Homosexuality is as old as time. And although the gay rights movement is significantly younger, the topic of homosexuality was certainly nothing new in the eighteenth century. It was the year 1725 when the Heeren Zeventien – a council of seventeen directors of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) – received a ‘disturbing report’. Two crew members of an East Indiaman had been accused and eventually found guilty of committing the ‘sins of Sodom and Gomorrah’. This led to an unconventional punishment.

Sodom and Gomorrah were two ancient cities. They were dirty, dark, and had an unsavoury image. The two cities were known for their depraved inhabitants, and according to the Bible this was the reason why God destroyed them. Sodom and the derived word ‘sodomy’ came to mean ‘immoral behaviour’ and more specifically homosexuality. This so-called immoral behaviour was spotted by a number of crew members. They told the first officer exactly what they had seen.

Torture by fire and water

These accusations led to a trial on board the East Indiaman. According to the witnesses mentioned above, the bookkeeper Leendert Hasenbosch had been ‘intimate’ with one of the ship's boys (though they probably expressed it in less polite terms). Both Leendert and the ship's boy concerned denied this. In his own defence, Leendert explained that he had only wanted to care for the young man like a father takes care of his son. The small-scale court on board refused to accept this explanation and bound burning wicks between the defendants' fingers to torture them and thus extract confessions. Even this did not have the desired effect, and the defendants continued to deny the accusations. At that time, a confession of guilt was a condition for conviction. A punishment could only be imposed once a confession had been made, so it was vital that confessions were coaxed out. The only question was how long it would take for the men to give in.

The form of torture switched from fire to water, as there was plenty of water available on board a ship. Leendert was tied to the mast with a piece of canvas wrapped around his neck. Water was poured into the canvas until his head was submerged. All he could do was drink to avoid drowning! The poor man's belly grew and grew until finally, he lost consciousness. Narrowly escaping water intoxication, Leendert woke up and cried: ‘I'll confess! I'll tell you everything your filthy ears want to hear!’

Unnatural behaviour?

According to the high-ranking officers on board, permitting this kind of behaviour on board would call God's wrath upon the ship. Some of them were afraid that the ship and the other righteous souls on board would lose God's favour in response to this ‘plague of homosexuality’. The sinners had to die, and the sooner the better. A fairly common punishment was to tie the men together and throw them overboard, but the captain decided differently in this case. Leendert's senior position may have influenced the decision. At the time of judgement, the ship was passing close to an island: Ascension Island, named after Ascension Day, the day on which the island had been discovered. The culprit was rowed to this uninhabited island and left there together with his belongings, a little rice, some peas, and a small supply of water. What happened to the ship's boy cannot be said with certainty. Low-ranking defendants were often simply thrown overboard, but if the person concerned was very young and ignorant, they were often not blamed for the crime. Whether the fate of the bookkeeper was better than that of the ship's boy is open to speculation.

Drinking turtle blood

What became of the 39-year-old Leendert himself? He kept a diary using the paper he had been left with on the island. His diary was later found by a British captain. He described his situation as wretched and wrote of a shortage of water due to extreme drought. Leendert recorded that his skin was covered with blisters and said that he was forced to drink his own urine. He wrote that brewing tea from his urine made it more palatable than turtle blood, which gave him diarrhoea for days. In his diary, he wrote that he hoped to be struck by some accident so that he would be delivered from his terrible suffering. His diary tells that he has no friends any more, but that death could be a friend. As the days passed, Leendert found small projects to keep himself occupied. He collected all manner of things, hoping that one day a sailor would visit the island and take the collection with him to the Dutch Republic to start a cabinet of curiosities.

Delirious and hallucinating on his death bed, after five months he finally began to wonder whether his actions had really been so bad, and whether many of the other crew members might have been ‘guilty’ of the same actions. The answer to his question would have been ‘yes’. Although sodomy (or homosexual sex) was strictly forbidden by the Bible, it was still common in the days of the Dutch East India Company, as it was in the time of the Ancient Greeks, in medieval Rome, and today.

Remember Leendert during Pride Amsterdam when the colourful boats sail through the city's canals in the summer in a celebration of the freedom to love. Think of Leendert whenever the freedom to love comes under threat in today's society...

His diary may have been found, but Leendert's body or skeleton never was. Might the sailor have summoned up his last ounce of strength and crawled into the sea, surrendering his body to the waves? 300 years later, this question remains unanswered.

Source: The Queer Dutchman Castaway on Ascension. Peter Agnos.
Source: Een Hollandse Robinson Crusoë. Michiel Koolbergen.

Author: Marleen Stavenuiter – Het Scheepvaartmuseum.