Many thanks to Charlie for allowing me to post on her blog today.
I think we can all agree that there have been LGBT people for as long as there have been people. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the millenia and occasionally an archaeologist will come across something that can be interpreted as proof. A Bronze Age male discovered in Prague, whose skeleton was buried in a manner reserved for females. Two male skeletons in a Scythian burial mound, surrounded by their treasures and carefully positioned in a ‘spooning’ position with their arms entwined. Such things can be explained away – the interpretation of the Bronze Age skeleton has been challenged as a mistake on the part of the burial party – but a high status item like the Warren Cup can only have been a celebration of male love.
However such objects are few and far between. I work in a museum. I estimate that we have about 100,000 objects in the collections, if I include the masses of photographs and documents, but I do not know of a single item identified as having been made by, owned by, used by someone who would nowadays identify themselves as a gay man or woman. Objects can’t tell us about the hearts of their owners. For that we have to fall back on stories.
The main problems with historical accounts of gay lovers is that they have rarely been able to tell their own stories. All too often the evidence is in the form of terse and disapproving court records or sneering asides by their unsympathetic contemporaries. It’s only occasionally that one comes across a story where the love is plain for those with eyes to see but the person telling the story was so caught up in another aspect of the tale that he missed it completely. One such story is the account of the life of Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful, and certainly the most abstemious, pirate of the early 18th century, where the author was so keen to stress the success of Roberts’ pirating that he failed to note the love of his life.
Roberts was a tall, dark and handsome Welshman. He wore a red coat and had plumes in his hat. A real Hollywood pirate! He had been in the navy, was a superb seaman and navigator and once he had been forced into piracy he decided to be a GOOD one. Over his pirating career, which lasted just over 2 years, he took approximately 470 ships and stole cargo, according to Forbes’ “Top 20 Pirates List” worth 32 million in today’s money. But he simply didn’t stack up against the other pirates when it came to roistering. In fact it is said he preferred a nice cup of tea and stayed ashore on their rare visits to ports where pirates could get a bit of R&R [rum and rogering]. The only occasion that he seems to have shown much of a spark was in August 1721 when his ship stopped the Stanwich, a Liverpool slaver. The slaver’s captain was ill and sent George Wilson, the ship’s doctor, across to Roberts’ Royal Fortune to negotiate with the pirates.
George was young, probably mid twenties and his profession made him a very desirable recruit – pirating was not a healthy lifestyle – but that does not explain why Roberts almost immediately demanded that Wilson moved in with him as his ‘mess-mate’, to share quarters, food and fortune. Wilson’s acceptance is implicit in that he stayed in Roberts’ cabin for two days, only emerging to return to the Stanwich to collect his belongings and his medicine chest. Unfortunately a wind got up and Wilson’s boat was swept away. Neither the Stanwich nor Roberts seem to have tried to save him. Roberts, who was preparing to leave, may have thought Wilson had changed his mind. The Royal Fortune departed on a new cruise in search of prizes and poor George was wrecked on the coast of Africa where he spent five months until he was rescued.
George headed for home on a ship called the Elizabeth but she too was stopped by pirates. One can only imagine how George must have felt on recognising the tall red clad figure on the quarterdeck of the pirate ship. Especially when Roberts let out a roar of delight on seeing him.
“God damn you! What, are you here again?” Roberts yelled and demanded that George be brought across in the very first boat. That George was pleased might be inferred from his haste to comply. He paused only to borrow and change into a clean shirt and underwear before transferring to the Royal Fortune where, witnesses claimed, he and Roberts soon became ‘intimate’.
Their happiness was short-lived. A few weeks after they were reunited Roberts was killed in action against a British naval ship. The Royal Fortune was taken and George was sent back to England in chains despite his protests that he was innocent of piracy. He never stood trial, dying on the journey. They were pirates and in those days every story had a moral – the law had to be seen to prevail.
Such a sad story and that’s how almost all the ones we know seem to end. However, I think it’s important that historical writers don’t just dwell on the sadness, the oppression, the blighting of hopes. I think it’s good to tell, with care and respect, the untold stories of the people who against all odds managed to find a happy ending.
On A Lee Shore
“Give me a reason to let you live…”
Beached after losing his ship and crew, and with England finally at peace, Lt Christopher Penrose will take whatever work he can get. A valet? Why not? Escorting an elderly diplomat to the Leeward Islands seems like an easy job, but when their ship is boarded by pirates, Kit’s world is turned upside down. Forced aboard the pirate ship, Kit finds himself juggling his honor with his desire to stay alive, not to mention his desire for the alarming–yet enticing–captain, known as La Griffe.
Kit has always obeyed the rules, but as the pirates plunder their way across the Caribbean, he finds much to admire in their freedom. He deplores their lawlessness but is drawn to their way of life, and begins to think he might just have found a purpose. Dare he dream of finding love too? Or would loving a pirate take him too far down the road to ruin?
There was no question of standing to fight. Outgunned and outnumbered, the only thing the Hypatia could do was run. So run they did, the crew hurling themselves in all directions in response to the master’s shrieked orders.
Kit joined them, kicking off his shoes to scamper up the rigging. The wind tossed his hair across his face and plastered his shirt to his back as he raced Forrest to the top. A quick glance back made his breath catch. The two ships were coming apace, a brigantine much larger than Hypatia and the other, closer, sloop rigged with a huge spread of white sails. The black flags were more apparent now, and Kit’s heart raced as he edged along the footrope.
“Have a care, Mr. Penrose, sir,” Forrest said as he too reached the yard. “Go back down, sir, do!”
“I know what I’m about, thank you, Forrest,” Kit said, and when he leaned to reach the reef lines with as much agility as any of them, the man grinned and left him to it.
The sails filled with a crack, and the Hypatia met the next wave head on. Kit looked back at the pursuing sails, calculating distances and speeds. As he watched, the tan sails of the brigantine were obscured by a puff of white smoke. A relieved curse ripped from Forrest’s lips as a spout went up well astern.
“That’s it,” he said. “Them devils’ll not catch us now.”
They both whooped their approval, and Forrest shook a fist. “You’ve no fancy to be a pirate then, Forrest?” Kit said with a laugh.
“Me, sir? No fear, sir,” Forrest said. “There’s only one way that can end, and I’ve no desire to be turned off—God a’ mercy!”
A gun had boomed again, this time from the sloop. Forrest and Kit stared in horror at the wreckage of blood, flesh, and splinters that had exploded from where the master had been standing at the tiller. Hypatia shuddered and lurched, shaking Kit loose. For a sickening moment his legs swung free over the chaotic deck, before he hooked a toe into the footrope and clung to the yard to get his breath back. Below he could see Captain Dorling wringing his hands while Uttley hung over the stern, either retching or trying to see the damage.
Forrest cursed again. “He’s going to strike,” he muttered. “The captain’s going to strike.”
Kit envied Forrest the ease with which he swung hand over hand down the shroud. He followed, muscles protesting at the effort, jumped the last six feet, and ran aft.
The sloop and brigantine were approaching fast.
“Black flag,” Dorling shouted as Kit reached him, “so we have a chance. Strike the flag, strike it, I say. It’s La Griffe—once he flies the red flag there’s no mercy. Get the colors down, damn you.”
There was a shout from one of the hands as the tattered rag of black flapping from the brigantine’s main mast dipped and began to lower. On deck Kit could see a flash of red and gold, but Dorling was already scrambling to lower the ensign himself.
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