John Swann, in his life, was a minor pirate and active only for about a year, from 1698 to 1699. By all rights, his name should have fallen by the wayside of history; what legacy he had left to disintegrate—plenty of pirates lived, died, and have been forgotten much more quickly than him. Instead, however, he is known today almost exclusively for one important fact: his close relationship with fellow pirate Robert Culliford.
In 1698, Culliford and Swann were living together on Nosy Boraha (previously known as St. Mary’s Isle), a small island off the coast of Madagascar. While there, Swann was cited as “a great consort” of Culliford’s. Following that, however, their story becomes more complicated, not least because of the relative lack of historical records discussing the situation: it is generally accepted that while Culliford eventually returned to piracy, Swann declined his invitation to do the same, and remained on the island while Culliford left.
Theirs is a relatively short history, and likely would not have garnered much attention at all had it not been for an overarching concept: matelotage.
Deriving from the French ‘matelot,’ which translates to ‘seaman,’ matelotage was, essentially, the act of consistent sharing between two seafaring men. This sharing could extend solely to wealth, making it simply a civil partnership in some cases—but it could also extend to affection, platonic or romantic, and even, in some cases, sexual partners. In some ways, it resembled structures in other male-dominated societies throughout history—a couple of aspects were similar to the homosexuality practiced by Greek and Roman society, in that it occasionally took the form of older pirates having sexual relationships with teenage boys.
However, matelotage among pirates differed from those societies in that imbalanced power dynamics were much more the exception than the rule: most instances of matelotage occurred between two adult men. In addition, matelotage among pirates was not forced. While it existed as an institution among other seafaring men, such as members of the navy and common sailors, in those contexts, it was much more likely to be carried out between a superior and a subordinate, increasing the likelihood of a forced relationship and implementing unjust power dynamics between the two individuals. No matter who it was between, however, all instances of matelotage on non-pirate ships had to be carried out in secret, as homosexuality was considered punishable by death.
Among pirates, however, it was usually a different story. Pirate matelotage could be entered into openly and freely, and was not forced on anyone: it was an option, but by no means a requirement. In addition, pirate matelotage was non-monogamous. While some pirates did go that route, others made a habit of sharing sexual partners or seeking sexual partners outside of matelotage. (This aspect came into play when the French government, worried about the high rate of homosexuality being practiced on the high seas, shipped sex workers to the island of Tortuga. The pirates took cheerfully to this arrival, welcoming relations with the women while continuing to maintain their relationships with other pirates. This would not even be close to the last time that a government would try to suppress homosexuality among seafarers and end up backfiring spectacularly.)
Eventually, as pirates were eliminated and the golden age of piracy came to an end, the institution of matelotage died down—but was not gone entirely. For one, of course, gay relationships still existed among other seafarers. For two, the legacy of matelotage still lives on in the way that criminalized actions still intersect. Since piracy and homosexuality were both illegal, it only made sense for the two to come together in some manner—matelotage originated among pirates for the same reason that Stonewall, the site of the most famous gay rights protest, was run by the Mafia for much of its existence. Those that are pushed out into societal margins do not often remain there, and piracy and homosexuality are no exception.
There is, however, another legacy derived from matelotage. The word “matey” (as in “yarrr, swab the decks, matey”) is directly derived from “matelotage,” making the portrayal of pirates today, perhaps, the most inadvertently gay portrayal in all of history—and really, what kind of legacy could be better than that?
[Image credits: Feature and first images by Unsplash; second image by Zuma Tours]