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Matelotage: A Gay Pirate Civil Union

Financially responsible institution or more likely a revolutionary queer romantic notion?

By yanina maysonetPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 4 min read

When one thinks of pirates a few images appear. Striped clothing, a black flag with a skull and crossed bones upon it, eyepatches, swashbuckling swordfights, or even a parrot upon one's shoulder. They are rather silly images but the truth of the matter was that pirates were one of the most feared revolutionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Not only were they dangerous criminals that took advantage of vulnerable ships upon the colonial seas they also represented people that rejected society as it was then.

That was the real danger, that pirates challenged the established order, and much of the incredible innovations they fostered in their communities have been painted in a monstrous light. Over the years, our fascination with pirates has shed light on many of these modern novelties pirates established in their societies. We know of their democratic principles, of their egalitarian social structures that even benefitted women and people of color in a time when such things were unheard of.

What you may not know of was that there is evidence that pirates also were ahead of their time in terms of queer rights. LGBTQ is a modern construct but queer people have always existed and their struggle to survive in societies that actively ostracized them is a common theme in any century. People could be jailed and even killed for having homosexual relationships which is not too different from today but the added power of religion in those days made life impossible for homosexual people.

Historians first come upon the term Matelotage around the 1600s or so. You may think of the word "matey" when you read it and that is because likely both words derived from the French word Matelot meaning a sailor or a man of the sea.

It was a deal between men in a ship that in the case of death of one the other would gain their riches. You could call it a will, a testament of economic union, but in the end this was both a personal and professional settlement. If you are doubtful then turn to one of the more famous cases where matelotage is mentioned.

Captain Bartholomew Roberts was insulted by a sailor and like any good pirate stabbed and killed him for it. When the sailor's matelot learned of this he grew angry and went to confront Captain Roberts. Now, if this was just a matter of gaining property from one person wouldn't this matelot be happy the other sailor was killed? The story ends with this matelot also killed by the captain but the point to be made here is that to share in a matelotage was to have a personal relationship with another pirate.

Another fun story about matelotage that actually highlights how the practice was not approved of by those of society is when the Governor of Tortuga, Governor Le Vasseur, wrote to France requesting 2000 prostitutes be brought to the island to curve the practice of Matelotage. Joke was on France, since the men might have married the prostitutes sent but they ended up just sharing them as part of the wealth in their matelotage union.

There are no written matelotage records and it is only mentioned in passing as a documented phenomenon but historians have found it to be a most obvious and mind-shattering moment in pirate history. Matelotage itself means "seamanship" or a relationship between seamen. Matelotage was not a compulsory practice either.

If it existed only to serve as an economic way to keep people in line then the practice should have been more common, no? Yet that was not the case. When describing Matelotage a member of the famous Captain Morgan's crew, Alexander Exquemelin wrote: "It is the general and solemn custom amongst them all to seek out… a comrade or companion, whom we may call partner… with whom they join the whole stock of what they possess."

There are some scattered sources that speak of a ceremony in which rings are exchanged by the pirate and the matelot but this may be more fanciful than based on anything concrete. There are writings of matelots taking each other's punishment, fighting in battle as a team and even dying together.

There are many stories out there about buccaneers and their matelots both in fiction and in some scattered historical works. Historians can never be sure if this was simply financial or a deeper bond between pirates. Yet it is accepted that the latter is likely true which would have made pirate society one of the first to embrace and honor homosexual relationships.


About the Creator

yanina maysonet

I love to write fiction stories of the supernatural, romance, high fantasy, or science fiction variety. A bit of a baby, a bit of a rolling stone, just doing my best to avoid getting arrested. @ziggyer5 on the instagram.

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