Robert Culliford

Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.

But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.

Captain Robert Culliford

Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.

Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.

Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.

Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.

By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.

Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.

Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.

Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)

This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).

Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captain John Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)

Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.

A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.

With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?

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