Essay Prize Series part 4: European Conceptualisations of Southeast Asian Sexual Diversity, c. 1590–1640

The 2016 edition of the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize competition attracted submissions from the UK, US, Australia, Russia, and Luxembourg. The academic committee, consisting of Professors Daniel Carey, Felipe Fernández­ Armesto, Peter Hulme, Claire Jowitt, Joyce Lorimer, and Sebastian Sobecki, has selected Nailya Shamgunova‘s essay European Conceptualisations of Southeast Asian Sexual Diversity, c. 1590–1640 as this year’s winning entry Ms Shamgunova will receive the award worth £750 at the Hakluyt Society’s 2016 Annual General Meeting, held in London on 22 June. Ahead of this event, she is glad to share the main conclusions of her prize-winning research on this platform, focusing on the contested issue of “sodomy” in seventeenth-century Anglophone travel writing. 


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** Missed this year’s competition? Watch the Hakluyt Society’s website and social media channels, as the call for submissions for the 2017  Hakluyt Society Essay Prize will be announced shortly **

My research focuses on the study of sexual diversity in a transcultural context. The ways in which people from different cultures understood each other’s sexual practices are fascinating. I used Anglophone travel accounts that refer to ‘sodomy’ in Southeast Asia in order to uncover some of the processes through which knowledge of Southeast Asian sexual practices was disseminated and adapted to an Anglophone worldview. I read primary travel accounts alongside other writings referring to sodomy – from medical texts and legal acts against sodomy to new editions of Aristotle and general cosmographies.

The broader context of my study is the issue of contact between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ societies and how European understandings of those ‘non-European’ societies were constructed. Although its definition goes beyond Edward Said’s original thesis, the term ‘Orientalism‘ has been used to label the argument that European observers constructed an image of a non-European society to deliberately present it in a negative light.  I would like to counter and nuance these arguments in relation to the supposed ‘exoticising’ of non-European bodies (see Schmidt: 2015).

This study of Anglophone views on Southeast Asian sexual diversity offers the hypothesis that Anglophone observers of the region did not use ‘sodomy’ as a tool to represent local societies as inferior nearly as much as they could have done in the context of the realities of regional sexual diversity. Placing their works in the context of the wider Anglophone discourse on the connection between sodomy and nature in discussions of both the human body and political authority shows that that discourse possessed the necessary tools to read local sexual practices in a more negative light. Rather, a process of cultural translation of local practices into notions and anxieties about sodomy in wider Anglophone discourse took place.

My argument can be demonstrated using a case study of Anglophone explanations of practices of genital modification among men in Pegu and Siam. A large number of travel accounts pay special attention to ‘penis bells’, which the local men supposedly wore. The chief way of conceptualising penis bells was as a measure of prevention of sodomy, sanctioned by the local authorities. Both Ralph Fitch [See: Hakluyt Society Extra Series, 1-12] and Jan Huygen van Linschoten [See: Hakluyt Society First Series, 71-72) stated that the custom was ‘ordained’, and Francis Pretty elaborated, saying that ‘this custome was granted at the request of the women of the Countrey, who finding their men to be giuen to the fovvle sinne of Sodomie, desired some remedie against that mischiefe, and obtained this before named of the Magistrates’.  A later account by Thomas Herbert explained that ‘they haue beene (in foregoing times) wicked Sodomites; which filthy sinne was since corrected by a Queene Rectrix’, who, ‘vpon paine of death’, commanded her subjects to wear the bells.

Shamgunova image blog
The inhabitant from Pegu is the seated figure on the far left. Source: Linschoten, Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten, naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien (Amsterdam: 1596)

These accounts share the idea that some form of legislation was implemented by local authorities and rulers to prevent sodomy, and that it was effective, rather than the fact that Southeast Asian people were simply ‘sodomites’ and thus somehow inferior. Elsewhere in European discourse, such legislation was associated with ‘civilization’. As Richard C. Trexler argues, Garcilaso de la Vega [See: Hakluyt Society 1st Series, 41 and 45] and Antonio de Calancha presented the Incas as a civilizing imperial force, which stamped out previously prevalent sodomy in the Andes.  By representing a local authority as opposed to sodomy, Europeans could both emphasise that the role of civilization is to eradicate vice and that eradicating vice validated a society’s claim to be civilized. A similar process was happening in the descriptions of Southeast Asia. As there are no known indigenous sources that confirm the role of bells as measures for preventing sodomy, it remains unclear whether Anglophone authors were trying to translate local sexualities into their own terms or simply provide a rationale behind an unfamiliar practice.

However, the emphasis on the role of authority in eradicating sodomy, rather than on sodomy itself, is significant. It is a way of presenting the society in question in a less negative light.  A different explanation behind the practice, such presenting it as a marker of social identity, would have been more damaging to Pegu in Anglophone eyes. Prevention of sodomy allowed Anglophone authors to rationalise the practice in a way which was sensitive towards the local people.

One of the most interesting things to come out of my research was that when it comes to ‘sodomy’, it is very difficult to establish the boundaries of ‘Europe’ vs ‘non-Europe’ in the first place – for example, the most ‘sodomitical’ nations in Anglophone discourse were the Italians and the Ottomans. However, the role of religion in the process of formation of these stereotypes is ambiguous. Establishing the cultural boundaries of ‘sodomitical nations’ offers an alternative view of the notion of Europeans necessarily exoticising ‘non-European’ bodies and sexual practices. Exploring these notions further is the main purpose of my future research.


Nailya Shamgunova (University of Cambridge) did her B.A. in History and M.Phil in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge, where she is due to start a PhD on Anglophone concepts of Ottoman sexual diversity this October. She is interested in various aspects of the early modern period in a transcultural context and has presented her work at a variety of academic venues. Nailya has volunteered for a Russian LGBT organisation and enjoys reading contemporary world literature in her spare time.


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