“On This Desolate Island”: Sodomy Punish’d (1726)

On May 5, 1724, a few years after Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, Leendert Hasenbosch was abandoned on Ascension, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic. A soldier working for the Dutch East India Company, he had seen the world by then, mooring in Jakarta and Kochi, working his way up to the status of corporal and naval bookkeeper. One day, he was caught having relations with another man, an event whose details are largely lost to the historical record. While the other man was seemingly executed, Hasenbosch was marooned to punish him for his sodomy — a cluster of sexual acts that were prosecuted with increasing frequency and severity in both the Netherlands and England as the 1700s wore on. It was a pirate’s fate for a company man.

They leave him with almost nothing: a cask of water, two buckets, an old frying pan, and a few other tools. He builds a tent on the beach and starts to explore, keeping a dated record of his agony, which readers would have first encountered in published form as Sodomy Punish’d (1726). On May 8, the excitement of the day involves beating a turtle to death with the butt of his ammunitionless musket. On May 9, he hacks up the turtle with a hatchet and dries its flesh in the sun. The next day he plants onions and beans. The language soon grows taut: early entries detailing prayers and adventure decay into eventless silence. “May 16. I lookt out as before, but caught no Boobys.” “May 18 to 21. Nothing remarkable; except catching a few Boobys.” Swaths of time are given up to fantasy. The first week of June is condensed into one entry detailing how the sea’s whitecaps can resemble the sails of rescuing ships, which luff momentarily and then vanish into the waves once again. “June 9. Found nothing; meditated on a future State.” A week later, he contemplates his sentence as a sodomite — “I am so tempted that I am not able to express myself” — and screaming hallucinations attack him in the night, whose cries are “mixt with such Blasphemous Discourse, that no humane Creature can express, nor dare I write it with my Pen.” Soon he is back to boobys and blankness. “June 21. This Morning and Evening lookt out but discover’d nothing.” “June 23. to 27. I constantly look’d out, but to no Purpose.” Come July, he is out of water, and declares himself “almost dead with Thirst”, but soldiers on, gathering rain, looking for the pools that keep the island’s creatures alive. By August, he is drinking his own urine mixed with turtle blood yet remains aware of his audience. “The Reader may imagine to how miserable Circumstances I was reduc’d on this desolate Island, since Necessity oblig’d me to try this Method.” This carries on through September — his focus shifting almost entirely toward liquids. The final entry, for October 9–14, simply reads: “I liv’d as before.” And then the text suddenly ends, with a jarring third-person intrusion:

The Journal ends here abruptly, whether urg’d by increasing Despair, he laid violent hands on his Life, or whether he died by Accident, Sickness, Thirst, or was delivered by some Ship that might touch at any part of the Island, is yet a Mistery.

Hasenbosch’s manuscript was discovered by the East India Company vessel Compton in January 1726. The crew found his camp and papers, but there was no trace of a body. As the naval captain John Balchen recorded in the logbook for the James and Mary, a ship that reached Ascension a few days after the Compton: “Here we found a tent with Bedding and Several Books with some writings by which we find there was a Dutch man turned on Shore here out of a Dutch ship for being guilty of Sodomy in Last May. Could not find him so believed he perished for want of water.” Although the manuscript is by all accounts authentic, at least in its existence, if not in its transmission — as evidenced by a 2002 archival breakthrough by the Dutch scholar Michiel Koolbergen, who recovered Hasenbosch’s identity — the proliferation of versions has clouded the historical record. Titled Sodomy Punish’d on its initial publication in 1726, the diary appeared in many reprints and two later variations: An Authentick Relation of the Many Hardships and Sufferings of a Dutch Sailor (1728) and The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify'd (1740). With Hasenbosch’s original manuscript lost, it is difficult to determine how much of his account was posthumously embellished by editors for literary effect. There are significant differences between the variations. The 1728 text is far more eloquent; the 1740 text is peppered with biblical allusions. It’s not surprising that, for many years, some scholars speculated that these volumes were enhanced versions of a narrative that was itself fiction — turtles all the way down.

Skelton on a beachScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Apocryphal engraving of Leendert Hasenbosch’s skeleton from an edition of The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify'd (ca. 1740). The East India Company never recorded discovering the Dutchman’s bones — Source.

There are indeed some troubling inconsistencies in Sodomy Punish’d. Green turtles usually land on Ascension between December and June, and not during the late summer months when Hasenbosch was drinking their blood. The island was a popular place to dock for French, English, and Dutch sailors returning from the East Indies. Hasenbosch’s punishment was thus likely meant as a spell of contemplation and not the death sentence it became. But why didn’t a ship happen upon the castaway in those agonizing five months, a detail that Ascension chronicler Duff Hart-Davis finds “exceedingly unlucky”? Finally, there is the longstanding association of Ascension with written testimony. As early as 1673, a Dominican missionary described the remote isle as covered in deposited texts, an observation echoed by many later sailors. “Those that sail this way are so curious, as to write Letters, put them into Bottles of thick Glass, and leave them in a safe place but visible, by which the next Comers have intelligence who is gone by”. With these precursors, Sodomy Punish’d starts to read like a message in a bottle crafted for readers who could not directly experience imperial exploration.

Sodomy Punish’d and its subsequent variations fed the burgeoning literary genre of castaway narratives or “Robinsonades”. (Indeed, some historians speculate that the many similarities between Sodomy Punish’d and Robinson Crusoe were knowingly inserted by publishers to increase sales.) As Joseph Bristow writes in Empire Boys, this literary form fashioned its young male reader into a “responsible citizen . . . with the future of the world lying on his shoulders.” Here the message is prohibitory: adhere to the sexual norms of empire — at least, do not get caught deviating — or you may end up on an island, alone. The preface to Sodomy Punish’d refers to a recent sodomy trial in London that resulted in the execution of three men; The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify'd appeared in the wake of the Utrecht sodomy trials, a period when hundreds of Dutch men were systematically executed for their sexuality. With the arrival of the Napoleonic code, homosexuality was decriminalized in the Netherlands from 1811 — it would take more than 150 years before something similar could be said for England.

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