From 1803 to 1815, Napoleon’s armies waged war in Europe, attempting to expand French territories throughout the land. These battles became known as the Napoleonic Wars. The British navy fought long and hard during this time to save the whole of Europe from Napoleon’s control. Men served for many years aboard ships, fighting against the French armies and navy. The war created many hardships for its soldiers, and men committed many crimes including theft, desertion, mutiny and murder. However, none were punished so severely as buggery (otherwise known as sodomy between men).
While homosexuality did not run rampant throughout England during the time, there was a certain amount of the population that enjoyed this lifestyle. Additionally, after many years aboard ship, many men were drawn to one another for companionship. Some relationships formed out of mutual affection and respect, while others became business arrangements, where sexual services were rendered in exchange for something valuable, like money. The male escort business was alive and well aboard these naval ships, although these activities were kept rather hush-hush.
However, the crime of buggery (or sodomy) was one that was not condoned or tolerated when it was brought to the attention of the military superiors. Buggery had much more severe punishments than any other crime of its time.
For instance, as early as in 1760, a seaman was sentenced to 700 lashes for desertion and theft. Another was sentenced to 600 lashes for desertion. Five men were assigned 500 lashes for crimes ranging from mutiny to striking an officer. In 1761, seamen were sentenced to 600 lashes for crimes like drunkenness, disrespect and mutiny. However, in 1762, two men accused of buggery were given 1,000 lashes for each count, which were not entirely proven in the court martial.
Four ships’ captains were tried for buggery (and other related moral offenses) from 1756 to 1816. One was hanged, one was cashiered (a ceremony using public degradation to dismiss an officer) and two were acquitted (due to lack of evidence).
Captain Henry Allen (in charge of a sloop named Rattler) was convicted and hanged in 1797 for committing sodomy.
In 1807, Lt. William Berry was sentenced to death for his affair with a catamite named Thomas Gibbs, who was aboard the ship. The boy testified that Lt. Berry performed fellatio on him and committed buggery on him.
Buggery was seen as a crime of evilness during the Napoleonic Wars. Sodomy was seen as the worst crime that could be committed against morality. Military officials felt that all sailors and soldiers had to be held to high moral standards in order to keep control aboard ships and on the battlefields. Any straying from those moral standards could cause chaos and liberty among men. Acceptance of sodomy, one of the most immoral crimes of the time, would surely lead to mutiny among the men, according to the thoughts of military experts of the time.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, naval officers and seamen grew more and more reluctant to report buggery or other acts of homosexuality due to the severe punishments that the convicted parties received. This did not mean, however, that these activities decreased or ceased to exist. Men performing services usually rendered by escorts continued, though on a much more secretive basis.
The trend for executing British sailors for committing buggery continued until well after the Napoleonic Wars (until 1829) when the last soldier was sentenced to death for the crime. William Maxwell (a boatswain) was committed to death for sodomizing (or buggering) a boy named William Pack. From this time onward, no soldier was executed for buggery.
During this time period, the British military adopted the theory that sodomy and homosexuality was not a crime, but it was a mental illness or moral insanity. Sir Alexander Morrison said in 1838 that it was a “consolation to know that it was sometimes the consequence of insanity.” He later stated that sodomitic acts were acts of madness, not evil.
This did little to stop the exchange of services by male escorts and those men who became involved in homosexual relationships. Secrecy continued to cover up escort arrangements and love affairs between sailors.