University of Cambridge > > History of Medicine Seminars > Ordinary seamen, bodily knowledge and Royal Navy sex crimes trials, 1688–1783

Ordinary seamen, bodily knowledge and Royal Navy sex crimes trials, 1688–1783

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This paper uses the records of Royal Navy courts martial to investigate the ways in which ordinary seamen monitored for and generated bodily knowledge related to sexual activity. Sex crimes trials as well as trials for a variety of other offences reveal that the men of the lower deck kept a close watch for the signs of sexual activity, employing a rich semiotics to read space, the material world of the ship, and each others’ bodies. The navy solicited this knowledge only infrequently, but when it did (usually in trials dealing with homoerotic activity) seamen offered more complex and ambiguous views towards proscribed sexual activity than has been appreciated. They also evinced substantial faith in their abilities to offer authoritative knowledge relating to the signs of such activities. Courts martial boards often agreed, and were willing to extend conditional authority to a remarkably wide range of men in trials – complicating previous interpretations of the role of naval surgeons as acknowledged ‘expert witnesses’ in these circumstances. I argue that prosecutions depended heavily on these sorts of lower-deck knowledge, and that they uncover deep tensions in shipboard life and offer us a remarkable window into some aspects of plebeian bodily and sexual knowledge in the eighteenth century.

This talk is part of the History of Medicine Seminars series.

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