February 1st, 2013 Headsman
On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.
The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.
“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of ‘uncleanliness’ on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”
Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.
Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh'” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”
While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”
“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”
The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**
Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.
In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.
Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)
One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:
Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.
Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defendant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.
Raphaelo Treake (Troyac), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Treake was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†
As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.
By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.
On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.
a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of the 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.
p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.
On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.
And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.
How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?
Dr. Richard Burg, author of Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy as well as a 2009 Journal of Homosexuality article on the Africaine case (see †), was generous enough to offer his insights into this elusive subculture.
I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?
Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.
How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?
No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.
What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discreetly ignored?
What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.
Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?
I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.
This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?
Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.
* Captain Rodney was the youngest son of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, a famed commander during the American Revolution. It’s thanks to Admiral Rodney’s career that the name Rodney became popularized as a first name.
** Midshipman Christopher Beauchamp. This was his explanation for why he had (falsely, he said) confessed to the lesser offense of (non-penetrative) “uncleanliness”.
† Quoted in B. R. Burg, “The HMS African Revisited: The Royal Navy and the Homosexual Community,” Journal of Homosexuality, 56:2 (2009).
Also on this date
- 1871: John Hanlon, guilty but framed
- 1612: Bishop Conor O'Devany and Father Patrick O'Loughran
- 1947: Henry Rinnan, Norwegian collaborator
- 2002: Daniel Pearl
- 1931: Severino Di Giovanni, anarchist
- 1924: Alikomiak and Tatimagana, Inuit
- 1968: Nguyen Van Lem
- 1932: Farabundo Marti