were accused of forcing sodomy and indecent acts on unwilling boys. Ordinary sailors customarily found partners among their peers, as did midshipmen, but no officer was ever called to account for buggering another officer. Neither did men holding commissions or warrants select those immediately below them in rank as sexual partners. They chose only those in the lowest tiers of the naval hierarchy. Captains did not have sex with lieutenants; lieutenants did not have sex either with petty officers or with the “ratings” or “the people,” as seamen were variously called by those in posts of authority. The preferred partners for officers of every level were the boys that comprised between 8 and 10 percent of ships’ crews. (…)”

Learning about homosexuality in the Royal Navy of the 18th century is like trying to put a puzzle together. Letters. Reports. Journals. Gossip. Court records. Paintings. Caricatures. These are all part of the puzzle, but what we’ll never know is how many men were not “caught in the act”; how they felt, lived. It’s speculation, so a large part of the puzzle will always remain missing.

What we do know, though, is that not every case of “buggery” or, when played down for decency’s sake, “uncleanliness”, found its way in front of a court martial. There were various reasons: it took ages to get the number of captains together that were required for a court martial. Buggery was considered such a heinous crime that even the mention of it, no matter how insubstantial the claim was, could ruin a man’s career and the precious reputation as a “gentleman”. Last but not least, the reputation of the ship was tarnished as well.

We know that Collingwood, for example, absolutely “wouldn’t suffer” officers calling the men “buggers” when unsatisfied with their work, as he considered it an outrageous insult. Then we have Captain Graham Moore’s journal entry about a case of “uncleanliness” aboard his ship:

“(…) Yesterday I did what I had no right to do, in flogging and turning a seaman ashore, who had acted in a manner disgraceful to the character of an Englishman. I must either have acted as I did, or taken the fellow round to be tried by Court Martial; it was impossible for him to remain in the ship after it. The horror and indignation which our countrymen have for attempts of that nature could not brook such a man remaining amongst them. Besides I am of opinion that morality suffers by such practices becoming notorious. (…)”

(For source and more information, please see here.)

I think we can assume that Moore wasn’t the only one who preferred to punish a man for a lesser offence than risking a court martial, and we know of another instance where two “buggers” were encouraged to desert the navy (with the knowledge of the officers!) rather than drag them in front of a court martial and get the ship a bad reputation. It’s very likely that many occurrences of “uncleanliness” were swiped under the sea chest.

The court martial records are at times explicit, yet by far not as bad as your average news report on television. They deal with crimes of a sexual nature, so you can’t expect modesty when it comes to abuse or rape. The court martial records show that every detail of the “crime” was researched and questioned – who topped? Who was the bottom? Was there an agreement about the act? What, exactly, did the act consist of? Did one or both parties ejaculate? If yes, where? What was the light condition like? Did the moon shine or not? At times, the mind boggles, and some of the reports make a downright absurd read.

But it’s exactly the ancient style of the records which helps reading them with the distance needed, and we have to see them within the context of the century they have been written in. A “boy”, for example, was not necessarily a child (the distinction between “child”, “adolescent” and “adult” was not as clear-cut as it is today); it was also a position aboard a ship. Every officer had his boy(s) – servants, aides. They could be every age up to eighteen. It takes a while to understand that our modern words might not have had the same meanings in the 18th century.

Luckily, Professor Burg doesn’t fall into the trap of applying our 21st century viewpoints and morals on the 18th century. He reports and analyses, he doesn’t judge; a difficult task. Of course the first reaction when reading of an officer trying to get his way with a fourteen year old boy is “give me ye olde rusty knife so I can cut ye sick tossers balls off” – but pretending no such occurrences happened would be a beautification of history. It’s the last thing we need; we shouldn’t forget that there weren’t only heroes in the Age of Sail.

What I found the most interesting and to me new fact was victims of unwanted sexual attentions and aggression did inform their officers. They told their ship mates, each other. They didn’t mind going to court. They didn’t mind giving testimony, with exceptions of some cases where they feared retribution. This doesn’t only show courage, but also a trust in the authority of the court martial to serve justice.

Was this trust justified? I’d say “yes, but…” – sometimes the words of the victims were doubted, especially when they were very young or had a bad reputation for lying. A “gentleman” would be considered to be more trustworthy than a common man. Still, they were heard out, and the younger the victims, the less likely there would be any punishment for them, even if the court suspected “agreement” from their part.

We can also catch a glimpse at the way the navy dealt with the people of colour in their service. The British Empire was huge – there were men serving from all places serving in the navy, and according to some sources, a third of them were not white. That’s a separate field of research, but the fact that a sailor’s word was deemed to be less worthy because he was “a foreigner” and not white gives us a hint of the way the authorities dealt with POC. Maybe aboard a ship, a world and society on her own, ones origin didn’t matter much, but it certainly did in front of a court martial!

The closer the records get to the Victorian age, the more difficult they are to understand. New prudery and more deeply religious officers in the navy had a strong influence on language. While the old records called spades spades and arses arses, you will have to make your way through “yards” and “fundaments”. With some excerpts, you can almost imagine the clerk writing the testimonies down blushing and cringing.

To me Burg’s core sentence is that

“(…) Ordinary sailors customarily found partners among their peers, as did midshipmen, but no officer was ever called to account for buggering another officer. (…)”

He seems to be of the opinion that “partners” (willing or unwilling ones…) were always chosen from the “(…) lowest tiers of the naval hierarchy. (…)” – captains did not have sex with their lieutenants.

And that’s where I disagree. Just because there were no court martials about it doesn’t mean it never happened. All through mankind’s history people have broken the law out of love, not to talk out of lust (probably even more so!) and of all the men aboard a ship, high-ranking officers were the ones with the most privacy and the most opportunities to break that specific Article of War. Considering how much weight was put on reputation and honour, on being a “gentleman”, they would have been extra-careful and had only chosen partners on whose discretion they could rely.

I refuse to believe that in a century of naval history, not once an officer has been involved with another officer.

I bought “Boys at Sea” despite its horrendous price (£ 50.00 regularly and £ 32.00 if you’re lucky to get it used) – a price which is justified, by the way, considering the research that has gone into it – because I want to complete the puzzle as far as possible. Can I recommend the book? Yes, absolutely, if you’re interested in getting a halfway realistic view on homosexuality and the legal system within the RN in the 18th century. And for me, and my writing, it’s important to understand the general spirit, the way of thinking, the morals, values and social structures aboard a ship. For that, “Boys at Sea” is an excellent source.

(c) Emma Collingwood

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