Black Sails Back

The most important things to know about Black Sails are the obvious ones: it is a show about pirates and a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), perhaps the most influential fictional portrayal of piracy. Its great and unexpected virtue lies in taking these premises to their logical conclusion: that any pirate story is primarily a story about pirate stories, and hence about narrative in general and its ability to shape and make sense of reality. Taking its cues from both fiction and history, without being too tightly bound by either, Black Sails ultimately asks us to question the investments that go into making that distinction.

The setting is Nassau in 1715: an independent stronghold of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ on the verge of its historical fall to colonial rule. Here, the characters of Stevenson’s novel (John Silver, Billy Bones, Captain Flint) mix with documented figures such as Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Woodes Rogers, and Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach. Yet these ‘real’ pirates are themselves also already fictional, beginning to fade into the myths that will define and misconstrue them. ‘Put down the newspapers and read a book,’ Rackham instructs a bloodthirsty young fan, but books like Rogers’ autobiography and the 1724 General History of the Pyrates (on which much of what we know about them is based) offer no more reliable guide. The life of piracy, after all, is referred to as ‘the account’ – implying narrative as well as reckoning.

If the pirate is a category of exclusion (‘the laws of every civilized nation declare them hostis humani generis, enemies of all mankind’), then in asking what piracy means, Black Sails must necessarily also seek to define its opposite. From our current standpoint and positioned against the violence of the pirates, ‘civilization’ has an obvious appeal: Woodes Rogers, who arrives to tame the island at the start of season 3, appears to be a reasonable man. Yet it gradually becomes clear that the civilization he champions is one intrinsically dependent on subjugation and its own forms of violence. As the pirates join with a Maroon nation of escaped slaves, the battle for the independence of Nassau grows into a broader war, calling for an end to slavery and colonial rule throughout the New World. It is a sweeping and clearly doomed goal, yet that very sense of doom is itself a function of history: ‘The empire survives in part because we believe its survival to be inevitable,’ says Flint; ‘it isn’t.’

With alliances forming and shifting, the protagonists of Black Sails are forced to choose between this violent revolution and the temptations of self-interest and more gradual reform: as one of them (herself born into slavery and wishing to inhabit the master’s house without becoming a master) argues, ‘You cannot fight civilization from the outside in. It has been winning for ten thousand years.’ What follows is thus necessarily a tragedy – a story of dreams frustrated, chances lost, betrayals the more painful because they are motivated by love in all its complex and fragile forms. Yet it is a story that still carries within it the possibility of redemption and unexpected grace: hope for a great sea change, on the far side of revenge.

Few of these deeper themes, admittedly, are immediately evident in the eight-episode first season. Co-produced by Michael Bay, Black Sails begins in the tradition of other pay cable hits like HBO’s Game of Thrones – a sumptuous festival of brothels, backstabbing, and brutality, all headed by the enigmatic figure of Captain James Flint and his search for a ship filled with Spanish treasure. Flint is the ruthless pirate par excellence, dispatching enemies and wayward friends alike, but there are already hints that he may be more than he seems: there is his unexpected fondness for books, his mysterious connection with a woman named Miranda Barlow, a speech in which he describes his vision for Nassau and his ultimate wish, like Odysseus, to walk inland until his oar is mistaken for a winnowing fan.

In season 2, our understanding of Flint is deepened through a series of flashbacks exploring his origins, while a conversation between him and Silver introduces the idea that villainy is in the eye of the beholder:

FLINT: So you think that [the people of Nassau] see me as the villain in this particular story? […] And you? […] You see me as the villain here?

SILVER: I see you as the agent most likely of securing my share of the gold […]. As long as that remains true, I am not bothered in the least by whatever labels anyone else decides to affix to you… Why? What do you think about it?

FLINT: I’m sorry?

SILVER: It bothers you, doesn’t it – what they think? With the things you’ve done… My God. It must be awful being you.

A superb performance by Toby Stephens throughout makes clear quite how awful it is: his face is a sneering mask troubled by waves of suppressed anguish, occasionally cracking into violence or short-lived moments of tenderness; at once threatening and magnetic; sometimes so obviously exhausted that he begins to resemble the skull on the pirate flag.

‘Flint’, we learn, is in fact a fictional character that he created, named after a ghost story and consuming the man within over the last ten years. Before that, he was a young naval officer named James McGraw, tasked with helping the idealistic Lord Thomas Hamilton solve the pirate problem in the Bahamas. Hamilton’s plan for a general pardon made him powerful enemies, who got their ammunition from a personal scandal: McGraw’s romantic involvement first with Hamilton’s wife Miranda and then, more significantly for them both, with Hamilton himself. In the fallout, James and Miranda flee to Nassau, while Thomas is confined to a lunatic asylum where (they are later told) he kills himself.

Presented as a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, the ‘reveal’ of McGraw and Hamilton’s true relationship should really have not been one at all: it follows naturally from the previous interactions between the characters and makes sense of all Flint and Miranda’s tense exchanges about their past, as well as his single-minded crusade for the island’s future. Yet the response from many fans was one of outrage: the showrunners were accused of having ‘ruined’ a previously ‘badass’ character or of ‘sneaking in’ a bisexual protagonist in the service of political pandering.

The recent controversy around Sky’s Jamestown has reignited debates about the extent to which historical dramas should reflect the social mores of the times in which they are set, rather than our own. Yet there is no such thing as a purely apolitical recourse to ‘historical accuracy’: any attempt to re-imagine the past is inflected by the moment in which it occurs. Although debate over Flint’s sexuality was often framed in the guise of verisimilitude, the question of whether real pirates engaged in same-sex relationships (they did) is ultimately beside the point: his character, after all, is a fiction, a barely-sketched ghost hovering over Stevenson’s novel. The fault line lay in what today’s viewers wanted from a TV pirate narrative, and what some of them apparently wanted was precisely the persona of ‘Captain Flint’: they could accept any atrocity, but not this legendary protagonist being defined by his love for another man. 

The figure of the eighteenth-century pirate, with its inherent combination of violence and billowy-shirted camp, thus easily becomes a flashpoint for conceptions of masculinity. Extra-textual challenges to Flint’s ‘badassery’ aside, the character most aware of this within the show is Jack Rackham. Physically slight, tending to dandyism and cut-glass quips, his face almost permanently bruised from someone punching him, Rackham is obsessed with his name and legacy because he has found it that much harder to emerge from the shadow of more aggressive figures like Vane and Teach.

It takes Jack some time to reconcile to the fact that his success is ultimately owed to two women: his partner Anne Bonny (scowling gloriously from under a wide-brimmed hat), and Max, the Creole prostitute-turned-economic-mastermind who becomes her lover, in a complex dynamic that skirts the lines of both conventional love triangle and male fantasy. While Black Sails may open with pay cable’s usual mix of titillation and sexual violence, it ends up showcasing a remarkable range of flawed and multi-faceted female characters, whose changing allegiances and moral commitments are crucial to its action: from Anne’s blend of vulnerability and rage to Max’s caring and ruthless survival; to the steadfast but not self-abnegating devotion of Miranda Hamilton and the clear-eyed leadership of Madi, the Maroon princess whose destiny as Silver’s wife (mentioned in a few dismissive lines by Stevenson) will end up being a betrayal of her ideals. Even the trade boss Eleanor Guthrie, who at first seems like a man’s idea of a ‘strong’ woman – she’s young and beautiful, she swears like a sailor, she is appears to be in charge but in practice is oddly ineffectual – is able to grow into belated self-awareness about her own culpability and constraints. Anne Bonny may be the only one to lead a boarding party, but women’s contributions will help to decide the fate of Nassau. It is one of Max’s employees at the brothel, in fact, who designs the famous Jolly Roger flag to Jack’s exacting specifications. As he maintains, ‘We all have the same swords out there, we all have the same guns. But great art has felled empires and therein lies all the difference.’

The democratic institutions of piracy mean that such forays into public relations play a much larger role within the plot than one might assume: the source of Captain Flint’s power lies not in his cutlass but his ability to manipulate belief. He meets his match, however, in John Silver, whose prominent role in Treasure Island makes him into a sort of Chekhov’s gun hanging over the narrative. Initially an insufferable fast-talking rogue, Silver transforms almost unrecognisably in later seasons, gaining in stature as he loses his leg – the result of an uncharacteristically selfless choice that visibly horrifies him even as he makes it, and which inextricably binds him to both Flint and his crew.

Recognising that Flint is a man who must see himself reflected in others, Silver assumes the perilous role of being his shadow and his mirror, at once his most trusted confidant and his most implacable adversary. Both of them are defined by knowing ‘the power of a story, and how to harness it to [their] own ends’: a power that makes them nearly invincible when acting in concert, and threatens to tear the world apart when they are opposed. Their interactions when alone are defined by a compelling blend of sincerity and manipulation, until it becomes impossible to know where one stops and the other begins. 

After allowing him deep into his own secrets, Flint comes to realise that Silver – unlike every other major character in Black Sails – is a man completely lacking in backstory, no fulcrum in his past that would explain his present motivations. Silver seems to arise from nowhere, announcing himself as something he isn’t (the ship’s cook), just as the action of the first episode begins. Yet as it develops, he is as much acted-upon as acting: this is his backstory, forming him into the man that he will become in Treasure Island. Even the legend of ‘Long John Silver’ is ultimately spun in his absence by Billy Bones, serving his own political purposes.

It is Silver, however, who ends up shaping the story’s end, even if he does not fully appreciate the consequences. It may be his lack of grounding, his deliberate amputation of his own past, that leaves him as selfish in love as he was out of it: in order to save Madi’s life, he betrays the cause for which she is willing to give it (that the ship carrying her is called the Eurydice underlines his position as a faithless Orpheus). To do so means disposing of Flint and his single-minded determination to continue the war against colonialism, which Silver believes will prove too costly. As they face off on the titular island, Flint pleads with Silver to understand why he cannot give up, in a speech that doubles as a manifesto for the programme as a whole and the ‘freedom in the dark’ that it finds for marginalised voices: ‘All this will be for nothing. We will have been for nothing. Defined by their histories, distorted to fit into their narrative, until all that is left of us is the monsters in the stories that they tell their children.’

Unwilling to interfere further in the broader narrative, however, Silver finds another way to neutralise the monster in Flint: he removes him from action by orchestrating his reunion with a secretly-alive Thomas Hamilton on a penal plantation in Georgia. It is an act of erasure and healing that is fully in the tradition of early modern romance: the oar becomes a winnowing hook, the sword a ploughshare. As Silver tells Madi: ‘I did not kill Captain Flint; I unmade him. […] Captain Flint was born out of great tragedy […] I found a way to reach into the past, and undo it.’

To salvage a happy ending from the jaws of history, Black Sails must thus turn away from the structural to the personal: Flint may refuse to forgive England or to be forgiven by it, but forgiveness remains possible on the individual level, however hard-won. Slavery will continue and spread, but Madi’s own group of Maroons is able to survive in freedom; one day she may learn to trust Silver again. Nassau returns to British rule, but it is now being covertly run by Max, with Jack and Anne continuing to sail under the black flag with her blessing.

For some reviewers, even this conditional happiness was too much – in a television landscape where prestige is measured by grimness, the ending of Black Sails was accused of being ‘fanfiction-like’ in its wish-fulfilment. But then of course, the show is essentially fanfiction in the way that it engages with the canons of Treasure Island and recorded history. Like John Silver, it reaches into the past to rewrite some of its tragedy, and like John Silver, our motivations for wanting to do so are essentially selfish: we cling to the survivors of the wreck because we have grown to care for and define ourselves through them.

It is left to Jack Rackham, with all his belief in the power of legacy, to offer a summation. Art ‘must be true’ in order to ‘transcend,’ he concludes, but it is subject to a different kind of truth-value:

A story is true. A story is untrue. As time extends it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe – those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then what does it matter if it was true when it was born?

In our current historical moment, such an approach to ‘facts’ has fully demonstrated its dangers. But when applied to fiction and the injustices of the past, it can instead become a strategy of reclamation – a way of ensuring that a different type of story will survive.

So, perhaps Flint really was killed on Skeleton Island, or drank himself to a lonely death in Savannah as Stevenson records. Perhaps the Maroon settlement will be retaken, the treaty broken as so many other treaties signed by colonial powers have been; perhaps Woodes Rogers will find a way to return to power in the Bahamas; perhaps Max’s trade in Nassau will fail; perhaps Jack and Anne (and their new shipmate) will be captured the very next day to meet the fate that history prescribes for them.

‘Too much sanity may be madness,’ Madi tells Flint, quoting Don Quixote (another of Black Sails’ significant intertexts), ‘and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.

Perhaps they’re out there still.

Black Sails was broadcast on Starz in the US between 2014 and 2017. All four seasons are available on Amazon Prime in the UK.