Be My Matelotage! The Civil Union of 17th Century Pirates
Love strikes hard like the broadsiding from a warship, leaving both splinters and buckshot in one’s heart. When it hits, there's nothing anyone can do but accept the bombardment with both arms open. It can happen with friends, co-workers, and even with 17th-century Caribbean pirates . The word 'matelotage’ carried many different meanings, but in the island of Tortuga, matelotage meant the civil union and sexual relationship between two pirate men.
In 1645, the French-controlled island of Tortuga was a safe haven for privateers and buccaneers alike. Tortuga was also a sanctuary for those who wished to have matelotage, the civil union of two male pirates.
Whether this was for economic and contractual reasons or whether it was for love, the civil union between two men was not only accepted but encouraged, especially within the pirate community . But this sanctuary, for those who were misfits and lovers, would soon be challenged by the French Governor Jean Le Vasseur. He ordered two thousand prostitutes to be shipped from Paris to Tortuga in the hopes of preventing the spread of matelotage.
Though Tortuga was one instance of a government trying to stop matelotage, there are many more stories of pirates who protected their union of love. The love story between Swann and Culliford was not the only story of two pirates being open about their relationship.
Another story is the matelotage love of Louis Le Golif and Pulverin, which was an epic tale of adventure and betrayal. However, before one can even discuss the tragedies and romances these salty swashbucklers had, it is imperative to explain the meaning of matelotage first.
The History of Matelotage
The term 'matelotage' derives from the French word 'matelot’ or the English translation ‘seamanship’, meaning the act of consistent sharing between two seafaring men. The word itself has had different meanings through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The French and the English used the terms to mean ‘buddy’, or ‘friend’.
It was also where the endearing slang term ‘mate’ came from; which is still used today in the English-speaking world. The word matelotage was a contract between two pirates as a form of insurance in case either person died. This contract was honored by most pirate captains who made sure fair shares owed in plunder were paid to those who had died.
The matelotage contract awarded the plunder to the significant other of any pirate who died. This helped prevent fights over treasures. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )
Most historians and pirate enthusiasts alike carry fascination in understanding the romantic aspect of matelotage. There is a lot of intrigue for exploring the intimate relationship between two outlaw men who would otherwise never be accepted in 17th-century society. Though pirates were slavers, cannibals, killers, rapists, and thieves, they were also very progressive in the context of acceptance of same-sex relationships and a free market economy.
The word matelotage came into greater use with Tortuga buccaneers of the Caribbean. Their use of the word referred to their sexual partners.
In pirate society, two men could enter a matelotage civil union and be allowed to marry under these terms. As in a conventional marriage ceremony, the two men would exchange gold rings and pledge their eternal union to each other.
After this particular type of ceremony, the two pirates were expected to share everything together. They were to split the plunders and share their properties, in some cases, even their women.
Certain captains, such as Francois L’Olonnias whom during his attack on Venezuela in 1666, honored the matelots of the men who died during his campaigns. He made sure to distribute the shares of their loot to their significant others.
Francois L’Olonnias honored the matelots / contracts of the men who died during his campaigns. (Jacek Halicki / Public Domain )
Matelotage was not forced by anyone. Pirates entered into these relationships willingly but in many cases, it was a much older man who fell in love with a younger man.
It should be noted that these relationships were not completely sexual but also based on fondness and companionship. Another benefit to being in matelotage was that it gave protection by way of inheritance and compensation.
When one member of this union died, the other was able to receive his possessions and any loot owed to him. But in later years, especially in the island of Tortuga, matelotage, with its many definitions, would come under fire.
French Tortuga and the Prostitutes
Tortuga was a Caribbean island located by the northwest part of Hispaniola. In the 17th century, Tortuga was a safe haven for pirates such as the buccaneers, who were a kind of privateer, as well as the stage of operations in which pirates would launch their attacks on Spanish colonies.
Tortuga's turbulent history has been one of constant upheaval since 1630 when the island was divided into French and English colonies. It was in a continuous battle with Spain to which territories were gained and lost between the period of 1635-1638.
In 1639, Jean Le Vasseur, who was made governor of Tortuga, was sent by request of the governor of Saint Christopher to help build the fortress ‘Fort de Rocher’ and bring stability to the island once and for all. However, this would be a never-ending task for Le Vasseur.
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Jean Le Vasseur built Fort de Rocher. (Basvb / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Though he is credited for developing Tortuga as a French protectorate, building a standing fort, establishing a formal port, and creating infrastructure well enough to start constructing workable plantation fields, the pirates who inhabited both the English and French colonies still bothered him, especially with their carefree attitudes about male to male civil unions.
It should be noted that during this time, homosexual relationships were not well accepted within 17th-century society. Except for the power elite, who were exempt from this judgment, most homosexual acts were punishable by imprisonment or even by death.
But within the naval command, as well as most settings in which women were few and far between, most people overlooked these issues and quietly allowed such relationships to happen. The only place that openly accepted same-sex relationships was with the buccaneer pirates of Tortuga. The Tortuga buccaneers were free not only to pillage and loot but to exhibit their intimate relationships with other men openly.
Given this notion, Governor Le Vasseur might have had ulterior motives, other than to prevent the spread of ‘homosexuality among pirates’. Because of all the territory that was now developed in Tortuga, Le Vasseur might have been trying to get a stable and sedentary population settled in Tortuga to begin farming and generating cash crops for France.
By 1640, the buccaneers of Tortuga became better organized and referred to themselves as the ‘Brethren of the Coast’. This was a loose coalition of pirates and privateers whose syndicate of captains operated in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The buccaneers of the Caribbean practiced matelotage. (Jappalang / Public Domain )
In 1645, Governor Le Vasseur wrote to France asking for the acquisition of all the 'undesirable ladies', within the French prison system, to Tortuga. Le Vasseur’s hope was that in the arrival of these women, the pirates would be enticed to leave their pillaging ways, as well as their pirate husbands, and be tempted to start a new with a wife and take to a life of plantation farming.
French women criminals numbering in the thousands were imported to Tortuga in the hopes of neutralizing homosexuality. However, Le Vasseur’s dream of a stable heterosexual farming population would not happen.
A few men did give up their pirate matelotage husbands as well as the swashbuckling lifestyle, but most of the pirates continued the act of matelotage and even married women prostitutes in order to share them with each other.
Such an act of defiance should be seen with admiration, for the bond between lovers should never be prevented by any governmental policy, especially if both lovers are good with muskets and sabers. This kind of intimacy was also seen with the mysterious pirate known as Louis Le Golif and his matelotage lover Pulverin.
Louis Le Golif and Pulverin
Whether the autobiography of Louis Le Golif was fake or real, his book Memoirs of a Buccaneer , gives his account as a privateer, a scorned lover, and an adventurer like no other. According to the memoir, Le Golif was born in France and sent to the West Indies as an indentured servant when he was 20.
He was indentured to the plantation owner Monsieur Piedouille and was continuously mistreated until he gathered the strength to run away. There he joined the buccaneers and his matelot brother Pulverin.
From there they set sail through many adventures which also inevitably led to Le Golif losing one of his buttocks to grapeshot from a cannon. This resulted in his nickname "Half Arse”.
However, near the end of these adventures, when Louis le Golif took a wife, his long-time matelot, Pulverin, was devastated. This was not only the end of their love but the end of the adventurous way of buccaneer life which both had grown accustomed to.
When Louis le Golif took a wife, it changed the matelotage between him and Pulverin. ( zolotareva_elina / Adobe Stock)
Given that they shared the laws of matelot, both Le Golif and Pulverin shared his wife. It would seem that their life would be complete until Pulverin discovered Le Golif’s wife in bed with another man.
In an act of rage, Pulverin killed Le Golif’s wife and then fled. Among the shock and despair Le Golif had experienced, he grieved more over losing his beloved Pulverin than over the death of his wife.
Robert Culliford and His Matelotage With John Swann
John Swann was a minor pirate who was only active between the years 1698 and 1699 in the Indian Ocean. However, his name is only made famous due to his open relationship with Robert Culliford. Swann and Culliford first met when they were both taken prisoner near Mangalore, spending four years imprisoned, they planned their escape in 1698.
Culliford had become captain of the Mocha and pursued the British ship Dorill. However, the ship opened fire and cut off the Mocha's main mast forcing Culliford and his crew to retreat to St. Mary’s Island. It was there that both took refuge and started their new life.
Years after, Swann decided to turn away from a life of piracy and live on St. Mary's Island near Madagascar. Together with Culliford, they became united in matelotage and Swann became known as his consort.
Though Culliford lived with him, he was not yet done with the pirate way of life . Also, the world they built was about to end.
In 1698, Culliford teamed up with Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler. Together they captured an armored vessel known as The Great Mohammad in the Red Sea. This was a ship which carried over 160,000 US dollars (130,000 British pounds) in cash.
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Culliford and his teamed captured an armored vessel known as The Great Mohammad, which resulted in the demise of his matelotage with Culliford. ( storm / Adobe Stock)
This gained the attention of the British who sent a squadron of four men-of-war frigates in order to apprehend Culliford and his men. Knowing this, Culliford and his crew sank their ship The Mocha, in the hopes that the four British frigates would move on. However, this did not dissuade them.
With time running out, a majority of Culliford’s crew used their loot to pay Giles Shelly, captain of The Nassau, in order to smuggle them back to the American mainland. One of the people who chose to leave was John Swann, under the name of ‘Otto Van Tuyl’, he could not continue his life with Culliford any longer.
The four ships arrived at St. Mary and apprehended Culliford and his remaining crew. Rather than have a fight to the death, the British promised to offer them a royal pardon so long as they gave themselves up. Left with no option, Culliford accepted.
However, he was still arrested, tried for piracy of The Great Mohammad, and taken to the Marshalsea Prison on August 1, 1700. Though he was initially sentenced to death by hanging, he was given a deal to testify in the trial of Samuel Burgess. Rumor had it that Culliford bargained for his freedom and received it.
After Burgess’ trial, Culliford disappeared. However, one would suspect he might have changed his name and went to the Americas to be with John Swann once again.
Closing Thoughts on Matelotage
The marriage between two consenting adults has always been subject to the changing of societal attitudes. For the case of matelotage - its unspoken bonds between two outlaw male pirates, whether they be contractual or romantic - has adapted throughout the ages because of the power of endearing and romantic love.
Matelotage bonds two outlaw male pirates contractually. ( Jormala / Adobe Stock)
In a way, it makes sense why same-sex unions would be embraced and openly accepted within the lawless world of piracy. When the rest of the world has judged them, and have left them nowhere to be themselves, they can find sanctuary among outlaws, so long as they, in turn, are ready to defend their marauding way of life.
Top image: Matelotage is the marriage / civil union of two male pirates. Source: rdrgraphe / Adobe Stock.
By B.B. Wagner
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