Buggery and the British Navy Is it true the ships had "peg boys"?

Slug Signorino

One often hears references to rampant buggery among sailors in the glory days of the Royal Navy. Sometimes, it’s 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? “Get a handle on” also has unfortunate implications. So let’s 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 ships’ 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” equal “copulate” in a 1902 slang dictionary, and it’s 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.” Whatever you say, Bob.

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 (prison and boarding school are the other well-known venues in this respect), both consensual and nonconsensual homosexual behavior did and doubtless does occur aboard ships—see for example Barry Burg’s Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1995). 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 to our subject 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). While conceding that “it is impossible to judge the incidence of buggery in the military,” he goes on to quote 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. That was an extreme case, but average lash counts for morals offenses were often double those for mutiny and desertion. Officers weren’t exempt: Capt. Henry Allen of the sloop 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 made a fixture of the officers’ mess.

Eventually attitudes softened. Though sodomy remained a capital crime until 1861, the last British naval execution for the offense was in 1829, the last in the U.K. itself in 1835. After that, until legalization in 1967, the act was punishable by 10 years to life. In short, to borrow from George Carlin, those convicted of sodomy were sent to prison where, in all likelihood, they were sodomized. —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope message board, straightdope.com.

Our Readers Say

Mayor Fenty would love a good dose of buggery!
i love this post, "British naval buggery" :P
I like this web-site
British History of Sex Laws
and buggery laws
I like this web-site
British History of Sex Laws
and buggery laws
A British man Mark Hanson Killed
Himself after his arrest for
buggery with a 6 year old boy.
In the old days he would have
not been let out on bail plus
he would have been hanged.
buggery is not funny and must remain a moral outrage and all efforts made to change the perverted and decadent laws that allow catholic priests to rape children under the protection of the pope.

it is a crime that can never be forgiven and the minimum punishment for buggery must be castration. the maximum should be death and known homosexual predators should be forced to preside at the executions. that would make them think twice about their filthy habits.
so homesexual predators are worse than heterosexual predators draco?
Only makes sense in my mind! Not like these people weren't at sea for a week with their lovers on a cruise, anyway. Maybe these men even fell for each other ("consensual"...). Who are we to prejudice and assume and stop them from feeling affection for one another? From being human?
Anyways, I agree with Don....Just because one is homo and the other is hetero, doesn't mean the punishment should be any greater or less for either of them. A sexual predator is a sexual predator.
darco, you are an idiot.
Interesting reading on the transition of buggery and the penalties meted out under british law and the eventual repealing of the law. What is sad though is our boys who still suffer from the our adult males without much protection.
Yes, homosexual predation is worse than heterosexual (though both are serious offenses and should be punished harshly). The reason is because homosexual violation destroys the victim's sexual identity, while heterosexual violation does not.

When a man is forced to play the woman to another man, it violates his sexual identity: he is no longer being treated as a man; he's being treated as a woman.

When a woman is forced to play the woman to a man, it does not violate her sexual identity: she is still being treated as a woman.

In both cases, the rape victim has had control over his/her body taken away, and that is a punishable offense.

Only in the first, case, however has the victim also had his sexual identity taken away, and unfortunately that is no longer a punishable offense.

To put it another way, two crimes are committed against the victim of a homosexual rape; whereas, one crime is committed against the victim of a heterosexual rape.
So in conclusion, while Draco's response might be a bit, er, draconian, it is a response based in reason. I don't see any reason to call him an "idiot".
What's the difference between rapeing a woman and buggering a man.
I disagree Bartholomew. It is the non-consensual aspect that requires punishing. Your view assumes that physical gender and sexuality are tied intrinsically which we clearly know not to be the case. Also, sexual identity is not so binary as that. To put it crudely, if a fat, sweaty and otherwise undesirable man rapes a woman is it not that her sexual identity is taken away as much as a man in the same circumstances? She may desire to sleep with some men but she, by definition does not want to sleep with a rapist. What about men raping lesbians? Do children have sexual identities?

We are still unsure of a great deal of the psychology behind these issues so someone calling for death to only a potion of a certain class of criminal based on choice of victem is, in my humble opinion, very idiotic and downright ignorant.

Also, I don't think there are any laws that allow priests to rape children under the protection of the pope.

Also, you should know that buggery has been defined in courts as anal sex with a man or a woman so this discussion is so far gone I'd call it plain retarded.
his may be off the topic but....
If sailors enjoy sex fun ob board ship (what else have they to do, in their spare time, anayway) do many of them enjoy sex with cicies when on shore? And does their tight fitting uniform, with bell bottoms and front flap, the detachable blue jean collar make sailors choice seafood for land lubbers? I love that uniform, it's so sexy - but why?
Anyone share this fascination with the Royal Navy style of sailor uniform? In would love to hear
v from you, tell me of your gay adverntures with uniform clad sailors in ghe Royal Navy

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