Hidden histories of sexuality

Issue: 120

Colin Wilson

BR Burg, Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), £50

Neville Hoad, African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality and Globalization (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), £12.50

Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke (eds), Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 15501800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), £16.99

The past 30 years have seen an enormous growth in writing about the history of sexuality. A detailed and fascinating account is now available. This work began in the 1970s with a desire to recover “gay history”, though most historians now accept that sexuality varies between societies, and categories such as “gay” and “straight” are historically recent.

BR Burg’s history of the navy makes this clear. He investigates trials for sexual misbehaviour between 1652 and 1866, when anal sex was often punished with hanging and other acts with extreme brutality (“500 lashes with the cat”). In the dozens of admiralty documents that Burg consults, no one suggests that some men desired sex with other males because they had a particular inclination to do so. They were not, in our sense, gay—they were “normal” but sinful and potentially rebellious. Sex with men was an offence, like drunkenness or insubordination, which any man might commit.

This attitude is reflected in the testimony of boatswain’s mate William Brown at a court martial in 1815. Brown “said that god must have put it into men’s hearts to commit the unnatural crime of buggery, and that therefore if god was to put it into his head to fuck a man he would as soon do it as fuck a woman”. Sexual transgressions here went along with a general lack of discipline and morality. Brown told the court that he would bugger “not only the captain and the officers” but also “Jesus Christ if he was in his coffin”.

Such cheerful contempt for authority was unfortunately rare. The courts martial reflect the deeply hierarchical nature of a ship’s crew. The youngest and most vulnerable—boys as young as 11—were exploited, and their testimony often disbelieved. Senior officers seldom faced trial.

Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke’s collection of essays questions not only the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual, but wider concepts including friendship, sexuality and masculinity.

In one of the essays in the collection Alan Bray documents a tradition of deep and committed same-sex friendship between both men and women. In Westminster Abbey, Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones were buried in one tomb in 1710. Their monument records their “close union and friendship…even their ashes, after death, might not be divided”. Such friendships, sealed with vows, were a lifelong commitment to another person, though they did not preclude marriage or have any effect on property.

Randolph Trumbach’s essay describes the boisterous sexual life of 18th century London. Men followed each other through the streets and had sex in inns and coaches—as we know from encounters which went wrong and ended up in court. Other men crossdressed and were indistinguishable from female prostitutes. Some men were effeminate “Mollies” who used women’s names but many who had sex with other men were not.

Some essays discuss when a “homosexual” identity first appeared—with the 18th century Mollies, or in the late 19th century? Choosing one date seems pointless. A whole series of changes happened. The growth of wage labour implied the development of a “private life”, including sexuality, outside work. The expansion of London in the 17th century meant thousands of people lived outside traditional rural controls on sexuality and made the Molly subculture possible. Further changes happened in the 19th century as part of attempts to ensure the dominance of the family.

The broader point is that our commonsense ideas have no validity in this period. Back then a man who had sex with many women did not demonstrate his virility because manliness was identified with self-control. Instead he would have been seen as effeminate. Sodomy was not a sexual crime but was associated with atheism, blasphemy, treachery and Catholicism. Even modern distinctions between friendship, sexuality and intimate relationships, around which we all organise our emotional lives today, worked in different ways.

In Neville Hoad’s African Intimacies the history of sexuality combines with that of imperialism and African nationalism—a combination exemplified in the disgraceful story of Sarah Bartmann. Bartmann was a Southern African woman who travelled to Europe in 1810 and was exhibited semi_naked as “the Hottentot Venus”. On her death she was dissected by one Baron Cuvier, who claimed that “her external genitalia recalled those of the orangutang”. Bartmann’s genitals were preserved in formaldehyde until 2001, when they were returned to South Africa for burial.

The association of Africans with ideas of uncontrolled animalistic sexuality played its part in imperialism. African sexual practices, according to European rulers, were proof of the “primitive” nature of those societies, justifying the 19th century “scramble for Africa.”

In what became Uganda same-sex behaviour exemplified African barbarity. The first white people to arrive in the country were missionaries. Mwanga, the king, insisted that his pages submit to what the missionaries called his “unnatural desires”: the pages, who had recently converted to Christianity, refused and Mwanga had 30 of them killed.

African nationalists rightly rejected any idea of “hypersexual” Africans. But many accepted an idea of sexual respectability introduced by the missionaries, who paved the way for imperialism. Many African leaders have dismissed homosexuality as un-African. In the words of President Museveni, “We don’t have homosexuals in Uganda.” In a further irony, the Anglican church in Europe and the US now sees tolerance of homosexuality as a key indicator of a modern, civilised society, once again marking Africans as “primitive”.

Hoad’s work addresses many of the same issues as examined, in an Arab context, by Joseph Massad, whose Desiring Arabs I reviewed in issue 118 of International Socialism. Hoad notes the—at best—political naivety of international gay organisations, which often seek to promote Western concepts of sexuality as the only way to liberation and so allow homophobic nationalists to claim that homosexuality is a foreign import.

At times Hoad is too much the postmodern academic to ask questions such as, “What really happened?” or, “Which of these accounts is actually true?” For example, while we should reject the idea that Africans are overly sexual or to blame for their own misfortunes, and while we should condemn the use of African people in dubious drug trials, Thabo Mbeki is still dangerously wrong when he suggests that HIV is not the cause of Aids. Similarly, O’Donnell and O’Rourke’s collection is also heavy on postmodern academic jargon. Overall, however, these works contain fascinating insights that contribute to our understanding of the history of sexuality.