The Stupid Sin

Posted by Censor Librorum on Sep 28, 2009 | Categories: Arts & Letters, History, Lesbians & Gays

I spent part of Friday afternoon poking around in an old marine salvage store in town.   Along with time-crusted anchors, portholes sporting blistered paint, antique lanterns and knives, and leather bracelets sailors used to wear when they mended sails, the store has a selection of old books.   That’s where I head first. halfmoonbay

A title caught my eye, “The Wreck on the Half-Moon Reef.”   It was written by Hugh Edwards, the Australian diver who found the wreck in 1966. The book was published in 1970.

I pulled it off the shelf and opened it to read the jacket.   The book was the account of the wreck of the 38-gun Dutch East Indiaman Zeewyk in 1727 on the savage reefs around the Abrolhos Islands. “The lookout thought that the surf on the Half-Moon Reef was ‘moonlight.’ The result was a quick death for some, a slow death for others, and the torture and execution of two youths for the ‘stupid sin’ of sodomy.”

It’s rare a nautical history includes a full chapter describing a sodomy trial and execution. I bought the book.

Chapter 12, The Stupid Sin, begins: “The two sodomy-accused boys were doomed from the moment that the eager informants burst into the officers’ tent with the news.”   The youths, it seems that they were not older than their mid to late teens at the most, had been accused of a homosexual act. The “stupid sin” as the Dutch called it.

One of the officers, Adriaan van der Grafee, kept a journal during the voyage and recorded their trial and punishment.

“December 1st, 1727: At eight o’clock in the morning the Petty Officers enter our tent and ask to see the Skipper, and inform him that two hands named Adriaen Spoor from St. Maertensdyck, and Pieter Engels, from Ghent, both boys, were found yesterday committing together the abominable sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

The boys were spotted by several others having sex in broad daylight, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon according to the account.

The white-faced boys were brought to the officers’ tent, “But they were not willing to make a confession. Wherefore we placed burning fuses between all their fingers. But being obstinate they would no more confess. So upon due consideration we resolved with the entire Council and consent of the Common Hands, to place these men apart on one of the northernmost islands.”

Marooning, death by exposure or drowning. That is what the verdict meant.

The youths were rowed across to one of the tiny cays at the north-eastern corner of the island group, about eleven miles away from the wrecked Half-Moon, and set on separate islands. The boat, with an official party of two petty officers, a boatswain and six unnamed seaman, then put about and left them to die.

The place they were left is known today as the Mangrove Islands. Hugh Edwards describes them: “Mere nodules of coral slates and spikey bushes raised four feet above the surrounding reefs. There is no water on them. No food, Deep channels run between islets and if they youths could not swim they would have been prisoners, each on his own rock until they died from sun and thirst, or went mad with despair and flung themselves in the water. In any event, death must have overtaken them within a day or two.”

Van der Graeff does not record in his diary whether the two boys were left any provisions when they were tumbled ashore, nor does he mention any conversation or pleas for mercy.

“In the case of the boys,” Edwards opined, “emphasis was placed, on sentencing them, in the brazen nature of unnatural sexual intercourse in broad daylight. Perhaps it was the flagrant nature of the indiscretion that enraged their shipmates.”

Despite the harsh punishments of the time, homosexual relations aboard ships were well-known.

Edwards notes that Engels previously appeared to be the object of bullying and persecution by some Zeewyk crewmen. He says, “it is interesting to note the modern psychological belief that those who are most condemnatory of sexual deviation are often those who sense the desire for such deviation in themselves.”

Whether out of shame or conscience, the incident is never mentioned again in van der Graeff’s journal, and the islands where the youths were marooned were not noted on the maps.

Edwards describes a sad postscript to the event: “More than a century later, in 1844, one of the party who had gone to the Abrolhos from the recently established Swan River colony to survey for guano and a fishing industry, laid his groundsheet down in darkness on the Mangrove Islands, and after a wretchedly uncomfortable night got up gumbling in the morning to find he had slept on a human skeleton.   It may have been the pathetic remains of Adriaen Spoor or Pieter Engels.”

After I finished the chapter I closed the book and thought of those poor boys.   How horrible to imagine them left to die, alone, on a barren ledge of rock. Each knew he was going to die, and had several days to think about it, and how they had been abandoned without mercy or pity.

The author, probably unintentionally, had several rich metaphors in his story: two youths, punished for their audacity in having sex in the daylight; each consigned to an island to die alone. Some of their tormentors and judges were men who, while expressing fear of the Lord’s punishment on their society for the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, really wanted the lads dead and gone to kill their fears of homosexual desire and possibly cover their own involvement.

The best, though was the Dutch expression of homosexual sex as “the stupid sin.” It is a stupid sin. It is stupid, how much time is spent on it, obsessing about it, to the point of murder.