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. Appropriately broody.
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!