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
“(…) ‘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