J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Tasteless Dirty Joke from 231 Years Ago

On Friday I quoted Al Young’s message on how the British forces on Long Island became notorious for raping young women—at least notorious among Americans. That reputation may have started soon after they landed in the region in the fall of 1776, judging by their behavior and attitude toward the local citizens.

Here’s part of a letter from Francis Rawdon, Lord Hastings, then a captain among the British army’s Engineers, to his uncle back in Britain:

The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat our men have got here have made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have the most entertaining courts-martial every day. . . .

A girl of this island made a complaint the other day to Lord Percy of her being deflowered, as she said, by some grenadiers. Lord Percy asked her how she knew them to be grenadiers, as it happened in the dark. “Oh, good God,” cried she, “they could be nothing else, and if your Lordship will examine I am sure you will find it so.”
To get the joke, we must recall that grenadiers were on average larger than regular soldiers. And then of course we must look very serious because jokes of this sort are not funny.

The quotation comes from The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776, by John J. Gallagher. The picture comes from NNDB.com’s entry for Lord Hastings.


DigitalRich said...

Tasteless as the joke is, one must admire the level of humor of the so-called "gentlemen" of the era. It required a wide knowledge of the world and current events to link together the elements necessary to get to the joke. A somewhat lost art.


J. L. Bell said...

Well, engineers were supposed to be the smartest sort of officers.

cgd said...

American men also got their chuckles at the expense of rape victims. IIn 1762, John Boyle, a Boston apprentice, commented on a rape conviction:

At the Inferior Court lately held in the County of York Thomas Hammett of Berwick, Plaintiff, recovered of Peter Staple of Kittery, Defendant, One Thousand Pounds Lawful Money Damages, and Costs of Prosecution for the Defendant's Debauching, Ravishing, and Carnally knowing the Plaintiff's Wife - a valuable Wife this, who in a few minutes can make so great an addition to her Husband's Estate.

Anyone who is looking will soon find that the common discourse of the eighteenth century included regular, vicious, misogynist rhetoric. Modern readers understand that eighteenth-century women were regarded as less than men in a host of important ways, but I think that most people don't recognize that the language of sexual violence was so prevalent among eighteenth-century men.

Anonymous said...

lol gotta love those engineers...

dirty jokes

J. L. Bell said...

It's also been suggested that this joke is one that grenadiers would be happiest to tell.