Content warning: Sexual violence and rape; sexual abuse of minors; state violence against queer people.
Late in 1800, Britain’s Royal Navy hanged two sailors for having sex together. Just days before the new year, readers of the Hampshire Chronicle learned that “Monday morning John Hubbard and George Hynes, two seamen belonging to the St. George, were executed on board that ship, in this harbour [Portsmouth], pursuant to their sentence, for an unnatural crime.”
At this time, any sexual contact between males qualified as “unnatural” crime. It was illegal under English criminal law and the navy’s criminal code, the Articles of War. Britain was entering a period of unprecedented brutality against what the law called “sodomy” and “buggery.” Hubbard and Hynes were two of many punished for sodomitical acts in these years.
This brutality created a challenging paradox for those who want to learn about people who violated norms of gender and sex in this era. Powerful stigmas around topics like same-sex acts ensured that few records of such people exist. These trials created some of the only sources we have. Increased policing and punishment meant more documentation. But that documentation only gives us a very limited view. And it’s a distressing, frequently horrifying one.
Writing in Nursing Clio a few years ago, Nathan Dize urged us to be open to “a whole spectrum of emotional responses” when confronting painful history. In this post, I’ll build upon his idea. I’m going to tell you about a mundane and extraordinary document that only survived because of these hangings in 1800. It’s a letter one of the sailors received from his mother just months before his death.
This letter has haunted me as I’ve researched the British navy’s war against sex between males in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’m not alone in being haunted by a historical source. Many other researchers have found ghosts in the archives, in sources like medical reports and prison records, oral histories, even human remains. Historical research is often deeply painful, and I’m hardly the only one who has struggled with its effects. I know I’m also not alone in having nightmares about what I’ve found in the archives.
We need to do a better job in discussing the effects of studying distressing history and preparing researchers for these sorts of sources. And we need to do better in supporting the many people who work with traumatic archives – librarians, archivists, researchers, students, teachers, and many more. This goes beyond self-care and informal peer aid. Only meaningful structural reform can ensure adequate support for so many of the people who do this work.
In the early nineteenth century, the navy may have been the most brutal of all British state institutions in punishing sex between males. It put hundreds of sailors on trial, mostly poor and working-class men and boys. Courts martial convicted most, sentencing the majority to bloody punishments. More than 70 percent suffered some form of conviction. The most common sentences were corporal and capital: public flogging for non-penetrative acts; hanging for penetration.
That’s what these two sailors faced on December 10, 1800, when the court trying them convened on a ship in Portsmouth harbor. The prosecution’s witnesses claimed they had caught the two in the act in a hammock. Both defendants held the rank of common seaman. The witnesses claimed they had found George Hynes undressed and on his belly at the bottom of the hammock. He was the older of the two, and he was a Black sailor. The British saw sex between males as a foreign vice, and courts often targeted those whom communities othered for these crimes; many defendants were non-white or “foreigners.” On top of him had been a younger sailor, Thomas Hubbard. Shipmates called Hubbard a “young man”; in court, his captain described him as a “young lad,” one who had previously been “very good” and “very quiet.”
In many ways, this case resembles the hundreds of others that naval courts martial tried in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The officers who decided these cases sat in judgment over many other poor and working-class sailors for “unnatural” sex. They sentenced dozens to die in these years. But in other ways, this case differs from those others. Almost all of the navy trials involved allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse. Accusers charged that men had abused subordinates, especially young men, adolescents, and ships’ boys. The majority of trials involved allegations of sexual contact between men and younger sailors, who served in large numbers in the navy. The trials suggest that men often targeted young mariners, part of a culture of normalized sexual abuse. But Hubbard and Hynes were convicted in a rare trial in which witnesses believed a younger man – a “lad” even – had taken the lead in a consensual encounter.
The trial is also unusual because something rare survived in the navy archive because of it. It’s a letter from the younger sailor’s mother, Sarah Hubbard, that she had sent to him. The existence of the letter is not unusual; there are thousands of letters among these trial records. Most are official correspondence; some are personal missives. Some were even sent and received by sailors from the “lower deck,” poor and working-class mariners like Hubbard and Hynes. But in my years researching these trials, I’ve never found anything quite like this particular document: a perfectly mundane letter from a mother to her son, a common sailor who would be hanged for sodomy just months later.
The letter takes up only two pages and consists of just a few hundred words. Sarah addressed it to Thomas on board his ship, HMS St George. It’s dated September 4, 1800, a little more than a month before the alleged sex act that would lead to the trial. By the end of the year, Thomas would be dead. Sarah’s letter deals mostly with their family. She starts by expressing joy at her son’s safe arrival back in English waters. “O what happiness it wood [sic] be for me to see you once more,” she exclaims. She sends his brothers’ love and thanks him for remitting his pay, without which “we must starve.”
Sarah goes on to send well wishes from his aunt and cousins and “all frends.” She requests news of his cousin Harry, a sailor on another Royal Navy ship, HMS Alcmene (named after the mother of Hercules, conceived when she was raped by Zeus). She also reports on another cousin, George, a member of a regiment that had “gon… to” the town of Weymouth, “on account of the royall family being thir.”
The letter has nothing to do with the events at issue in the trial. Thomas introduced it not to fight the charges against him, but instead to plead for mercy. After the prosecution rested its case, Thomas declined to offer a defense. Rather, he claimed he had been “very” drunk that night and threw himself on the court’s mercy. Defendants often claimed drunkenness in “unnatural” crime trials, though the argument almost never prevailed.
But then Hubbard attempted something that did sometimes succeed: he pointed to his family and their dependence on him. This is where his mother’s letter entered the proceedings. Thomas asked that it be read in court as evidence that he had relations, family that “must starve” without his support. He hoped to rouse the sympathy of the officers who would decide his fate.
He failed. Those powerful officers convicted both sailors of felony buggery. The Articles of War required hanging for the crime. It was impossible for the two to appeal the verdict, but convicts sometimes won pardons. But their case fared no better on royal review. A week after the trial, George III declared that “there cannot be a doubt of the propriety of the Sentence.” He ordered their execution.
Sarah Hubbard’s letter gives us only a brief glimpse into her son’s life. But it is a vivid glimpse – of a young sailor loved by his family, of a young man’s difficult and dangerous life at sea at wartime. When I found it, I started to cry, sitting with the moldering trial records at the archive. Interpreting this story as a tragedy is complicated. We must be extremely skeptical of court records. There’s little we can verify in this case, and we’ll never know the true story of what happened. And we need to be wary of the tendency to tell queer history as tragedy – and, all too often, tragic melodrama.
We can’t know the full truth of what happened on HMS St George or in the many other trials for sex between males from this era. You may rightly be skeptical of the tragic mode in queer history, but there are other unambiguous tragedies here. It is a tragedy that so little survives documenting the queer past; that so much of what does survive deals with violence and abuse; that whatever really happened in all these cases, there is no question that many of the people involved suffered terribly, and that their stories are now lost to us.
I spoke about Sarah Hubbard’s letter at the Archival Kismet conference in April 2022. There were many other talks that dealt with difficult and tragic history, events that we will never be able to fully reconstruct, events that are wrenching to study. Many are doing demanding, distressing, and increasingly hazardous work with these sorts of sources. And many are doing it as vulnerable graduate students, adjuncts, and workers in similar positions, often without health insurance, research support, or protections for academic freedom.
Their work is essential, and it is time for us to do better in supporting them. This must include open discussion of the toll of working with traumatic history and preparation for those who do it. It must also include fighting for livable compensation and comprehensive health insurance, including care for mental health. Whether we understand them as tragedies or not, and however distressing they are, stories like Thomas and Sarah Hubbard’s are some of the only fragments that survive of the history I study. If we don’t support and protect those engaged in this work, we risk losing what little we do know and the few sources that remain.
- Hampshire Chronicle, 29 December 1800. ↑
- Thomas Hubbard and George Hynes trial, 10 December 1800, ADM 1/5355, National Archives (Kew). ↑
- Roland Pietsch, The Real Jim Hawkins: Ships’ Boys in the Georgian Navy (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2010). ↑
- Seth Stein LeJacq, “Escaping Court Martial for Sodomy: Prosecution and its Alternatives in the Royal Navy, 1690–1840,” International Journal of Maritime History 33 (2021): 16–36, 21–22. <https://doi.org/10.1177/0843871421991169> ↑
- December 17, 1800, Add 75839, British Library. Jeremy Black, George III: America’s Last King (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 206, has a transcription. ↑