Pirate punishments and pirate sexuality

Punishments for buccaneers, outlaws and masculine antiheroes

by squaddie John © 2003

Going Pirate

The seventeenth century pirates lived by their own rules outside the law. In the times of the Royal Navy's press gangs, "going pirate" had considerable appeal for those who had nothing more to loose; it meant jumping ship naval or merchant.

Pirates weren't lawless - pirate crews had piratesí rules and shipís agreements. These varied between communes where the rule was "one for all and all for one", including sharing the proceeds of piracy and raids. Life on-board ships run by the well-known pirate captains were mostly benign dictatorships run by consent rather than coercion. Pirate captains who attempted to perpetuate their rule as complete tyrants were mostly cruelly disposed of after mutinies of pirate ships companies.

Piratesí codes and rules were enforced by appropriate punishments. There was no set pattern: some pirate companies forced new shipmates to swear allegiance and obedience, when food and water became short others simply disposed of would-be pirates who had become outsiders or who did not earn their keep one way or another.

Gay Piracy

Despite the chronic shortage of available women in the Caribbean and the inevitable familiarity of men living in close companionship on board ship, there is scant historical evidence that gay pirates were common or numerous. 

Defoe's fictional Captain Singleton certainly has a tendency to be a dandy but this can be justified just as much by his aristocratic background as any correlation of dandyism with sodomitic sexuality. Sensational accounts of pirate sodomites brought to court may be exaggerated due the need to sell by newspapers that reported the trial proceedings.

As pirates were a threat to lawful society, tarring them with the brush of "sodomite" (ie homosexual or gay) may be interpreted in the language of the time as poetic licence intended to emphasise their outsider status, their rejection of seventeenth and eighteenth century society, just as excessive drinking or living off the spoils of theft and violent plunder.

Despite the reputation that fuels much gay fantasy that shipmates are also bunkmates, close male to male homosocial camaraderie seems more likely in the majority of cases: pirate shipmates were united in common cause against lawful merchant ships, Royal Navy law enforcement and other marauders. Freed slaves were other recruits to pirate ships companies - men with similarly nothing to loose.

The popularity of parrots may be another clue about pirate sexuality. Parrots can live long lives, double that of even the longest living dogs, forty years or more; parrots are monogamous, staying with one partner for life. The common bond between pirate and parrot suggests an acceptable relationship in an era when homosexuality was apparently uncommon even among outlaws.

Pirate Punishments

Flogging with cat o'nine tails or rope end (togie)

As flogging was common naval method of enforcing discipline in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, flogging was therefore specifically outlawed on some pirate ships.

Tying to the Mast

Described in a court transcript in graphic detail for the benefit of newspaper readers at "The Tryal of Captain Jeane" of (1726). A lad aged 18 signed on to Jeaneís merchantman ship and was assigned duties as the Captainís cabin boy. Accused of stealing a dram of run from the Captainís quarters, whipped, pickled in brine and for nine days and nights was tied to the main mast, his arms and legs being extended at full Length; this did not satisfy the sadistic Captain, who had his former Cabin Boy untied and laid along the Gangway, where he trod upon him and encouraged all the Men to do the same. The Men refused and Captain Jeane was hanged.

Dunking from the Yard Arm

A traditional ceremony when crossing the equator, a sailor is attached to a spar which is hoisted high above the ocean and dunked repeatedly into the ocean, heís attached so that he does not let go his grip with the surprise of hitting the water. A functional ceremony given primitive shipboard sanitation. The naval term "heads" refers to a hole in the head of ship for excretion purposesÖ

Sold in slavery

Piracy was both a rebellion and an economic activity. Pirates were not above selling shipmates as slaves, particularly those who had become outsiders whilst in a pirate company because they had transgressed the pirate codes or agreements. Selling a shipmate into slavery had a clear economic benefit to the ship's company.

Walking the plank

The offender could be blindfolded with hands tied behind the back and made to walk overboard. Not as common as its feared reputation.


The offender, sometimes stripped naked, was abandoned without fresh water on a desert isle such as one of the Tortugas, a group of flat coral reef islands north of Cuba and off the south of the Florida Keys (also known as Cays).

A token of mercy was to be given a firearm or knife, to withhold such means to a swift end was a particular torment.

There are accounts that marooning was a particular punishment for sodomites: the accused couple being abandoned together,


The most feared pirate punishment of all: a rope was passed under the ship from side to side as would be used for scraping barnacles off the ship's keel. The offender to be keelhauled was attached to the rope and thrown overboard and the rope pulled so as to force the offender underwater, underneath the ship's hull and up the other side. He might surface, gasp for air and taunting by his pirate comrades and then be keelhauled back underwater.

Pirate flags and symbols

Pirate flags and symbols had multiple purposes: the pirate Jolly Roger flag was so distinctive it was easily recognised and could strike fear and dread at a distance. To superstitious seamen the colours black, white and sometimes red had particular associations with death and blood.

Tattoos were unknown in catholic Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the rediscovery of Polynesian tattooing during Captain Cook's voyages in the Pacific. Roman slaves were heavily tattooed but the Catholic Church outlawed tattoos.

Pirates also rediscovered earrings, nose rings and other piercings.

Buccaneers and pirates operated outside the law. Privateers were supposedly respectable in that they held a Royal Warrant which charged them with upholding the law. However, as "it takes thief to catch a thief" this distinction is relatively meaningless.

Mason Powell writes:

I am on the Pirate page and you have a note about pirates 'rediscovering' ear rings and such.

I am not exactly sure when ear rings went completely out of fashion, but they were certainly still worn in the pirate age.

The most telling view of them comes from an early Puritan manifesto, in which there is much inveighing against such overblown decoration; and here is the definition. "A single gold ring in the left ear should be enough for any gentleman."

In the time of Elizabeth I gentlemen were fond of a single pearl drop suspended from the left ear. As pearls were as valuable as diamonds in those days, that was pretty extravagant. (The Queen had seed pearls embroidered on everything, but they were always paste. Still pretty expensive, but everybody followed suit.)

The danger of a gold ring, of course, was that a sword blade (rapier) could catch in it, so it was discouraged in battle. The same reasoning that caused men in battle to cut their hair short, then regrow it after the war.

Another item of note: most sailors, until very recently (from an historical perspective) could not swim. There was a popular superstition that an ear ring would keep you from drowning. --I have now idea how that was supposed to work, but then, our modern political views offer examples of similar superstitions.

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