This blog is an expansion on an earlier one published on In Media Res in November 2021
Following on from my CST blog in December about representations of Anarchism in The Expanse (and what an enjoyable, if short, final season that was!) I thought it would be interesting to explore a more positive representation of anarchy at work in a historical context: the fictional and factual pirate crews in Starz Black Sails (Levine and Steinberg, 2014-2017).
The enigmatic pirate characters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) may be fictional but much about their context wasn’t. From the deranged Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) to the manipulative Long John Silver (Luke Arnold) and the ruthless Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), readers have long been captivated in imagining what this crew’s adventures must have been like before the burial of the titular treasure. Enter Black Sails, the series setup to tell the story of Flint and his crew prior to the events of Treasure Island. To achieve this, the creators have brought to life ‘the golden age’ of piracy in the Caribbean (roughly 1650-1726; the series is set in 1715) and pitted Flint and crew against or, at times working with, real life pirates of the period: Anne Bonnie (Clara Paget), Benjamin Hornigold (Patrick Lyster), Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) and Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz). Indeed, one of the many pleasures of the show is the eventual arrival of Edward Teach aka Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson), who historically sailed with or around all of those mentioned above.
But the creative choices about what Flint and his crew were doing on the Caribbean Island of Nassau is where the show’s writers have worked to bring to light an interesting contemporary depiction of pirates, showing not just a potentially more accurate picture of diverse pirate crews and their anarchist organisational structures, but a striking reflection on the nature of historical narratives also. Contrary to many popular depictions of pirates, in literature dating back as far as Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724) which features many of the historical actors named above, Black Sails posits Flint and his crew as proto revolutionaries, aiming to take down the corrupt British Empire at any cost. The titular treasure of Treasure Island, itself stolen from the Spanish Empire, is a means to fund this revolutionary end using the pirate occupied Nassau as a base.
Whilst the ruthlessness, avarice and savagery of our pirate heroes is not hidden in the slightest, it is the image of Flint and colleagues as revolutionaries that is the series most interesting device. And why not revolt? As Peter Lamborn-Wilson notes in Pirate Utopias:
‘Labor conditions in the merchant marines of Europe presented an abysmal picture of emerging capitalism at its worst – and conditions in European navies were even more horrendous. The sailor had every reason to consider himself the lowest and most rejected figure of all European economy and government – powerless, underpaid, brutalized, tortured, lost to scurvy and storms at sea, the virtual slave of wealthy merchants and ship-owners, and of penny-pinching kings and greedy princes.’ (2003: 22).
Developing on Rediker’s notion of naval workers as ‘seafaring proletarians’ (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1987: 288), Lamborn-Wilson posits that pirates represent a form of social resistance: ‘The pirate who […] “warred against the world” was first and foremost the enemy of his own civilization’ (2003: 23). In Black Sails Flint, his fictional crew and their real-life historical counterparts become the vanguard of a revolutionary force of pirates and slaves who, as the clip above suggests, will take the island of Nassau from the British Empire to “bring it all down”. In many senses, the alliance suggested by Flint to the Maroon Queen (Moshidi Motshegwa) is one of the most anarchist elements of the whole series – the rising up of the subjugated against the powerful. As Flint tries to make clear, the slaves living under the yolk of the British Empire have far more in common with pirates, themselves a dejected naval underclass, than they do with their oppressors.
In a recent webinar, part of a series called This Is Not A Pirate, Rediker again reinforced the connections between pirates, slaves and attempted disruption of the slave trade:
‘A significant number of them [pirates] had worked in the slave trade, where the conditions for sailors, as for the enslaved, were quite deadly. It’s also true that pirates organised their rounds, their attacks on merchant ships, off the West African coast hoping to capture slave ships before they took on any human cargo’.
(in conversation at This Is Not A Pirate webinar, Monday 14th February 2022)
In its final season Black Sails becomes a highly reflexive show, turning attention to the narratives that have built up around pirates and most importantly, who gets to tell these stories. This element is key to Rediker’s work, deploying ‘history from below as a research methodology (as E. P. Thompson did with The Making of the English Working Class (1963)). Here viewers find their characters contemplating stories that either are being told, as with Jack Rackham in the clip below, or will be told about them in the future, as with Captain Flint’s final plea to John Silver also below:
Whether centered on the historical independent republic of Salé (Morocco 1624 – 1668), the “Golden Age” of pirates in the Caribbean (1650 – 1725) or the questionable existence of Libertalia (Madagascar, c. 17th century), the scholarship is clear that the telling of the stories of these ‘pirate utopias’ is in itself significant. As Graeber notes: ‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion these stories endure because they embody a certain vision of human freedom, one that still feels relevant’ (Pirate Enlightenment, 2021: 6).
In Black Sails then, like the legendary tales of pirate utopias which precede it, the viewers are invited to reimagine ‘criminal’ acts of piracy as reasonable acts in defending the oppressed and achieving a fairer and more just society. This is what sets the show apart from other pirate fiction that has graced our screens in recent decades, and why viewers and critics alike should engage with it. In closing the first webinar of This Is Not a Pirate, Rediker reminds us of the historical importance of the pirate rebellion, even today:
‘Pirates lost the battle in their own day […] hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them were hanged, this ruthless Atlantic ruling class hunted them down and killed them. But here we are still talking about these pirates three-hundred years later. Do we remember the names of the people who executed them? No we don’t. But we do remember the pirates because something in them, something in their radical vision of freedom, still means something to us […] They may have lost the battle but I think they’re winning the war’.
(in conversation at This Is Not A Pirate webinar, Monday 14th February 2022)
If all that matters in the history of pirates and pirate utopias is the existence of them in story and legend, then audiences should do well to heed the call of the Black Sails revolution – one that may or may not have actually been, but one that certainly still feels relevant to audiences today.
This Is Not a Pirate continues with a webinar every month: https://museum.care/this-is-not-a-pirate-webinar-1/
Chris Nunn is currently Programme Leader for the BA Film and Television Production at the University of Greenwich. As the former Festival Director of Screentest: The UK’s National Student Film Festival, Chris has been championing aspiring filmmaking talent for nearly a decade. Passionate about filmmaking education, he has recently completed his PhD entitled Towards a New Film Pedagogy: Recrafting Undergraduate Filmmaking Education for an Expanded Field (2019) and plans to continue and broaden research in this area. Aside from education, Chris’s research interests include science fiction television, mockumentary and the effects these evolving forms have on contemporary audiences.
In 2021 Chris became co-convenor of ‘Film/making Pedagogy’ a new ‘Special Interest Group’ as part of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS). He is also currently Associate Editor of the Film Education Journal. He is currently writing up a research bid on class, creativity and talent in film and television industries, as well as a book proposal on anarchism.
Black Sails. 2014-2017. [TV Series] Created by Ted Levine, Robert E. Steinberg. USA: Starz.
Graeber, D., 2021. Pirate Enlightenment or The Real Libertalia: Buccaneers, Women Traders, and Mock Kingdoms in Eighteenth Century Madagascar, Rome: Eleuthera Editrice.
Rediker, M., 1987. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rediker, M., 2022. This is Not a Pirate #1 [Interview] (14 February 2022).
Utopias, P., 2003. Peter Lamborn-Wilson, New York: Autonomedia.