Historical Context for Pirates 5

I’m a little behind the times at the moment. I’ve just returned to the LA area after over three weeks of travel, which included a great visit to London to see friends and present at a conference and also Tel Aviv to visit family. As a result, I did not see the trailer for the 5th film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Dead Men Tell No Tales) until last night when I saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast (it’s awesome, go see it).

You can check out the trailer here on YouTube.

Based on the trailer, the film is up to its usual swashbuckling high jinks. Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), prolific pirate hunter [a few minutes on Google and Google Books has convinced me he didn’t exist] has returned from the dead to seek revenge upon Jack Sparrow. There are throwbacks to the whole franchise. Barbarossa is back, played by the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Like the previous film, we have warnings that those who die not necessarily stay dead. I’ll even wager a guess that the young sailor might be the son of William Turner and Elizabeth Swan (seemingly absent from this film?).

2 minutes, 35 seconds does not provide much to contextualize the movie, but there was one bit that made me sit up in my seat and pay attention 56 seconds into the trailer:

Barbarossa: I have heard stories of a Spanish captain who has hunted and killed thousands of men.

Salazar: No, no, no, no – men? No, no, no, pirates!


Captain Salazar…afflicted with greyscale?

Captain Salazar’s career as a pirate hunter combined with his posthumous rage and revenge has caused him to completely dehumanize pirates. This is not out of step with the pirate extermination campaign that took place during the early eighteenth century when the British sought to eliminate Atlantic pirates altogether.

Who were pirates? The majority of Atlantic pirates were from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.[1] For the most part, pirates were ex-privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships and paid in booty) who continued to rob ships during peacetime. Others were former merchants, sailors, or members of the Navy who did not want to work under strict laws. Some were sailors who only engaged in piracy for a brief period of time to quickly gain wealth. The number of pirates who specifically chose to engage in piracy for the purpose of robbing and committing murder on the high seas was surprisingly small.

However, the greatest insult of piracy was the willful attack against their sovereign nation. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century laws against piracy referred to a term commonly attributed to Cicero: hostis humanis generis. During the age of the Roman Republic, Cicero wrote that pirates were ‘enemies of all’. Over time, new interpretations of this phrase changed its definition to ‘enemies of mankind’.[2] This is because pirates cast off their allegiance to their home countries and declared themselves of no nation and as a result, their capture meant certain death.

The goal of the Admiralty was to totally eradicate piracy from the waters and they were largely successful thanks to the expansion of Admiralty courts into the American colonies and because of an increased naval presence throughout the Atlantic. Whether this new Pirates film goes into detail about this or not remains to be seen, but I’m looking forward to the shenanigans of the new film and I’m curious to see how the idea of hostis humanis generis plays out. To that effect, stay tuned for when I eventually review the movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales comes out 26 May 2017.


Further reading:

Amadeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Geneologies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015)

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004)

[1] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates During the Golden Age (Boston, 2004), 51

[2] Amedeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015), 11 – 12.

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International Women’s Day: Madame Cheng

In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to write about a female pirate who left her own legacy in history. Much has been written about the notorious female pirates who sailed throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic, so I decided to write about another woman who became known as a pirate queen: Madame Cheng of the South China Seas.

(I should note that I am writing this in Los Angeles International Airport and I only get 45 minutes of free Wi-Fi, so I hope you’ll forgive me for an obviously hastily-written post!)


Madame Cheng was active during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and is said to be one of the most powerful pirates in history. At the height of her power, she commanded over 300 ships and anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 pirates.

Little is known about her early life but it is believed that she was born in 1775 in Guangdong. She worked as a Cantonese prostitute until a group of pirates kidnapped her. It is unknown what happened to her after her capture until she emerged in 1801 as the wife of Cheng I, who was a powerful pirate captain. Cheng I belonged to a family of pirates with origins that traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Together Cheng and his wife managed to create a large allied fleet of Cantonese pirates that became known as the Red Flag Fleet. Madame Cheng’s rise as a pirate co-commander was not unusual. There was a long tradition in China of women who rose to power through marriage. It is also likely that Madame Cheng would have been skilled in the ways of the sea: entire communities lived and worked on boats in ports and rivers throughout Southern China and women played an active role in sailing.

By 1804, under the command of Cheng I and his wife, the Red Flag Fleet was the most powerful pirate fleet in all of China. At this point, the fleet could be better described as a confederation of 400 junks and 70,000 men that sailed under 7 flag. They even operated under a constitution signed by 7 pirate leaders in the South China Seas. However, this would change three years later when Cheng I died off the coast of Vietnam.

Madame Cheng swiftly moved to take over the entire command of the Red Flag Fleet. She married a captured fisherman who had respect amongst the pirates and together they carried out strict code of conduct not unlike the pirates who operated in the West Indies. What makes Madame Cheng particularly noteworthy is her treatment of female prisoners. Women had to be treated with civility and rape was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Even for consensual sexual relations, sailors had to receive written permission by Madame Cheng lest be they be thrown overboard.

Madame Cheng is unique in that she is one of the few pirates in history that chose to retire and was successful in doing so. In 1810, the Chinese government promised amnesty and pardon to all Chinese pirates. At this point she amassed so much wealth that she decided the time was right to end her career as a pirate queen. She took the government’s offer and kept her loot. She used her wealth to open a gambling house, which she operated until death in 1844 at the age of 69.


Further Reading:

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York, 1996)

Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (New York, 2000)

Dian Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790 – 1810 (Palo Alto, 1987)

CR Pennell, Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader (New York, 2001)




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Captain Kidd and the Myth of Buried Treasure

Pirates have had a lot of visibility throughout 20th and 21st-century popular culture. When people think of pirates, they often think of eye patches, wooden legs, and or some incarnation of Jack Sparrow. This imagery largely stems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, who’s Long John Silver embodied this very image. However, the one aspect about piracy that has dominated their popular image above all else is the idea of “buried treasure.”

This may come as a surprise, but pirates generally did not leave hoards of riches and jewels hidden throughout the world. Gold and jewels are heavy and ships had to sail long distances at high speeds. When pirates robbed ships, they were interested in commodities such as spices, silks, alcohol, medicine, and food.[1] They used these items to trade and sell on-shore and this is how they gained their wealth.

If that is the case, then where did the idea of buried treasure come from? The origin of this myth stems from a real pirate named Captain William Kidd, who was executed for his crimes in May 1701.

Captain William Kidd was not always a pirate and he never considered himself to be one. He worked as a privateer for the East India Company. While sailing in the East Indies, he robbed a ship called the Quedah Merchant, which reportedly had a vast amount of gold, cash, and jewels. Ever since the English became involved in trade in the East Indies, piracy had increased and the Mughals were angry about the loss of their goods. The stolen Quedah Merchant was the last straw and the Mughals told the English that if they did not capture Kidd, they would cease all trade and consider his crime to be an act of war. The English could not afford to lose this trade route so they began the first manhunt for a pirate in history.[2]

Kidd was unaware of this and continued to sail as directed. As a privateer for the East India Company, he had letter of marque that allowed him to capture ships should they benefit the Crown. However, Kidd was a polarizing leader and he and his crew disagreed on almost every aspect of their job. This led to a fight between him and his first mate. The fight ended with Kidd striking the first mate across the head with an iron bucket, killing him almost instantly. Now Kidd faced mutiny and a murder charge. He needed help and refuge so he sent word to his friend in New York, the Earl of Bellomont, who offered him safety. Unfortunately for Kidd, Bellomont had already agreed to turn him over to the English because he did not want to be known as an associate to a pirate.[3]

Bellomont had heard from an acquaintance who claimed that Kidd’s prizes totalled over £10,000 worth of gold and goods. However, upon Kidd’s capture, evidence of this treasure’s existence could never be found.[4] Rumours grew and they were helped by letters written to the Lords Justices in England from the East India Company that claimed that Kidd had sailed to America “with a great Treasure of Gold, Silver, Jewells, and other Merchandize being the Produce of his Piracies.”[5] However, Bellomont later denied the existence of any pieces of treasure despite a newspaper report dated September 1699 that claimed Kidd had sent Bellomont’s wife several thousand pounds worth of jewels.[6]

This story circulated throughout the American colonies and when it became known that many members of Kidd’s crew were on shore in Philadelphia, the governor of Pennsylvania (William Penn) that he had never seen “one piece of silver” and that the gold taken from his ship only measured 3 ounces – hardly close to the amount in which it was claimed.[7]

Many investigations between 1699 and 1700 yielded nothing. There was no treasure to be found. However, by the time of Kidd’s death in 1701, news had circulated about a rumoured buried treasure for over three years. The idea that there could be a hoard of wealth somewhere in the world available for the taking spurred a great interest in piracy in England the American colonies.

Rumours about Kidd’s buried treasure continued into the nineteenth century when newspapers claimed that Kidd’s inventory lists had emerged, which contained gold dust, gold bars, gold and silver coins, and precious stones.[8] These rumours came to a head in 1849 when a set of maps, known as the Kidd-Palmer Charts, was “discovered”. These maps pinpointed the precise location of Kidd’s buried treasure in the China Seas compete with an X on the spot.[9] Despite the fact that Kidd had never sailed anywhere near the China Seas, people leapt at this information. Expeditions were funded in attempts to find this treasure as recently as 1951 until the British Museum proved these maps to be a hoax.[10]


TNA MEPO 2/9166 (photo taken by the author)

These long-standing rumours were a direct inspiration for the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who used historical accounts of pirates as direct inspirations for Treasure Island. It is likely that the rumours of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure directly influenced his novel and thus carried on our image of pirates’ gold and treasure maps where “x marked the spot.”

Neither Captain Kidd nor any other pirates ever buried a hoard of treasure and they were not even that interested in gold. However, thanks to rumours about Kidd’s treasure dating back to the end of the 1600s and the popularity of Treasure Island, we now associate pirates with gold and jewels.


Further readings about Captain Kidd, buried treasure, and the influence of Treasure Island:

  • Graham Harris, Treasure and Intrigue: The Legacy of Captain Kidd (Toronto, 2002).
  • Neil Rennie, Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates (Oxford, 2013).
  • Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986).



[1] Liz Covart, “Episode 099: Mark Hanna, Pirates & Pirate Nests in the British Atlantic World,” Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-099-mark-hanna-pirates-pirate-nests-british-atlantic-world/

[2] For a full summary of Kidd’s life, see Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn (New York: 1999), 440 – 452.

[3] Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986), 194.

[4] “Governor Lord Bellomont to the Council of Trade and Plantations,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 17:621 (July 8, 1699).

[5] “To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of England The humble Petition of the Governour & Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies,” BL, IOR/H/36 (September 21, 1699).

[6] The Post Boy, September 7 – 9, 1699.

[7] “William Penn to Mr. Secretary Vernon,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 18:156 (February 27, 1700).

[8] “Captain Kidd, the Pirate,” The Charter, June 30, 1839.

[9] “From the Springfield Republican,” The Semi-Weekly Eagle, February 15, 1849.

[10] “Attempts to raise money to finance expeditions to search for Captain Kidd’s Treasure in the China Seas,” TNA, MEPO 2/9166.

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Hello and welcome to my site!

I use this blog to write about historical film and the media along with observations and advice about postgraduate work. I’m a teacher and a freelance writer and I am available to write for you and to consult for television/film in any area of history. I have written for History Today and appeared on the BBC to discuss pirates and their public executions. You can find more information about my research, publications, and media experience through the different tabs on this site.

I am a historian of early America and the Atlantic world with a PhD recently completed at King’s College London. My expertise is in legal history, piracy, state power, violence, print culture, and polite society. For more information about my academic work and interests, check out the “About” tab on this site.

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Piracy and The Princess Bride

Last month I wrote a blog for the great website, Raiders of the Lost Archives, about how the image of the pirate in the film The Princess Bride proves that piracy will never go out of style. You can check it out here. This blog is part one of a two-part article I will write about the image of piracy in popular film.

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My 5 Must-Reads

Recently I wrote a blog for my history department at King’s College London describing five texts that have inspired my interest in Atlantic and pirate history and also how these books have shaped my research. I also have to give a shout-out to the history department at California State University Northridge, which sparked my interest in early modern Atlantic history in 2008.

I’m going to get back to blogging on here soon and I even have a few in the pipeline! The radio-silence has been because I’ve had my head down as I’ve slogged through the writing-up process of my PhD. It’s not done yet, but I’ve glanced up to grab some air and hopefully can get back to some proper communication soon.

In the meantime, here’s a link to my blog article about my five must-reads for research about early modern Atlantic history and piracy. Hope you like it!


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The Many Deaths of Captain Kidd

I’ve written a short article about the legend of the pirate, Captain Kidd for the History Matters section in the magazine, History Today. If you don’t have a copy of the magazine, you can read it online here for free. I wrote the article in response to the finding of his lost treasure off the coast of Madagascar on 7 May 2015.

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Black Sails: III

I’m late with this one! Apologies – it’s been a busy few weeks with workshops and writing. Before I get started, however, you may have read that the lost treasure of Captain Kidd has supposedly been found. I have thoughts and opinions on it, which I am keeping quiet about for now but hopefully not for too long (all in good time!). Until then, let me direct you to this great blog post about why the treasure is most likely a hoax.

The third episode of Black Sails is all about pirate politics. More threats of mutiny, more contention over captaincy, and even more betrayal.

[Side-note – I really wish the previous episode’s recap would stop showing the Urca de Lima’s schedule getting ripped out of the Captain’s Log. It hurts too much. I can’t even find a still online of that action.]

The episode starts the following morning with Captain Flint waking up at home and still bleeding once he starts moving. Miranda seems exasperated but she’s happy he’s found the Urca de Lima. Ooh, what does she know? Suddenly a cart pulls up bearing the unconscious [!] form of Richard Guthrie. So apparently he’s not dead! But he needs to be hidden.

Not dead!

Not dead!

Jack Rackham is approached by members of Charles Vane’s crew. They know he lost them five thousand pesos worth of pearls are they are NOT happy. Dear oh dear.

Later that morning, John Silver writing out the schedule for the Urca de Lima in Eleanor’s office. She along with Captain Flint, Quartermaster Gage, and Boatswain Billy all watch him with disgust. When Silver finishes, Captain Flint notices that the schedule is incomplete. Ugh, of course it is. Silver just grins and says that why should he write out the rest of it? There will be no reason to keep him alive after that! He proposes that they let him return to the crew and allow him his share in exchange for his life once they reach the Urca de Lima. They reluctantly agree but no one is happy about this arrangement. I don’t blame them. Slimy Silver.

In the meantime, to keep John Silver out of the way of preparations (and probably just because he’s John Silver), Billy takes him to Randall the cook, who is peeling potatoes. Billy tells a quick lie and says that Silver lost a wager on the ship and his punishment was to help peel potatoes all day. Randall points out that they’re not allowed to wager on board. That’s right, Randall! They certainly aren’t as gambling goes against one of the pirate codes. (I’d go on, but I’ve covered the topic of pirate codes here.) To pass the time, Silver casually asks Randall about what the men think of Singleton’s ‘thievery’ and feigns surprise when it appears that Randall and some others are not convinced of Singleton’s guilt. What mischief is Silver up to now?

Eleanor has agreed to finance the expedition to find the Urca de Lima but there’s one problem. She cannot actually afford to do so, especially as there are no guns left on the island. (Not the pistol-kind.) So she swallows her pride and approaches her father, who refuses to speak to her. I thought she believed him to be dead? Anyways. Before she leaves she points out that if he does not help her then they will be bankrupt within the month and he’ll be forced to return to Boston with the threat of death – or worse, boredom – hanging over his head.

Captain Flint knows that he cannot lead the expedition alone so he sends Quartermaster Gage on an errand to find an additional ship and crew. It turns out that the man he needs to speak with is none other that Captain Benjamin Hornigold, real-life pirate-turned-pirate-hunter who famously captured Stede Bonnet and Jack Rackham in 1719. I love it when real pirates make it onto this show. It gets me all giddy – like the celebrity cameos in Pitch Perfect. Hornigold is sitting pretty in what looks like an abandoned fort on a precious chair from one of his first prizes. Ah, to be a retired pirate.

Hornigold DGAF.

Hornigold DGAF.

Hornigold agrees to lend his ship, the Royal Lion, and his crew under the temporary captaincy of Quartermaster Gage. All is looking good for Gage until Jack Rackham approaches him and points out that his crew will be likely to mutiny once they reach the Urca de Lima and that they’ll be desperate for a captain who’s at least thirty years younger than him. I don’t like where this is going. Aaand sure enough, Gage finds Flint and brings about the shocking suggestion of making Charles Vane captain of the Royal Lion with his crew because they have more guns and then could be certain to remain second to Captain Flint. Flint is not amused by this suggestion, especially when he sees that Gage is serious. He is NOT willing to consider it! [Yeah, right.]

Surprise, surprise, Charles Vane isn’t happy about the idea either until Rackham points out that it might put him back in Eleanor’s favour. Because Vane’s blood doesn’t really flow to his head, this is all it takes to convince him. [At this point I made a note that the plot is dragging in this episode. Proof that pirates weren’t all swashbuckling and drinking. It was a lot of work and politics to be a pirate.] Since Rackham is the poshest pirate of the lot, he’s the natural choice to lead negotiations.

Just a reminder that Rackham is the only pirate who feels the need to wear sunglasses.

Just a reminder that Rackham is the only pirate who feels the need to wear sunglasses.

Rackham wants a share per man. Gage suggests a portion of a share per man with the bonus that Vane’s crew can have first pick of the ‘interesting’ loot. Rackham agrees…if Richard Guthrie is made guarantor instead of Eleanor to keep it ‘impartial.’ Flint and Eleanor are less than thrilled but Vane agrees to this suggestion.

John Silver’s side-plot continues when he shows Boatswain Billy the men who are on the brink of mutiny because of their suspicions about Singleton’s innocence. Even though Billy knows the truth, the truth is not to anyone’s advantage right now. It turns out one of the biggest opponents within the crew is a man known as Turk. Turk insists that Singleton was not a thief but his loyalty wavers a bit too quickly when Billy lies and says he saw Singleton steal the page out of the Captain’s Log (stop it!). It turns out Turk is afraid that he and the rest of the crew will be disposable to Captain Flint because no one knows about Mrs Barlow, aka Miranda, who I thought was Flint’s wife but now I know nothing!

So who is Mrs Barlow? She’s clearly keeping house for Flint and she has good social standing because the local pastor stops by as he does every Wednesday to ask her opinion about his sermon. However, he’s not too pleased when she disagrees with him about how love is not a sin and he casually mentions how rumours of a nearby naval ship have reached the parishioners. It appears that colonial rule may reassert itself and that righteousness will prevail. When he not-so-subtlety hints that he knows of her relationship with Flint, she dismisses him.

Mrs Barlow.

Mrs Barlow.

Speaking of complicated relationships, Jack Rackham tells Charles Vane that he needs to clean up last night’s work. What work is that? They go inside a barn where we find Max naked and curled up in a foetal position with cuts and bruises all over her face. It appears that Anne Bonny lurked a bit too well at the end of the last episode and had Max caught before she could escape Nassau. Vane tells Rackham to have her in a boat that evening. As the afternoon passes, Eleanor goes to Vane’s tent and seduces him…why? Because he kept a cool head during negotiations? I can usually sniff out hate-arousal pretty quickly in television and films but this took me surprisingly off-guard. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprise since Vane grossly alluded to their sexy past in the last episode. This will not end well.

Time to go on a historical tangent. It’s refreshing that sexuality isn’t a thing in this show. It just is and makes perfect sense given the rough lives of those who lived in the early modern West Indies. Local governors and businesses supported pirates, as we’ve seen Eleanor do, to get goods and money from outside the West Indies. Many men who worked as sailors were pirates and thus led unpredictable lives. If they had relationships and families, their return and continued presence on the islands were limited at best. Many women who were not slaves and lived outside of plantations or did not work with the church had few ways to support themselves. If they were lucky, they could help run local taverns. If not, prostitution. Life in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, was so difficult that it was often referred to as the ‘Sodom of the Sea’ until the Royal Navy stepped in an re-established British rule.

Anyways, that night Rackham leads Max out of the barn but unfortunately Vane has given his crew permission to ‘have’ her. It turns out this means a gang-rape, which is stopped by a furious Eleanor. Eleanor accuses Vane of allowing this to happen. To get her revenge, she tells his men that they have a choice: choose a new captain or leave Vane’s command and join Flint’s or else she won’t ever finance any of them ever again, leaving them beggars. It works – the crew walks over to Flint (except Anne Bonny, getting her lurk on again, who is threatened with death by Vane if she leaves him). Bringing down Charles Vane’s command does not matter to Max. She tells Eleanor that this wouldn’t have happened if she had let her leave Nassau when she wanted to.

Lesbian relationships are not allowed to be happy.

Lesbian relationships are not allowed to be happy.

And cue the end-of-episode montage of Richard Guthrie and Mrs Barlow reading Marcus Aurelias aloud together while Max and Eleanor stare off hatefully into the distance as John Silver watches Billy convince Turk to keep his loyalty to Flint.

Next time! The men must sail within two days or they’ll never catch up to the Urca de Lima! Will Anne Bonny do more than lurk? Will she have a line that isn’t ‘I want to fuck’? Stay tuned!

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Black Sails: II

In the second episode of Black Sails, things are heating up as Captain Flint realises that John Silver is the thief he’s looking for. Meanwhile, Charles Vane threatens Max to get him the schedule for Urca de Lima or else he’ll kill her. Eleanor has decided to work with Captain Flint and demands Max to give them the schedule, causing a rift in their relationship. Also, pirates’ accents and historical timelines. Intrigued? Let’s move forward!

But before I go ahead with the review, there was just one thing I wanted to clarify about WHY I’m doing these reviews. I have no agenda to search for the inaccuracies. I have no desire to ‘hate-watch’ anything about pirates. My goal is to find the uses of television shows like these and see what we can take away from history in popular media. We love history and shows like these are important!

The episode starts off the morning after the previous show’s events. Eleanor gets out of bed and we learn that her father, Guthrie (who was killed in the previous episode, remember?) has not been to Nassau in five years and she’s been running the tavern/brothel in his stead ever since. However, with the Royal Navy rapidly encroaching, she fears for the stability of both her business and the island. She needs some form of economic security but it’s remaining just out of reach as the threat of British law looms closer.

And on the note of elusive economic security, Captain Flint admits to Billy the Boatswain and the Quartermaster that he knows Singleton didn’t have the stolen page but he also knows that the thief had been in his office and therefore has to be amongst the crew. The Quartermaster remembers that he met John Silver in the armoury of the ship they plundered (opening of the first episode) and that Silver said the dead man in there had committed suicide. OR HAD HE? Looks like the question of thievery has been solved! Too bad John Silver has excellent powers of observation because he immediately jumps ship when realises he’s been discovered. Once back at Nassau, Silver runs to Max and says that Flint is onto him and that they have to leave for Port Royal that night.  At this point I can’t decide if Silver is smart or if he’s the dumbest man on the show (you’ll know what I mean by the end of this review).  Once upon a time before 1700, going to Port Royal would have been a GREAT idea as the Jamaican city was once the great pirate haven of the West Indies. However, after the 1692 earthquake, the Royal Navy stepped in and took control over the island and scattered the pirate population. Maybe getting away from a pirate haven is Silver’s goal?

Meanwhile, Jack Rackham tells Charles Vane that someone has stolen the schedule for the famed Urca de Lima and is willing to sell it to them for five thousand Spanish pesos. The conniving plot thickens. I can’t help but notice that Rackham’s accent has become very posh. It’s almost jarring. Wait; I just went back and re-watched a clip from the first episode. That’s Rackham’s accent through and through. It is hard to track what a pirate’s accent might have sounded like if he came from a British background. Today’s popular perception of a pirate’s accent is modelled comes from the actor Robert Newton, who was most famous for portraying Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island. He researched his character and found Silver was supposed to be from Cornwall so he modelled his character’s voice from that regional accent. The reality is pirate ships were often multi-national and multi-lingual so a ‘pirate’ accent is unlikely to be different from another sailor’s accent.

A mullet, a pornstache, and sunglasses. Priceless.

Jack Rackham. A mullet, a pornstache, and sunglasses. Priceless.

Another aside. I know I said my agenda wasn’t to deliberately pick apart the show, but ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham didn’t actually show up to Nassau until 1719. Remember, the show takes place in 1715. Also, by the time Rackham had arrived in Nassau, he had taken over and deposed of Charles Vane as captain. So why the inaccuracy? My guess is the creators wanted a good adversary who was also a real pirate in order to show the audiences that real pirates like the show’s characters actually existed. Charles Vane was infamous for his cruelty and known for breaking the pirates’ code. He had had a very public execution in 1721 after terrorising the Caribbean for years. Therefore, he makes a great villain in a television show. However, you can’t really show Charles Vane without Jack Rackham, who’s history is equally as fascinating because he sailed with two women – Anne Bonny and Mary Read. So far there has been no Mary Read on the show, but Anne Bonny has been lurking about.

Charles Vane. Kind of a murderous dick.

Charles Vane. Kind of a murderous dick.

Anne Bonny. Always watching[lurking].

Anne Bonny. Always watching[lurking].

Also, I literally cannot continue until I point out that Charles Vane is played by Zach McGowan, who played Jody Silverman in the American version of Shameless. I can’t find a a clip on youtube, but his character was the doofiest man ever and it’s a testament to his skills as an actor that I’ve been able to successfully unsee that character while watching Black Sails.

But I digress. Rackham convinces Vane that this will be a lucrative investment but when Vane learns that Flint has arrived at Nassau and that Singleton is nowhere to be found, he realises that his position is no longer secure. Rackham leads Vane to Max, who tells them that Silver will hand over the schedule that night in exchange for payment. Vane does not believe her and threatens to kill her if the hand over goes badly.

Flint arrives at Guthrie’s (I just realised I don’t know the name of the tavern/brothel, so that’s what I’ve christened it) to meet with Eleanor to tell her that her father has been ‘arrested’. She is, understandably, quite upset at this news especially as it now looks like Guthrie’s will be shut down within a day. Flint then tells her about the Urca de Lima and after some contemplation Eleanor agrees to invest with Flint. Only one snag – the schedule is missing! But luckily at this moment, Billy and the Quartermaster arrive saying that they’ve found out where Silver is hiding. Eleanor realises that Max must be in on the thievery and asks her to give her the schedule. Max begs Eleanor to leave with her, but it’s too late – Captain Flint and his company come into the room. Eleanor won’t leave the business, Max doesn’t want to stay now that she has a way out of her life of prostitution and both women are heartbroken.

Lesbian love stories are not allowed to end happily.

Lesbian love stories are not allowed to end happily.

Only one more snag. John Silver is still nowhere to be seen! The only solution is to hide and wait for him to make the handover that evening. Silver is, unfortunately, a bit too bright and has made the meeting place in the leper/pox colony on the beach. Rackham explains this to Vane (aka, the audience) that the area is full of ‘men who thought themselves too good to use a condom.’ Huh? I immediately thought this to be an anachronism but a quick Google search tells me that the word ‘condon’ was first recorded in 1666 and then in 1705 as ‘Quondom’, so there we go.  Silver makes two diseased men from the pox/leper colony on the beach make the exchange for him. Vane has no patience and kills the first man but before he can kill the second, Billy sneaks up behind Silver and fires at him. Silver runs and disguises himself as a leper and takes out the schedule and begins to read it closely. In the next scene Silver is sneaking away from the beach but is immediately caught by Flint. Flint demands the schedule but AH! Silver is either the world’s biggest coward or stupidly smart because he’s memorised the schedule and burned the actual document! (Historians collectively weep.) It now only exists in his head and thus he has to be kept alive!

In the meantime Max disguises herself and leaves Guthrie’s, but Anne Bonny spots her and follows.

The episode ends with Captain Flint riding up to a house where a lone woman plays the piano. She stops when he walks in and looks at him for a moment before saying, ‘Take off your boots. I’ll boil some water.’ Flint then collapses against the wall in what looks like exhaustion.

So the plot is moving. Betrayal! Heartbreak! Until next time…

PS: I thought I should briefly state which pirates are real versus fictitious characters in Black Sails that we’ve met so far.

Real: Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Mary Read

Fiction(but from literature): John Silver (Treasure Island), Singleton (The Life and Adventures of Captain Singleton by Daniel Defoe), Billy the Boatswain (Treasure Island)

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Black Sails: I

Over the past two and a half years of my PhD, I have been asked countless times if I’d seen and loved the Pirates of the Caribbean films (you can read my response about that in my previous entry). However, over the past several months a new question has arisen. Have I seen a television show called Black Sails? Well, I’d seen the first two episodes about a year ago when it first debuted but never continued it. Shameful, I know. Thus, as my one of my great passions is exploring history through film, I’ve decided to watch each episode and give it some historical analysis.


It’s like a skull and crossbones. Get it?

Let’s move onward, shall we? Black Sails is on the television network, Starz, and it had a brief streaming sojourn on YouTube until the show got popular. It just finished its second series and has been renewed for a third so I have some work ahead of me! The basic premise of Black Sails is that it serves as a prequel to Treasure Island. This had me immediately intrigued as I wrote my MA thesis about the reception and significance of Treasure Island in printed media. However, the show also features main characters based off of real pirates who were active in the West Indies at the beginning of the 18th century. This blend of fiction and reality has me triple-intrigued, so let’s dive in!

The episode starts off with a title card, which brings the audience up to speed on the historical context: ‘In 1715, West Indies, the pirates of New Providence Island threaten maritime trade in the region. The law of every civilised nation declare them hostis humanis generis, enemies of all mankind. In response, the pirates heed to a doctrine of their own…war against the world.’

Ah, interesting. I nod in approval.

Fair warning, the pilot episode has a lot of set-up so this may take a bit. The episode starts with a cold open of a battle against a merchant ship. Pirates, headed by Captain Flint, attack and during the fight a young man hides in the captain’s office, where he finds the cook who has ripped a page out of one of the logbooks. (As a historian I had an involuntary gasp of horror.) When the fight ends, pirates victorious, Flint has his men go through the ship to carry out an inventory of what goods they can plunder and sell. In the meantime, Flint finds the logbooks and notices the missing page from volume III, so he keeps that and gives the rest to his treasurer. The young man who had hid away has emerged from the merchant captain’s office saying that the dead man next to him had killed himself out of fear, but he’d like very much to join the pirates. (I skeptically raise my left eyebrow.) He claims that he’s a very good cook by the name of John Silver. Ah, there’s the Treasure Island connection. (Stolen identity, perhaps? I’m onto you, pal.)

Captain Flint

Captain Flint. Appropriately broody.

John SIlver

John Silver. A bit of a twat.

The pirates (John Silver included) make sail for Nassau, Providence Island, where they sell the procured whale oil and tobacco for eight dollars. The low money and increasing dissatisfaction with Captain Flint has led to murmurings of a munity in which the first mate, Singleton, is planning to overthrow him by leading a vote for a new captain. In the meantime, Flint heads to Harbour Island to pay a visit to a Mr Guthrie, who finances pirates, because he believes the missing page from the logbook is a schedule that details the location of the legendary Spanish ship, Urca de Lima, which is rumoured to be worth 5 million Spanish dollars. The meeting is disrupted by an attack by Captain Hulme of the Royal Navy in which Guthrie is killed. Flint decides to disguise Guthrie’s death as an arrest to prevent panic from his crew and other pirates.

When Captain Flint returns to his ship he finds that Singleton has rallied the crew into near mutiny, demanding a vote for a new captain. Flint rages in his office and discovers that someone has broken in and stolen the logbook page. He decides to use it to his advantage by accusing Singleton of stealing it for his own advantage to keep the Urca de Lima plunder for himself. The two men undergo a trial by combat in which Flint is victorious. He finds a folded piece of paper in Singleton’s pocket and gives it to his boatswain, Billy, who unfolds it and sees that it is merely a blank piece of parchment. After a moment’s hesitation he says it is the stolen page and Flint’s place as Captain is secure once more. Whether or not he knows that John Silver has the stolen page remains to be seen.

There is a side story to all of this. John Silver has been blackmailed by a prostitute named Max to include her on the information about his discovery of the meaning behind the stolen logbook page. When Max learns of its value, she then confides in Captain Charles Vane, who is scheming to have Flint overthrown so he and his partner, Jack Rackham, can become the most powerful pirate captains in the West Indies. To complicate matters further, this scheme threatens to bring down Eleanor Guthrie, daughter of the above-mentioned Guthrie, Chief Fence, supplier of pirates in her father’s stead, and the number one supporter of Captain Flint. If Flint is brought down, she too will be destroyed. Oh, and Max is her lover. Betrayal looms!

So overall, the first episode had a great setup of plot and introduction of characters. The sets are very well done and detailed and you can tell while it’s not the highest-budget production, no expense has been spared. The soundtrack is also dominated by a hurdy-gurdy to set the maritime tone. Nice!

So there’s the plot; now what about the history? There is much to take from this episode. The opening scene alone, in which one of the pirates boards the merchant ship with his face covered in war paint and bares false teeth to frighten the men, sets up the historic detail behind the show. In my primary research, I have found that pirates did in fact know their reputations and took advantage of people’s fear. Several newspapers from the early modern period published reports that were given directly by pirates who were happy to make their foul deeds known to the public. The American Weekly Mercury reported on 13 June 1723 that pirates gave an account of how they slaughtered their crews, burned ships and ‘cut off their Masters Ears and slit his Throat.’ The British Journal later reported that pirates claimed they had no fear of being taken, but ‘that if they ever should find themselves overpower’d, they would immediately blow their Ship up, rather than do Jolly Roger the Disgrace to be struck, or suffer themselves, to be hang’d like Dogs.’ This type of image was important for pirates to bolster their reputation to make sure that fear stayed alive because without fear, they had no power.

The writers did their research and they did it well, clearly drawing from historical documents and secondary research from prominent historians. I see a lot of influence that may come from the arguments of Marcus Rediker, pirate historian, who has spent his career arguing that pirate ships were egalitarian societies in which they had democratic voting practises, fair wages, and equal compensation for accidents. This is obvious in the show when Flint’s men divide the work equally amongst themselves and Silver is given orders to give all men an equal ration of food regardless of station when he is taken on as the new cook.

The main theme to take from this episode is that of the social politics of pirates. When Flint and his men take the ship at the beginning, one of the pirates charges onto the ship in war paint and chiselled teeth that makes him appear monstrous. Once the ship is taken he laughs and removes his teeth to reveal that they were just makeup for intimidation purposes. Flint then makes an impassioned speech to the merchant’s crew that the pirates had once been ‘slaves’ like them with bad wages and horrific conditions. The pirates had to take it upon themselves to create a new world for themselves away from the tyranny of the Navy and merchants. (This is just one example of several in which an impassioned speech about pirates’ lives and conditions are clearly meant as exposition for the audience, but the detail is solid and it is done well.) When the merchant ship is plundered, it is done in a very organised manner; every man has his role and everything is meticulously accounted for. Then they sail to Nassau, Providence Island, which is described as once having been under English control but now the pirates consider it their island, implying that the English have lost social control of the West Indies. Finally, near the end of the episode before Singleton’s trial by combat, Flint implores to his men, ‘When the King brands us pirates, he brands us monsters…Civilization is coming and it manes to exterminate us. If we are to survive, we need to unite behind our own king!’ And thus the arc of the series is nicely set up.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the detail of this episode. It’s a bit flashy, it’s a bit Hollywood (Michael Bay is one of the producers, after all), but it’s beautifully shot with fine detail devoted to the historical accuracy of the period.

In the next episode, it looks like Captain Flint is onto John Silver’s thievery!

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