Queer Questions about Jamestown

Richard William Cornish presents a queer (awkward and otherwise) episode among several heroic tales of perseverance, valor, ambition,  and tenacity associated to the Jamestown Colony.

Richard William Cornish, master of the ship Ambrose was executed in 1624 for the ‘ crime’ of having abused his position of power to lure William Cowse into bed.

It is a bawdy incident captured in Cowse’s court testimony about Cornish’s advances in tortured detail (some deleted, ostensibly for indecency according to sensibilities of the time).

Cowse recounts how Cornish invited and then forced him into bed while  changing Cornish’s bedsheets.  Cornish is accused of having:

« Called to this Examinat [i.e. examinee, witness], to lay A Cleane payre of sheete into his bed, wch this Exam[inee] did, And the said Wm went into the bed, and wold have this Exam com into ye bed to him, wch this Exam refusinge to doe the said Richard Williams went owt of the bed and did cut this Exam cod peece . . ., and made this Exam unredy.. »

Walter Mather, who appears to have been discretely  witnessing the event (that is, peeping or eavesdropping), attests to the event, contributing to Cornish’s  ultimate condemnation.

The case raises questions regarding precedent and prevalence of similar practice in subsequent years.

More importantly, it  also presents questions about power, masculinity, and gender in the colony:   In what ways did non-heterosexual sexual practices correspond to disparities in the distribution of power? The Cornish case exposes what seems to be a sexualized power difference.

Furthermore, it exposes the fluid nature of sexual desire and attraction, even in the 17th Century. Masculinity (as gender/sex) in this case does not necessarily imply desire for the opposite sex. In later parts of Cowse’s testimony, Cornish is reported to have proposed a more or less permanent arrangement that Cowse reportedly refuses.

The case also raises questions about the intersection between sexuality, crime and punishment. In this instance, the death sentence is deployed, in accordance with Virginia’s ‘Lawes Divine, Morall, Martiall’ (see article 1.9 of the code below):

« No man shal commit the horrible, and detestable sins of Sodomie upon pain of death; & he or she that can be lawfully convict of Adultery shall be punished with death. No man shall ravish or force any woman, maid or Indian, or other, upon pain of death, and know ye that he or shee, that shall commit fornication, and evident proofe made thereof, for their first fault shall be whipt, for their second they shall be whipt, and for their third shall be whipt three times a weeke for one month, and aske publique forgivenesse in the Assembly of the Congregation. »

Cornish’s case, thus, seems to be a potentially productive site upon which to launch a broader reflection on the personal lives of the men at Jamestown.

Similar lines of inquiry, however, have raised concerns about ‘liberals’ turning Jamestown into a gay village of sorts. Nonetheless, delving into uncomfortable questions about intimacy and desire in colonial Virginia holds  the promise of delving into broader reflections about the nature of power. The challenge lies in balancing curiosity on one hand, with faithfulness to the heroism of those young men that crossed the Atlantic and changed the course of human history.

Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Trial of Richard Cornish, 1624”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 15 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/cornish.htm&gt;.

Tarter, Brent. “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Author: George Katito

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