This is an excerpt from Christopher Chitty's new book Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System. Read editor Max Fox's introduction to it here.
Around 1730, as Amsterdam’s stock exchange shifted its capital from investment in trade on the Baltic to debt-financing mercantilist states’ wars for hegemony over the Atlantic, the custodian of the Dom Church of Utrecht grew outraged at the scandalous and unnatural behavior of men he had observed in and around his charge, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands and symbolic center of Utrecht. The good parson brought charges against two soldiers whom city authorities had arrested, tortured, and secretly executed for what Immanuel Kant would call, at the end of the eighteenth century, the crimina carnis contra naturam, or commercium sexuale “with a person of the same sex.” The Enlightenment doyen’s terms reflect a watershed moment for both the epistemological transformation of sexual categories and the sweeping transformation of individuals and societies by general market dependency. Although residuals of the medieval paradigm remain in Kant’s conceptualization—for instance, the grouping of same-sex sex with bestiality—the commodity form has transformed the essential coordinates of human sexuality.
The secret executions in Utrecht caused a tumult in the city which reached the English papers. On June 13, 1730, the London Journal reported that “Seven young Persons” who had been prosecuted for sodomy the weeks prior “were, after Conviction, publickly executed here, though if Money could have been of any Use to them, (I am sorry to say it) none would perhaps have been wanting to commute the Punishment.” The seven were hanged, and, according to the report, two were burned and “the other Five carried to Scheveling, and thrown into the Sea.”
A week later, rumors circulated in Amsterdam of the secret executions. On June 17, 1730, London’s Daily Journal reported “that 16 Coffins were carried from [Amsterdam’s] City-House, or Guildhall, which Coffins were supposed to contain Bodies that had been privately executed for Sodomy, of the richer Sort of People; and that Morning about 29 Persons, of mean Extraction, were to have been publickly executed for the like Crime”—all of which caused a great tumult as “the Populace arising in Arms, and demanding publick Execution of the Rich as well as of the Poor, (there then being about 300 of all Ranks in Prison in that City, accused of that Crime, and some of them of great Note and Substance) the Magistrates were oblig’d to send to the Hague for Assistance to quell this Mob, which was very outrageous; upon which 1000 Soldiers were sent to their Assistance.” As merchant-class sodomites who had been accused fled the city to their country seats “to convince People of their being free from any Fear or Apprehension,” riots broke out in other cities throughout the United Provinces, according to the report. “The same Cause had occasioned the like Tumults at the Hague, Rotterdam, &c.” “We hear,” the report concludes, “that, hoping to appease the People, the Magistrates promised a Number of Persons of Distinction should be publickly executed as Tomorrow, on which Day a Parson was to be burnt alive at Rotterdam.”[v]A month later an unnamed Dutch diplomatic attaché in London demanded that the British government force retractions from the newspapers, to wit, The London Journal and the Daily Journal, which subsequently ran nearly identical statements “that this Affair has been very much misrepresented and magnified” and that the particulars of these stories were “calculated and designed to give a bad Impression of the Magistrates, and of the good Inhabitants of the principal Towns in Holland.”
Although the number of executions in these reports could have been exaggerated, the scope and scale of the Dutch problem of sodomy, and the controversy of class injustice in the cities, was not—despite the official denials and retractions printed in British papers. The confessions of two anonymous sodomites led to the arrest and interrogation of Zacharias Wilsma, a former soldier and valet whose sexual escapades, travels, and confessions uncovered a thick web of sodomitical connections, with central nodes in Amsterdam, The Hague, Haarlem, Delft, and Utrecht. The Dutch state’s discovery and investigation of Wilsma’s sexual network led to a historically unprecedented and coordinated series of arrests across the United Provinces.
Although historical anecdotes and demographic trends indicate that homosexual subcultures likely existed throughout the Dutch Golden Age, there is no comparable municipal crackdown on sodomites. Secret “Confession Books” hidden in an Alderman’s cabinet in City Hall disclose the existence of a wide subcultural milieu of homosexuality with well-known haunts, styles of dress and slang, casual prostitution, and middle-class social clubs. Between Wilsma’s confession in 1730 and the establishment of the Napoleonic Code decriminalizing sodomy in 1811, a little over 200 men stood trial for sodomy and related offenses: 115 men were sentenced in absentia to exile; 16 died on the scaffold; and of 28 men confined to prison, 12 died in their cells. In the entirety of the United Provinces, 94 cases of sodomy were punished by the death penalty between 1730 and 1732, suggesting that reports of secret executions were far from exaggerated. By comparison, only 8 death sentences were executed in all of France during the eighteenth century. However historically unprecedented the recourse to capital punishment may have been, the eighteenth-century Dutch persecution of sodomy in the metropolis was never systematic and did not represent a significant proportion of overall criminal prosecutions. Nevertheless, the wave of prosecutions demonstrates both the class prejudices of these investigations and punishments in the United Provinces and the ambivalence of the gallows, or the tendency of such public executions to inflame the passions of the city against its ruling elites.
The small village of Faan in the northern province of Frisia, bordered to the north and west by estuaries of the North Sea, had experienced a long period of economic stagnation following the drop in North Sea trade and the decline of peat-cutting industries. Faan was the site of the “most notorious of these persecutions,” according to historian Theo van der Meer: “On 24 September 1731, twenty-two boys and men from this and nearby other villages were executed by the country judge, Rudolf de Mepsche.” Demonstrating the presence of an emergent metropolitan conception of homosexuality in the United Provinces, a coordinated wave of homosexual persecutions in the great cities had become the concern of a grietman from the provinces. As Dutch military power and economic activities had proletarianized a significant proportion of rural labor, the countryside was in no way impervious to the economic shockwaves and panic about sodomy emanating from Amsterdam.
The trial in 1689 of four young men in Amsterdam provides an earlier, and perhaps far more telling, example of the Dutch “problem” of homosexuality, which was more often punished with vagrancy statutes. A roving gang of twenty-somethings had taken to the neighborhood surrounding the Bourse, cruising for the wealthy sons of merchants, who, by stepping on the boys’ feet, indicated that they were interested in an erotic encounter. As these men signaled their interest, the boys were known to grab them by the crotch, demanding money and issuing threats. “Whatever else happened,” the historian Dirk Jaap Noordam writes, “the gang always extorted money from the man.” Whenever his pocket change was considered an insufficient sum, the boys “followed him to his home or another place where he could get more money for them. The gang consisted of a fluctuating number of youngsters because sometimes members left Amsterdam under the flag of the East Indies Company. The head of the gang was hanged, and the other three . . . were sentenced to detention in the house of correction.” During the 1720s, other gangs of wild boys cruised the city’s public lavatories—wooden structures erected in the eighteenth century beneath Amsterdam’s many bridges—accosting upper-class men, showing even greater contempt for wealth and status than their predecessors. “In 1735 they were finally brought to trial, and received the same sentences as the gang in 1689: the leader was hanged, his accomplices confined.” Apparently similar gangs of youths emerged in The Hague, cruising the city’s central woodland park where one Gabriel Du Bergé was arrested and sentenced to death.
Although none of these men was charged with sodomy, their stories indicate that the persecution of sodomy was carried out for the sake of class interest rather than religious sentiment. Convicted sodomites were lower-class, almost without exception. Although footmen implicated aristocrats and patricians, few were arrested or charged. Some members of the middle class were accused, but most escaped with the aid of legal counsel or fled the country. As in the northern Italian city-states, the wave of persecutions reflected a secular economic crisis of capitalism: a floating mass of surplus labor appeared alongside surplus capital seeking speculative investments abroad and at home. The Dutch ruling classes’ punishment of sodomites in the 1730s more closely resembled the cruel spectacles of Venice than the bookkeeping operation of Florence’s Officers of the Night, although it seems to have involved some elements of both. Dutch regenten pursued sodomy to punish the poor and provide spectacles of cruelty during a period of economic and political decline. The spectacles indicate something of the mythic power sodomy had accumulated in the bourgeois imaginary. Sodomy stood out from other crimes, its presence in public space represented a sort of return of the repressed, something profoundly filthy, an excrementum that could only be purged with water.
The ruling merchants of Amsterdam executed sodomites for active and passive anal intercourse along with other convicted criminals on a scaffold built for the occasion two or three times a year, always on a Saturday. The scaffold was fixed to the façade of City Hall. Executions were attended by crowds and gallows ceremonies lasted several days. Sodomy was most often punished by garroting—strangulation with a handheld ligature of rope or scarf—which in eighteenth-century Amsterdam was, according to historian Theo van der Meer, “a typical punishment for women”: “The faces of two sodomites garroted in 1730 were scorched after their executions. Two others were drowned in a barrel on the scaffold, which according to a compiler of a list of persons executed in Amsterdam, was ‘a surprisingly harder death’ than garroting. While in the scorching a remnant of symbolic purification may be found, the drowning was meant to wash away the sins.”
As in the rest of Europe, in Amsterdam the bodies of executed criminals were normally exhibited to the public in a gallows field, as putrefying ornaments of state power, warnings to potential criminals and foreigners, demonstrating the rule of law in the city. However, the Dutch Edict of July 21, 1730, demanded that the corpses of executed sodomites be burned or tossed in the sea. In Amsterdam, “the executed sodomites were thrown into the deepest part of the River IJ.” Following execution, a final baptism was meant to symbolically purge the Protestant city of its helsche boosheit, and the body of the condemned sodomite was delivered unto the abyss.
Amsterdam’s “reformed” penal apparatus, which employed vagrants, whores, thieves, and others on loom and wheel, was established at the end of the sixteenth century as a solution to the problem of vagabondage. Concern for the moral progress of these unfortunates motivated a gentler way of punishing through imprisonment and forced labor. The spectacular executions of sodomites through drowning, by contrast, was a legacy of the Protestant Reformation: after 1578, Amsterdam punished offenses against the family and natural sexual order by purging the evil with water.
The ritual drowning and consignment of sodomites’ bodies to the abyss was part of a moral geography associating political power with dominion over water, the reclamation of land, and immorality; losses of power were figured in narrative accounts of drowning, shipwrecks, and the oblivion of the deep. The drowning of the sodomite produced signs of his foreignness, of his lack of control over his own appetites, his moral culpability. Consigning his body to the deep was a form of physical and spiritual exile. “Dutchness,” writes Simon Schama in The Embarrassment of Riches, “was often equated with the transformation, under divine guidance, of catastrophe into good fortune, infirmity into strength, water into dry land, mud into gold.” Explaining the rationality of these punishments, Schama writes: “The ordeal of water as a determinant of moral authenticity could, within the same cultural frame, be turned upside down to isolate the self-evidently alien. Any crime so abhorrent that its very perpetration announced the impossibility of Dutchness might be punished by a drowning from which no escape was possible.” The spectacular execution of sodomites in the city resonated with a political imaginary that emerged from the middle of the sixteenth through the middle of the seventeenth century in the United Provinces as the Dutch established a political identity of independence from the Spanish empire and the Catholic Church.
The Dutch authorities conceived of sodomy as a practice and habit which circulated—like commodities or contagions—between men. The sodomite was “corrupt, but only because someone else had corrupted him by initiating him into the techniques to which he had willfully consented. In his turn, he could pass those techniques on to others.” When the Dutch wave of persecutions reached its peak in July of 1730, homosexuality received great publicity. Cheap poetry, theological treatises, gossip, pamphlets, and broadsheets shaped the public persona of sodomites as a debauched race with possibly foreign allegiances. They were held responsible for visiting all manner of catastrophe upon the Republic, were to blame for “commercial decline, rising unemployment, the demise of strict church practice, the rising influence of papism and, concomitant with papism, the overwhelming influence of French and Italian culture and mores.”
The circulation of homoeroticism and criminality in popular discourse, broadsides, and pamphlets (especially of a condemnatory tone) betrays multiple structures of feeling in addition to the affects of “fear” and “panic”; this literature generated far more ambivalent identifications among the men of the lower decks, who were the intended audiences of these didactic exempla. In fact, there is an ambiguity surrounding newspaper accounts detailing the blasphemies of the gallows, a proletarian celebration of lawlessness and rebellion that circulated as a structure of feeling within the very same ideologeme of the cautionary tale and exemplary punishment. ⊱