'His punishment, then, was an extension of his crimes.' (Credit: 'Marooned' by Howard Pyle)

October 25, 2023   5 mins

Spare a thought for the sodomites. In Dante’s Inferno they are condemned to run for all eternity through rains of fire. At the Duomo in Florence, you can still see Giorgio Vasari’s immense fresco of The Last Judgment beneath the cupola, where a winged demon anally penetrates a sodomite with a flaming staff. According to Holinshed’s Chronicles, Edward II was murdered in the same way, a form of retribution that cruelly mimicked his sexual relationship with Piers Gaveston.

It is no great leap to suppose that this kind of talionic thinking decided the fate of one Leendert Hasenbosch, a soldier and bookkeeper for the Dutch East India Company, who was marooned on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean on 5 May 1725 as a penalty for sodomy. Hasenbosch had committed an act that was deemed contra naturam — against nature — and had thereby removed himself from the domain of human society. His punishment, then, was an extension of his crimes. He was to live out his days in isolation and despair.

While doing so, Hasenbosch kept a diary. It was discovered by British sailors in an abandoned tent in January 1726. The first of three English translations, Sodomy Punish’d, was published that very year. Its prelude anticipates cynicism on the part of the reader. “I know there are some People who are naturally credulous,” writes the publisher, “and it is probable such will pay but little regard to the Veracity of this Narration.”

The tradition of authors dressing up fiction as fact has never fallen out of fashion. The entire second half of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), for instance, is presented as a document that the author has found. Similarly, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), an epilogue tells us that the book has been transcribed by historians from cassette recordings. Most germane is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which is presented as autobiographical.

But if Sodomy Punish’d is part of that tradition, the author has taken great pains to conceal it. The sheer banality of his quotidian activities — the text includes regular updates on how he secures his tent with stones — would surely be off-putting for readers seeking the thrills of another Robinson Crusoe. Furthermore, we know from corroborating documentation from the Dutch East India Company that an officer called Leendert Hasenbosch was indeed sentenced “to be set ashore, as a villain” on Ascension Island. The original diary has not survived, but the most likely conclusion is that Hasenbosch did keep an account of his final days, even if it was subject to fictionalised embellishments during translation.

Sodomy Punish’d makes for uncomfortable reading. Many of the diary entries recount Hasenbosch’s ongoing search for drinkable water. He was unaware that Ascension Island had two natural springs, and the one source that he happened upon soon dried up. He resorted to drinking his own urine and killing turtles in order to drink their blood. And even those contemporary readers who baulked at his “obnoxious Sin to God and Nature” would surely have been moved by Hasenbosch’s desperate yearning for rescue:

“It would be endless to take Notice, how often my Eyes are cast o the Sea to look for Shipping, and how my Imagination forms every Trifle for a Sail, then look till my Eyes dazzle, and immediatley [sic] the Object disappears.”

The captain had assured him that ships often passed by Ascension Island at this time of year. Was this a harmless lie to comfort a condemned man, or an added cruelty — an attempt to stir hopes that could only ever be dashed?

No specific details of Hasenbosch’s crimes survive in the records. “I was a Sodomite,” he tells us in his diary, but this designation is unclear: “Sodomy” did not necessarily connote sex between males, but had since the medieval period operated as a kind of catch-all term that could encompass infidelity, bestiality, and a variety of other transgressions. John Boswell, author of an excellent book on Christianity and homosexuality, discounts the term as “so vague” as to be “virtually useless”.

Even usury could be deemed a form of sodomy. In Thomas Pie’s Usuries Spright Coniured (1604), we are told that “to make money breed… is against nature: for money hath no such gendring, or procreating nature, being naturally barren”. The usurer finds a method to make money reproduce, whereas the sodomite removes the reproductive possibility from the act of sexual intercourse. “Therefore,” Pie writes, usury “is called a kinde of Sodomie.” It is no coincidence that Dante depicts the sodomites and the usurers as occupying the same sub-circle of Hell.

Theologians have never been able to agree on the original sins of Sodom that provoked God’s wholesale destruction of the city. While “sodomite” has long been established as a pejorative synonym for a male homosexual, passages in Genesis and Ezekiel suggest that the destruction of Sodom was due to a range of other sins, including pride, dishonesty and inhospitality. Besides, this story of an attempted gang-rape of two angels, and a father who offers his daughters as satiation for the mob, is surely too bizarre to qualify as a straightforward cautionary tale against the consequences of sex between men.

Especially because sodomites could be women. In the marginal gloss to Deuteronomy 23.17 in the King James Bible of 1611, we find the term “sodomitess” offered as an alternative to “whore”. A 13th-century French legal treatise (Li Livres di jostice et de plet) cites either castration or clitoridectomy as punishment for sodomy, depending on the sex of the perpetrator. Most strangely, the jurist Edward Coke (1552-1634) wrote that women who commit bestiality were guilty of sodomy and liable to execution in accordance with the Buggery Act of 1533, specifying the rather curious example of “a great Lady” who “had committed buggery with a Baboon, and conceived by it”.

For all these ambiguities, we can be fairly certain that Hasenbosch was punished for homosexual activities. An Authentick Relation, the second version of the diary to be published, clarifies that his sin was that of a homosexual nature:

“I hope this my Punishment in this World may suffice for my most heinous Crime of making use of my Fellow-Creature to satisfy my Lust, whom the Almighty Creator had ordain’d another Sex for”.

And although Sodomy Punish’d offers no explicit details, there are hints that he had been intimate with another man. He claims to be haunted by an apparition, “the Resemblance of a Man I had been well acquainted with”, who materialises so often that he soon becomes acclimatised to his presence. Hasenbosch is “afraid to mention” his name.

Hasenbosch is tormented not only by this apparition but also by various “devilish Spirits” throughout his time on Ascension Island. Of course, we must be alert to the possibility that such events are fictitious embellishments on the part of the publisher. But it is also possible that these were hallucinations brought on by severe dehydration and hunger, perhaps projections of a guilty conscience. In Sodomy Punish’d, one of these spirits identifies Hasenbosch as a “Bougre”, the Anglo-Norman root of “bugger”; like “sodomite”, this term was linked broadly with heresy and other abominations.

An Authentick Relation and Sodomy Punish’d read like translations of the same text, though we have no way of knowing which is the more accurate. It may be that the publisher of Sodomy Punish’d excised the direct references to homosexuality out of prudence. It is equally feasible that the publisher of An Authentick Relation invented such features as a warning against readers who shared Hasenbosch’s inclinations. Certainly, the added emphasis on ghosts and demons in the latter text would suggest that its editors were keen to capitalise on the diary’s moralising impact.

There was a third translation, too: The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify’d. More judgemental than the other two, it insists that Hasenbosch’s skeleton was discovered along with his diary. For added dramatic effect, this version finishes mid-sentence, as though he perished in the act of writing. There is even an illustration of the skeleton splayed out on the shore. All of this was presumably to reassure the God-fearing reader that our narrator got his comeuppance. But it was a lie; Hasenbosch’s remains were never found. His eventual fate is unknown.

In some ways, the uncertainty is apt. Much of gay history is a patchwork affair, with the lives of same-sex attracted individuals often misrepresented or erased entirely. We are left mostly with intimations and glimpses, and the diary of Leendert Hasenbosch is one such example. An added note to Sodomy Punish’d speculates that he might have committed suicide, or that he might have been rescued by a passing ship. At the risk of incurring the wrath of God, I do hope that this particular sodomite lived to see another day.

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath