In the Bible the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to be destroyed by the Lord with brimstone and fire on account of the wicked and sinful natures of the men who resided in the cities. The wicked and sinful part of their nature is that the men of Sodom would rather have sex with other men than with the virginal daughters that Lot had offered them. This is where the word sodomy comes from and it is defined as a person given to the sin of Sodom, in other words someone who engages in homosexual acts (Norton, 2013). To combat this kind of “detestable” and “unnatural” behavior the English government created laws which strictly prohibited homosexual acts between men and also women. Although it should be noted that the church already viewed sodomy as a sin before the English judicial system did.
Sodomy was a capital offense in eighteenth century England (Greene, 204). A capital offense simply means it is a charge which carries the death penalty. Between 1700 and 1800 many cases involving sodomitical acts came before the English criminal courts, and while the majority were cases of assault with sodomitical intent, there were a few cases of sodomy. The individuals convicted of sodomy were sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn.
Just as there were laws against sodomy on land so were there on the sea. Specifically Article 29 of the 1749 Articles of War which stated:
If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery, of sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a Court Martial. (Gilbert, 79)
Although Article 29 is very clear about the expected punishment for a sailor convicted of sodomy the king had the power to pardon any sailor found guilty of a capital crime. According to Gilbert the courts martial records show that the King never used this power to excuse someone that had been convicted of buggery. The courts martial seemingly followed the king’s example but there were cases in which the court suggested mercy for individuals that committed buggery (Gilbert, 81). Before the Articles of War were created there was the Buggery Act of 1533. This is the act that made buggery or sodomy punishable by death (Asal et al. 2012). The Articles were specific to the English military. But the Buggery Act set the precedent for the Articles of War.
Buggery was difficult to prove in both naval courts and civilian courts. In the Navy if one was suspected of trying to commit buggery they would often be charged with a lesser crime or misdemeanor (Gilbert, 78). This was identical to what was occurring on land. If an English criminal court could not find proof that an individual committed sodomy, but the suspicion existed, the court could convict that individual of assault with sodomitical intent (Norton 2006,172) .
The courts martial seemed loath, in some cases, to charge an individual with buggery or sodomy because if an individual was found guily they would be sentenced to death, but they could decide...