Is Black Sails Historically Accurate?
Does Black Sails accurately portray pirate life?
With all the sex and drinking on Black Sails, it's a wonder pirates got anything accomplished. Historical dramas seem to be the thing, with shows like Marco Polo and Vikings achieving great popularity, but just how historically accurate are they? It's been a long stretch waiting for Black Sails to return, and all this idle time has led to a few intense sessions of over analyzing on this.
The debut of Starz's flagship show brought epic battles at sea, pirate politics, and lots and lots of steamy sex. Meant to be a prequel to Robert Stevenson's surprisingly accurate Treasure Island, it's hard not to wonder how much of Black Sails is real and how much is sensationalized. While the dangerous and dirty life of pirates plays out as exciting entertainment, how true to life on New Providence Island in 1715 has Michael Bay stayed? After researching the sex, swordplay, and scandal of pirates in the 18th century, there were some admirable consistencies and some notable discrepancies.
Black Sails strived to capture how the savage world of the pirates is a strange concoction of order and chaos. Trying to blend the controversial image of plundering pirates with the seafaring scoundrel's sense of morality required a lot of juggling. Black Sails did a pretty great job of balancing these two things. Every time that the rowdy antics got a little too fantastical, there was always a nod to the rules of pirate society. While entertaining, there is a rich culture underneath the shocking imagery. This attention to detail not only makes the world of Black Sails that much more real and relatable, but adds a level of complexity to the pirate lifestyle that too often gets overlooked. So, just how well did Starz do their homework?
Fact or Fiction: Sexy Scoundrels At Sea
One thing about Black Sails that had many clamoring to sail to Nassau was the amount of explicit and deviant sex. Between the fierce love and dark pasts of Captain Flint and Lady Barlow and the frequent trysts of lesbian lovers Max and Eleanor, the series is very steamy. It's true that romance is a really great way to create drama, give a story momentum, and increase sympathy for a character, but just how frequently were unconventional romances taking place, whether at sea or on land?
Black Sails shows that far from the watchful eyes of the British, the inhabitants of New Providence can break all barriers of race, class, and sexuality. It's true that attitudes were much more liberal, but there was still a lot of slavery, misogyny, and overall social injustice. Most demographics on the series are represented in a very romantic way. Eleanor and Max aren’t just lovers, they’re in love. Their relationship isn’t just a convenient excuse to show Jessica Parker Kennedy and Hannah New’s amazing bodies writhing against each other in the island heat. There are even some racial and sexual minorities in relatively respected positions on the island. The best sword fighter is a woman named Anne Bonny. On the show these, attitudes are an integral part of the dynamics and the intrigue on the island, but do they have any factual basis?
While the idea of an island full of free loving and open minded sailors sounds like the nautical version of Robin Hood, it is a tall tale. There was definitely a lot of sex, but much of it was homosexual. This was a lifestyle decision rather than an emotional choice. As far as homosexual relationships between women like what's observed between Max and Eleanor, there's no real data on that. History does prove that women like Eleanor were not common, and negotiating with the pirate community that had overtaken Nassau was not a woman's job. By 1713, there were over 1,000 pirates in Nassau and they outnumbered the 400-500 legitimate residents, basically making the port city a free for all. Black Sails shows this chaos, but also uses it to put a female in a powerful position, which is an admirable cause, even if it didn't happen. The only real evidence of any women portrayed on the show having a level of mutual respect with the pirates is Anne Bonny. The real Bonny actually did come to command the crew of Captain Calico Jack.
Generally, though, Nassau was a man's world. Women were even seen as bad luck. Much like Roman societies long before, the pirates lived in a homosocial world dominated by men. In the early 18th century, male to male relations were a necessary part of life at sea. This is actually much more in line with the deviant perception of pirates than them just being women hungry misogynists. Often pirates would force themselves sexually on hostages or leave wives at home, but largely pirates were true to their independent lifestyle. Having few emotional commitments allowed this alternate approach to masculinity to be romanticized by many. Unfortunately, commitment to the pirate lifestyle didn't mean more booty (female, at least) for anyone. That is, until they reached Port Royal, Jamaica (affectionately nicknamed "Port of Orgies") where they caught up on all the sexual fun they missed while plundering.
Fact or Fiction: Rum Drinking Ruffians
Okay, so the pirates weren't as sexy as everyone fantasizes them to be, but were they as wasted as we always thought? It would be quite the betrayal to know that Captain Jack Sparrow's love affair with rum was all an illusion. In Black Sails, drinking serves as a backdrop of the mise en scène more than it does as a real focus. The pirates are definitely not sober, but there isn't much strategy applied to obtaining this precious libation. Which is kind of an automatic B.S. flag, considering they're on a gorgeous island in the Bahamas, regardless of any pirate drama.
Rather than chasing booze across the seven seas, the journeys of Captain Flint and his crew tend to have more complicated and heavy themes. This is clear after seeing him prepare his ship in Episode IV to pursue Captain Byron in the subsequent episodes to retrieve his guns. Weapons and gold are the preferred bounty of the Black Sails pirates, but do they put enough emphasis on the importance of alcohol in pirate history?
Fact & Fiction
While it's true that pirates took pride and the pursuit of treasure very seriously, it is not true that alcohol was merely a social lubricant. Although it's traditionally assumed that pirates were always looking for treasure, alcohol was the equivalent of gold to them. Not just because they were alcoholics, either. Alcohol not only bonded the crew and served as a source of joy for the sailors, it was always safe to drink. With the potential to be running from royal navies or hiding out at sea for long periods of time, the availability of water was always a pressing concern for pirates.
With less chance of getting contaminated, alcohol was the least risky way to ensure that pirates wouldn't be victims of dehydration or bacterial illness. Drinking also helped ease the harshness of the pirate lifestyle. After all, crews that drink together stay together. This unfortunately led to the rise of over-indulgence for sailors that became fond of the drink, leading to the stereotypes of drunkard and wily pirates known today. Black Sails doesn't really do enough to convey just how pivotal alcohol was to the pirate world.
Fact or Fiction: Sword Fighting Scallywags
Eager to recreate the success the network found with Spartacus, Starz has packed Black Sails full of gory sword fights and grandiose battles between pirate vessels. Whether it be a cutlass or a pistol, it seems that the characters always have one hand on a weapon. In the series, though, swords are seen more when someone is establishing power within their own circle. While pirate crews equally shared food, alcohol, and quarters, the play for power was a never ending struggle to establish dominance on board.
A theme running deep throughout the series is the politics of piracy, with mutiny being a frequently referenced subject. According to Black Sails, pirates would be allowed to duel on board in front of their shipmates to prove worthiness. When it comes to attacking foes, however, the characters tend to lean towards showier weapons like pistols, cannons, and even axes. So, exactly how casual or necessary was sword fighting to the Golden Age of Piracy?
Swords were indeed an integral part of a pirate's life, but any weapon of choice would do. Swords were just easy, on-hand weapons that could be used for self-defense or attack in certain circumstances. It was hard for pirates to have a specific weapon of choice because everything in their arsenal was stolen goods. A wide range of swords, from cutlasses to daos, could be found aboard any given pirate vessel. Naval combat in the age of piracy was always a risky proposition, so it was often the mission of the pirates to disable an enemy ship so it could be boarded and plundered. This required anti-personnel munitions such as grape shot and chain shot to cut down a mast and leave their prey dead in the water. Raiders used ropes, nets, and planks to connect the ships and stormed the decks for close quarters combat where swords were especially key.
The one slip up on the part of Michael Bay and his camp is the depiction of the ability of pirate ships to effectively engage in combat. While there were definitely numerous large ships that could handle that style of fighting, most didn't have the crew or the arms. Popular belief is that pirates sailed large warships with dozens of cannons. While some pirates did this, most preferred a small fast ship with less of these big guns. Large cannon with ammunition weighed thousands of pounds each, and it would take several crew members to effectively operate a single gun. Since most of the pirate's victims were lightly armed or unarmed merchant ships, it was not as necessary to carry a lot of this type of heavy firepower, which would require the use of larger and slower ships, leaving them vulnerable to attack from naval warships. Black Sails gets around this by pinning big name pirates against each other rather than showing them just taking on lower end military vessels or smaller, more easily dominated ships. In a sense this makes Assassin's Creed: Black Flag more accurate than Black Sails.
Fact or Fiction: The Pirate Code
These lifestyle choices were sometimes a result of convenience, but often came directly from the code generally acknowledged by all pirates. This code is referenced vaguely several times in the first season of Black Sails, and there's a surprisingly big emphasis on the political structure on Nassau Island as well as on the open sea. The series is set in the post-Spanish Succession, following Queen Anne's war that left many in a position of poverty. The real adventures of Calico Jack and Blackbeard had taken place in the late 1700s, the first part of the Golden Age of Piracy. Black Sails condensed the period so that events of 1650 and beyond all appear to be occurring within the same span of time. The players being represented in the right year is less of a concern than wondering if there was any truth to the way that the series shows them conducting their mutinies and negotiations. While there is undeniably chaos, there's a feeling of control surrounding it, and all leaders (pirate or otherwise) are deeply invested in maintaining their own version of control and order. Were things really that politically charged on the lawless island of New Providence?
Pirate society was surprisingly democratic and egalitarian in some ways. Of course, these are thieves and murderers, but pirate islands were in fact the first democracies in the New World. Their version of democracy, however, was to ensure as much personal liberty as possible. Most accepted codes included rules about obeying the commander, sharing equal rations, and loyalty to the ship itself. These loose rules with no detailed parameters was quite romantic, but often allowed for personal agendas to creep in. When the crew of The Ranger begins to turn on Calico Jack for losing currency in Episode III, the pirates are very united about punishing him. This kind of subjective morality seems strange, but was actually the standard for pirates. Unfortunately, these vague rules led to many mutinies and much confusion. This supports the whispers of mutiny in Black Sails and explains Captain Flint's tendency to keep things secret from his crew. Underneath the guise of control and freedom, pirates were making campaign promises and covering up scandals like any present-day politician.
All of this information puts Black Sails at about a 60/40 split between fantasy and reality. With the very real settings and historical figures, the show is way more self-aware than almost any pirate story has brought to viewers. Most focus on the myths, but Black Sails has proven that (most) of the reality is even richer. While not as on point as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, the story of Captain Flint is actually a great set up for the adventures of Long John Silver.
The Real Life Pirates of Black Sails
While Black Sails is primarily inspired by the classic story of Treasure Island it still manages to incorporate more then a few famous historical pirates. In fact, the success of the series can be mainly attributed to its mix of historical details with the largely fictional narrative of Treasure Island. Here are a few of our favorite historical pirates who've made their television debut on Black Sails.
Anne Bonny Played by Clara Paget
British model and actress Clara Paget plays legendary pirate queen Anne Bonny. She was historically recorded as being a redhead and quite attractive. But she had a fierce temper that would easily flare up. Despite being from nobility, when she was thirteen she stabbed a servant girl using a kitchen knife. Looking to get away from her father she married a poor sailor and mediocre pirate who went by the name of James Bonny to spite her father. Poor James thought he might inherit her father's estate. Rumors persisted that she burned her father's plantation. She moved to Nassau where her reign of terror as a pirate queen would begin. If there's one thing Black Sails managed to capture perfectly, it was her cold blooded and ruthless demeanor in the pitch perfect performance by Clara Paget.
Blackbeard Played by Ray Stevenson
If there's one pirate everyone wants to see on TV it's easily the most infamous pirate of them all. No pirate has ever gained more infamy than Edward Thatch. The famous Blackbeard, or Edward Teach, was infamous for pillaging the high seas on his famous ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Supposedly he would tie lit fuses under his hat to give himself a demonic otherworldly presence when he was on the attack. He began his career as a privateer during the Queen Anne’s war before he settled down near the Bahamian island of New Providence. During his time he captured a sloop ship which he was given command of and from there his days of raiding and pillaging never stopped. In Black Sails his nature as a shrewd and calculating leader are made evident. His brutal nature is shown, but the show also perfectly captures how much a skilled tactician. He became a sort of Batman of the high seas by using his reputation and theatrics to strike fear into the hearts of those he raided. It’s no wonder this man of fiction and history was romanticized and quickly became the inspiration for many a pirate yarn.
Benjamin Hornigold Played by Patrick Lyster
Formerly a privateer, Benjamin was forced to become a pirate on the high seas after he lost the official support the english government. This happened towards the end after the war of Spanish succession which came to be known as Queen Anne's War. He started humbly in his pirating career with just a canoe but eventually got his hands on the war ship of the Benjamin which was easily as large as Blackbeard's infamous Queen Anne's Revenge. In Black Sails he becomes a mentor figure just like he did in real life teaching many of the most famous pirates ever to roam the Caribbean. For all intents and purposes, his role as a pirate king made him a king at sea. But many pirates did not respect him due to his loyalty to England preventing him from pillaging English ships. But his role as one of the founders of the infamous pirate republic in Nassau ensured he would be a name to be remembered in both history books and in Black Sails.
Black Sails tells the tales of the notorious Captain Flint and his crew as they fight for their own survival and the survival of their culture on New Providence Island.