historical map

Review: Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity

by Hans Turley

New York and London: New York University Press, 1999, 199 pp.

Published in the Journal of Social History, 2001

First things first. The lurid title is misleading. Although the book contains a fair amount about sodomy, it has little, too little, about the lash, and, alas, nothing at all about the kill-devil rum. Moreover, the book is not about the traditions of the British navy, which Churchill's phrase meant so sneeringly to summarize. The subtitle gives a better sense of the book's contents.

Turley's declared purpose "is twofold: to analyze how eighteenth-century writers perceived the pirate and to show how the pirate came to be portrayed as both the criminal and the romanticized antihero par excellence in the following centuries" (3). He argues that pirates built an autonomous homosocial order at sea, one that transgressed the economic, social, political, cultural, and sexual values of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England. Turley is less interested in the practice of sodomy among pirates (for which there is little evidence in any case) than in the homoeroticism of their way of life and its subsequent representation in history and literature. He poses for himself a big question: how did the pirate become the "outrageously hypermasculine antihero" of modern popular culture?

The research is solidly based in published primary sources: books, pamphlets, and trial records. Turley consults a few archival sources, though it is an overstatement to say, as the dust jacket does, that he "delves deep into the archives." The book does not reach the scholarly standards set by Robert C. Ritchie and Joel Baer in their writings on the golden age of piracy, but it is, in its range of research, superior to most other works on the subject. On the other hand, several of Turley's observations about the scholarship on pirates are wrong, a few of them ridiculously so. It is simply not true, for example, that "there are few records that allow us to reconstruct pirate life" (6), nor is it accurate to say that "the literary artifacts of piracy remain little explored" (44). Turley seems to think it necessary to underestimate the long and rich historiography of piracy in order to make his own contribution to it.

The first chapter describes life at sea among merchant seamen, naval sailors, and privateersmen during the heyday of piracy in order to explain why seafaring men went "upon the account." Chapter two opens by making essential distinctions among buccaneers, privateers, and pirates, then sketches what the author calls "the piratical subject," the blend of fact and fiction that has become such a powerful cultural trope. Chapters three and four discuss the image of the pirate as constructed in trials and the press, showing how late seventeenth-century sea-rovers William Kidd and Henry Avery were heroized. Chapters five and six are devoted to Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the...Pyrates (two volumes, published in 1724 and 1728), which Turley aptly calls "the most influential pirate book ever written" - influential upon almost all subsequent writing on pirates and upon the evolution of the novel (7). The seventh and eighth chapters analyze novels by Daniel Defoe (Captain Singleton and the Robinson Crusoe trilogy) in light of earlier themes. An especially intriguing suggestion is that in the early eighteenth century the pirate replaced the libertine as a cultural icon.

Turley is more successful in accomplishing his first aim than his second - that is to say, he is better on the literary representations of pirates than in rewriting their broader history. Indeed, the last four chapters are the strongest part of the book, not least because they closely interrogate and interpret specific literary texts. In treating Johnson's General History of the...Pyrates as a work of genuine literary significance, Turley makes the important point that herein lie the historic origins of the pirate as cultural hero. And Turley does in the end succeed in placing Defoe and the even the novel itself in a new light, emphasizing with Christopher Hill that the cultural form did not emerge merely from a middle-class obsession with self and property, but rather took life from the desperate motions of the dispossessed in England and around the Atlantic.

The effort to interpret the pirate as a cultural hero (or antihero) is considerably less successful. A transgressive (proletarian) masculinity certainly has something to do with the pirate's standing in popular culture, but there are a great many other issues to be considered, some of which are difficult, if not impossible, for Turley to investigate given his ahistorical and tendentious uses of concepts such as "criminality" and "individualism." Although he studies an era when law did not, in the eyes of the mass of the population, a criminal make, he does not consider popular contemporaneous attitudes toward pirates, nor does he seriously engage the collective dimensions of life and work at sea, thus unconsciously reproducing some of the ideological biases of his sources. To explain the continuing power of the pirate as a symbol in popular culture over three centuries would also require much deeper and more thorough analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings on piracy than Turley has been able to offer here. The hard-handed grip of the pirate on our collective imagination remains an unsolved cultural puzzle.

Despite these shortcomings, Turley's book is one of the more interesting works to be published on pirates in some years. It brims with ideas, many of which, even if not proven, are stimulating and likely to lead to scholarly advance. And it is no small pleasure to see Turley make good use of a profound, unjustly neglected thinker of our own times: the free-thinking prophet, Norman O. Brown, who would know that the eros of pirate culture must be analyzed alongside the thanatos of the lash and the gallows, essential supports of capitalist work discipline at sea.

Marcus Rediker
University of Pittsburgh

historical map