"Black Sails" Could Be A Lot More Red

In real life, Captain Flint would have never made it out of the first season of Black Sails, the show for which he is the main protagonist, alive. Arrogant, secretive, and utterly unconcerned with the needs or desires of others, he would have either been voted out of his position and downgraded to a mere ship hand or, far more likely, executed for plotting against his own crew and murdering their primary representative. For a moment at the end of Season 1, it looks like he’s about to suffer that exact fate – but, pirates being pirates, he combines a clever plan appealing to self-interest with a charisma based on his masculine dominance of, well, everything, to convince them to alter their plans to rightly put a sword through his heart.

The problem though, is that this is not actually what pirates were like. While certainly pleased by gold and booze, their decision to turn pirate was much more based on an escape from the horrific labor conditions of eighteenth century maritime work as it was a nihilistic, self-centered greed. In Black Sails, however, we do not learn much about the social conditions whence most pirates came because, well, we don’t learn about most pirates. We do learn an awful lot about individual pirate captains, however, and in this focus we can find the most problematic aspect of the series schemes.

In Black Sails, individual men and women hold an immense amount of power – and while they differ in how they choose to cultivate and execute it, the show is obsessed with how Great People inspire The Masses to do great things. This is so much the case, that many of the most extended dialogues between characters – most of all the two most apt men-manipulators, Captain Flint and (Long) John Silver – bond over how damn good they are at reading the souls of men and then twisting them to their own purposes. It’s like a validation orgy between the two of them at times, and no doubt if Silver shared Flint’s sexual flexibility they would have some kinky power-struggle sex together.

Swash-Buckling Douche Bag.

Swash-Buckling Douche Bag.

The tragedy of this obsession with Extraordinary Individuals is how it distorts the lived reality and political commitments of actual pirates. Simply put, pirates were so democratic that their structure of life on the account was nearly anarchic. That scene where Flint kills Gates in his cabin? Likely impossible in real life, because captains didn’t have their cabins to themselves – the crew went and slept wherever the fuck they liked, and that included the captain’s quarters. Moreover, the captain hardly had any space, or decision, to himself – he did not get to decide where to go, or which prizes to take; all that was in the hands of the common council, which was basically every single person on the ship, down to the most lowly crew member. Black Sails tries to acknowledge and simultaneously work around this by constantly playing up the capacities of its main characters to inspire and manipulate men and women to certain end goals – but in doing so, it renders the democratic process pirates fervently believed in a joke, and clearly suggests that while we may have been told something else in our college cultural history courses, it is in fact the Great Men (and, at least to its credit, the Great Women) of history that really, you know, Make History.

Yet it was common men (and yes!, some women) who made the real history of, as historian Marcus Rediker calls it, the Golden Age of Piracy – not some washed-up social climber who bears a (granted, very righteous) grudge against the British Aristocracy for expelling him from their shitty club. Most pirates turned pirate because they were paid like shit, treated like shit, and knew their lives were short. Considering all that, they chose, as a common saying among them went, a short but merry life. In doing so, they set up a social structure the complete opposite from the one they rejected: egalitarian (they divided their booty equally), libertine (problems sometimes ensued from the fact that so many of them were continually drunk) and irreligious (their flags declared their, association?, shall we say?, with Satan). This was no accident, as one pirate, William Fry, reminded the judgmental spectators that came to leer at his execution. “All Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain that he had murder’d,” he warned, “and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pryates.”[1] Fry, like most pirates, understood the nature of the system he died rebelling against.  

Read Me. I am very good and better than fictional accounts of piracy. 

Read Me. I am very good and better than fictional accounts of piracy. 

In Black Sails, however, these conditions are obscured and the system the pirates fight against is flattened to the almost completely meaningless epithet of “civilization.” Civilization is coming, warns Flint in the very first episode – civilization is oppressive, echo the other characters in key points in the plot. But what is civilization, exactly?, and what aspects of Nassau make it uncivilized? The closest we get to an answer is that the British and Spanish empires represent civilization, since these are the two visible opponents the pirates face. Yet half of the characters spend half of the span of the show apparently trying to resurrect some type of said civilization in Nassau, a town in which, as far as I can tell, is having a grand time regardless of what Flint or Eleanor Guthrie thinks about it. I understand that it would have come off as laughable for eighteenth century characters to spout twentieth century academic social critique, but it also would not have been impossible for the writers to incorporate some indication that what “civilization” translated to in the eighteenth century Caribbean was not just organization or technology, but a very specific form of civilization we nerds commonly refer to as racialized, imperialist capitalism.

But this is where – in mercy to the Black Sails fans out there who might not yet know I count myself amongst them – I can shift to some heartfelt praise for the series. Despite Flint being a shit and the show’s obsession with Great People, it does nonetheless provide us with some characters whose uncompromising BadAssness falls in all the right places.

First to be introduced is Charles Vane, based on a real person who was in all likelihood not nearly as cool – he was accused by his crew at one point of cowardice, something the Black Sails Vane could never possibly suffer – but who, in the show, provides one of only two posts of moral clarity. This might be hard to recognize at first, but by the time we get to his literal self-sacrifice, it’s clear what Vane believes in or, more to the point, what he doesn’t believe in – tradition, authority, slavery, the creature comforts that nowadays we might call consumerism, and pious axioms that exist only to obscure the truth. One of his finest moments comes when Eleanor lashes out at him for killing her father, and he replies with the one phrase on the mind of every confused viewer: “He was a shit.”

                                                Whoah, that is some serious manspreading. 

                                                Whoah, that is some serious manspreading. 

The other diamond in the rust is introduced relatively later, but leaves almost as big an impact. Madi, the daughter of the ruling couple of a maroon slave community, is every type of fucking awesome. Saved from slavery by her parents but completely aware of its consequences, she might fall in love with Silver but never strays from her commitment to her people – both living and dead, as we learn in her most eloquent moment. Offered her (and Silver’s?) in exchange for the surrender of all future escapees to the maroon community, she replies:

The voice you hear in your head, I imagine I know who it sounds like, as I know Eleanor wanted those things. But I hear other voices. A chorus of voices. Multitudes. They reach back centuries. Men and women and children who'd lost their lives to men like you. Men and women and children forced to wear your chains. I must answer to them, and this war - their war, Flint's war, my war – it will not be bargained away to avoid a fight, to save John Silver's life or his men's or mine.”

Now that, amongst comrades, is what we call some soli-fucking-darity.

                                   Madi is Woke As Fuck. 

                                   Madi is Woke As Fuck. 

It is perhaps significant that both Vane and Madi live with either an experience or fundamental awareness of slavery – interestingly Vane, being white, is the one who actually experienced it in his youth and Madi, far more likely to end up in its snares, nevertheless manages a fierce understanding of what it means. But both take an absolute disgust with the ways in which human begins abuse and subordinate each other to the grave – and together, they are the only true believers of the entire cast and crew. Billy, despite being raised by egalitarian, Leveler parents, becomes corrupted with bitterness; Jack understands that the game is rigged but is only interested in outwitting it in order to become immortal; Anne understandably doesn’t give a fuck because she’s busy surviving men; Silver believes in whatever cause currently makes his life most bearable and Flint?, well he’s Flint, in a way a mirror of Silver insofar as soon as the love of his life is in range, all will to live by his high-flung rhetoric about creating a new world different from the old drains out of his body. Only Vane and Madi, through all four seasons, show any true commitment to give their lives in solidarity with a vision that gives the Powers That Be the middle finger.

And once again, the truth of history squares more with these inspirational examples than it does with the more Machiavellian maneuverings of well, most everyone else in the show. This is rare – historical investigation usually brings disillusionment, not inspiration. But, there are exceptions, and pirates are one of them. Despite the narrative of almost every pirate-based media production – including Black Sails – pirates did not spend their time at each other throats’, consumed with petty rivalry. On the contrary, pirates were loyal to other pirates – crews would retaliate against governors and cities that executed or persecuted other crews, they would salute each other while sailing by with a cannon blast, they knew each other as “the Brotherhood of the Coast.” They might have not known any socialist lingo, or called themselves anarchists or egalitarians, but in every way they lived their lives, they committed themselves to these values. That in a series entirely dedicated to these very pirates of the Caribbean, only Vane and, especially Madi, embody this spirit is a missed opportunity so large it prevents the show from rising to the level of historical significance it so often loves to contemplate.

But not even a commie like me evaluates everything according to politics. It’s unwitting loyalty to individualism aside, Black Sails provides us with more than just a few endearing and original characters. Anne Bonny, based on the real-life woman pirate, comes most immediately to mind. Played brilliantly by Clara Paget, Anne is a quiet yet intensely fierce character who, when she does speak, is half the time spitting the words out through a snarl and a growl that I’ve never seen any female character even attempt, let alone make compellingly believable. Anne is a loyal but not obedient partner to Jack Rackham – also based on a historical character who was, indeed, the lover of Bonny – which is a lucky thing for him, because while he’s lucky to survive any physical fights, Anne is as kickass as they come, and is constantly saving him from certain death.

But oh, Jack! – Jack is just something special. A personality that combines an awareness of his weaknesses with a basic confidence and self-love, I dare say he is a completely unique character. Jack knows he is scrawny, that he can’t fight, that bigger and braver men think he is a pissant. But instead of becoming bitter, or driven by an insecurity that eats away at his soul and corrupts his better self, or being obnoxiously self-deprecating (the most popular current model for men who Don’t Fit In), Jack just defers to others – usually Anne or, the regrettably-not-discussed-here-because-this-is-getting-too-long, Max – who can help shore him up in realms where he’s not so skilled. He is, of course, obsessed with his legacy; but here as well, his self-awareness allows him to keep his desires from controlling him completely. Jack never denies or hides who he is, with either himself or others – which makes him a needed breath of fresh air while Flint and Silver over-analyze the shit out of everything and other central characters, such as Eleanor, insist on taking themselves Very Seriously. Besides, Flint, Vane, Teach, Silver and Billy provide us with plenty of Rugged Men prototypes – so someone had to wear the dashing eighteenth century dandy clothing.

So, despite the harshness of my tone in most of this post, I do, in fact, love this show. For me, the apex of Black Sails and its very beating heart came in the last episode of Season 2 – when Flint and Vane jointly blow the smitherines out of Charleston. As an historian and a radical, watching the destruction of one of the ports that built, with the blood, lives, and dignity of so many, the awakening beast we know as racialized capitalism – all while Flint takes the time in the chaos to free some slaves! – was satisfying in a way that my heart needs in these sometimes-so-lonely days.  FUCK. YEAH.

And, for that if for nothing else, Black Sails will always have my heart.  

jolly roger2.jpg


[1] Marcus Rediker, Villians of All Nations, the latest edition with the yellow cover and dude this is a personal blog post and who the fuck really uses publication data anyway?, 2.