One often hears references to rampant buggery among sailors in the glory days of the Royal Navy. Sometimes, its said, young boys called peg boys were on board solely for the purpose of providing pleasure to the officers. What's the straight dope on this?
—Wm. Bligh, Chicago
Not an easy question to . . . well, I guess we can’t say get to the bottom of, can we? So lets just start. Was buggery, if not rampant, at least fairly common in the Royal Navy in its prime? (We’ll define this as the 18th century through WWI.) People certainly thought so at the time. Were ship’s boys sometimes used for sexual purposes by their elders? We have sworn testimony that they were. Did some British warships routinely put—let’s be blunt—underage male prostitutes on the manifest? Don’t be ridiculous.
First, terminology. I’ve seen peg = copulate in a 1902 slang dictionary, and its easy to believe the expression was common long before that. But the earliest usage of peg boy cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Playboy’s Book of Forbidden Words by Robert Anton Wilson (1972), perhaps not the most reliable source. Wilson writes: “A peg-boy is a young male who prostitutes himself to homosexuals; peg-house, a homosexual brothel. There is an unsubstantiated story that boys in East Indian peg-houses were required to sit on pegs between customers, giving them permanently dilated anuses.”
That’s not to say sailors spent all their time singing sea chanteys and tying knots. As in any environment in which males live in close quarters for extended periods, both consensual and nonconsensual homosexual behavior did and doubtless does occur aboard ships—see for example Barry Burgs Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1995), which lends such expressions as shiver me timbers and thar she blows vivid new meaning. Sodomy, incidentally, wasn’t clearly defined in English law but at minimum included anal intercourse between men (authorities differed on whether anal sex with a woman counted) and in some interpretations bestiality, necrophilia, and fellatio.
More pertinent is Arthur Gilbert’s “Buggery and the British Navy,” 1700-1861, Journal of Social History, 1976. Gilbert suggests there’s some basis to the belief that the Royal Navy’s traditions consisted of rum, sodomy, and the lash (a witticism often misattributed to Winston Churchill). He quotes one British officer as follows: “I have been stationed, as you know, in two or three ships. . . . On the D—, homosexuality was rife, and one could see with his own eyes how it was going on between officers. I have been told that in some services (the Austrian and French, for instance), nobody ever remarks about it, taking such a thing as a natural proceeding: that may be so or not; but in any case, nobody was shocked on board either the A— or the B—. There were half a dozen ties that we knew about. . . . To my knowledge, sodomy is a regular thing on ships that go on long cruises.”
Still, Gilbert suggests, common is one thing, brazen is another. British naval buggery, however prevalent, was necessarily discreet: sodomy was officially considered a grave offense, and punishment was harsh. Buggery “comyttid with mankynde or beaste” was first made a capital crime by Henry VIII in 1533; naval buggery was specifically made a hanging offense in 1627. In 1806 there were more hangings in England for sodomy than for murder. Punishment could be brutal even if you escaped the noose. A sailor convicted in 1757 of raping a boy received 500 lashes; in 1762 two seamen received 1,000 lashes each for consensual sex.
Officers weren’t exempt: Captain Henry Allen of the Rattler was executed for sodomy in 1797, and Lieutenant William Berry was hanged in 1807 for buggering a boy. Conclusion: Whatever may have gone on beneath the poop deck, sex with boys at sea was never openly tolerated in the Royal Navy, let alone a fixture of the officers mess.
In short, to borrow from George Carlin, those convicted of sodomy were sent to prison where, in all likelihood, they were sodomized.
By cecil adamsComments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Cecil's most recent compendium of knowledge,Triumph of the Straight Dope, is available at bookstores everywhere.