When the word pirate gets thrown around in a conversation, you often think about Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise. Maybe you think about Somalia and real-life modern pirates, like the ones Captain Philips encountered in the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking. But you’d never think about whether pirates were gay or not.

We know pirates are often thought of as violent criminals who loot ships for money with their pirate ships. US Navy has a long and rich history of anti-piracy missions from 1903 with Capt. William Bainbridge commanded the USS Philadelphia along the Port of Tripoli to 2009 when the US destroyer Bainbridge with a SEAL team rescued Captain Philips from Somalian pirates.

With all of their recorded violent tendencies, you would never have thought about the sexuality of these men. So then, “Were pirates gay?” Join us as we take you through a fairly unique topic about the life of pirates.

The Golden Age of Piracy

Let’s give context to the whole pirate scenario. Yup, we all know that piracy had existed before the 1650s. Still, for the sake of the context of the whole gay marriage among pirates, we’ll start with the Golden Age of Piracy running from the 1650s  to 1730s, where pirates sailed the high seas robbing ships and even sacking entire towns in the Atlantic and the Spanish Main which included the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually European pirates were even plying the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

You may remember the name “Blackbeard” floating around during this era, and that’s because he was a real person. Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (alternatively recorded as Thatch) was quite the famous pirate back then. Originally from Bristol, the Englishman ruled the West Indies with his French-captured ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, with over 300 men. He would be later killed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard after having stolen over $12.5 million in today’s currency. He wasn’t the most notorious back then, but he did make a name for himself.

Blackbeard depicted in a painting, 1736. (Scanned by Szilas from The Pirates by Douglas Botting, Time-Life Books 1978/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, why is that piece of context important? Well, all loot of pirates, a portion of it goes to their men for their loyalty and service. Yup, the pirate life could be an exciting but brief one. Blackbeard was only active for about two years. They could die any day without warning if an enemy ship were to come by or if their victims were well-equipped with arms. In spite of Hollywood legends, pirate ships were mostly small fast sailing vessels that could run down a merchantman they could board and capture. They didn’t want to sink their prize with cannon fire but take her all in one piece.  The captured ship was pretty valuable too. Each of the pirates was given an equal share of the booty they seized after the Captain and First Mate got their shares. So, you’ve accumulated a considerable amount of loot, what happens to it if you get killed during a boarding or die of some disease? Given the chance that they might not live very long, pirate crews looked for a way to ensure their portion of the shared wealth would not just be robbed(or fought over by the rest of the crew).

So what did they do to solve the problem? The answer was Matelotage, a form of same-sex marriage among pirates.

What in the 7 seas is a Matelotage?

Matelotage, the French word for seamanship, was, in many ways, a way for pirates to secure their incomes through a form of legal marriage to another crewman. If one of them were to die, the surviving one would inherit their loot. Many of these pirates also shared their regular income as part of the bargain.  These relationships were more common with the French buccaneers, the hunter-pirates of the Caribbean operating out of the Tortugas, but it spread to pirates of other nationalities as well.

Researchers have said that homosexuality was common back in those days as sailing the Seven Seas would get highly repetitive, and of course, these people had raging hormones to satisfy. This is not to say that all people who engaged with Matelotage were also sexually active with one another. Some people just did it for the sake of their safety.  Then again, the fact that homosexuality was punished rather harshly in Europe and those who took to piracy did so out of a desire to escape what they held to be tyrannical laws, a life of piracy may have been particularly attractive to homosexuals who didn’t want to be hanged for being gay.

This view is forwarded by mainstream research that tells us that 17th-century pirates enjoyed a rather egalitarian society that was accepting of same-sex marriages. It was illegal in most countries at that time, but if you are going to be a lawless pirate on the high seas it would seem rather at odds to then say, “Oh, but these laws against gay marriage, we’ll keep to these.”

In for a penny, in for a pound goes the saying.

Some of these Matelotages included a formal ceremony to tie the knot and exchanged vows and rings. They were presided over by the Captain of the ship or even a pirate clergyman.

Most of the images we have about pirates are those people who are macho, with their swords and a brace of pistols, swashbuckling gangsters romanticized in film and in books, but there may have been something more to the flashy clothes and tri-corner hats adorned with feathers.  Johnny Depp’s swishy, flamboyant and drunk portrayal of Jack Sparrow may have been playing the role pretty ‘straight.’