Our Flag Means Death Back

*This review contains plot spoilers for the television show Our Flag Means Death.*

‘Oddly sweet’, ‘silly’, and ‘laid-back’ are hardly terms one would associate with the Golden Age of Piracy—and yet, those terms describe HBO’s new television series Our Flag Means Death.[1] This eighteenth-century sitcom was written by David Jenkins, co-produced with Taika Waititi, and offers new perspectives for the representation of pirates. The show is based on the misadventures of historical figure Stede Bonnet—known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’—a wealthy landowner in Barbados who leaves life and wife to pursue the pirate lifestyle. Cheerily naïve, Bonnet is unprepared for the challenges of life at sea—his crew’s first plunder, a wilting potted plant.

Bonnet’s charming ignorance catches the attention of the fearsome Edward Teach, known as Captain Blackbeard, who rescues Stede from the Spanish navy. Emerging through the gun smoke, Blackbeard stands above a half-strangled Stede, leather-clad and sexy, ‘The Gentleman Pirate I presume?’ With tears of joy, Stede cries out, ‘So you’ve heard of me!?’—less worried about his near-death experience, he delights in the knowledge that he is making a splash in the pirate community. Together, Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) and Blackbeard (played by Waititi) learn how to be a real pirate while staying true to oneself, all while falling in love. You read that correctly—this is, first and foremost, a swashbuckling romcom.

The show features LGBTQ+ and POC representations, three queer relationships (an achievement for queer fandom communities), and a pirate crew that are less ‘murderous criminals’ and more ‘rag-tag team of misfits’. There are plenty of jokes that eighteenth-centuryists will enjoy such as aristocrats begging to have their ‘dents’ fingered—a phrenology joke.[2] But audiences not invested in the period will nevertheless love the modern sensibilities such as Blackbeard creating the alias ‘Jess the accountant’ or the sweet-tempered crew member Oluwande Boodhari (played by Samson Kayo), who speaks in colloquial English and wears crocs. Despite historical inaccuracies, the show offers new perspectives and representations of piracy that set this series up as a ‘flag a part’ from the rest.

I was surprised to learn that the ‘Gentleman Pirate’ was a historical figure who took up with Teach on his famed Queen Anne’s Revenge. Born in Barbados in 1688 to Edward Bonnet and his wife, both of whom died young, leaving their wealth, land, title, and status to their son Stede Bonnet. In 1709, Bonnet married Mary Allamby, the daughter of a plantation owner.[3] Despite having fortune enough for a lifetime, Bonnet purchased a ship and left a portion of his estate for his wife and children. Bonnet’s turn to piracy elicited great surprise within the Barbadian settler community:

As he was generally esteem’d and honour’d, before he broke out into open acts of piracy, so he was afterwards rather pitied than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him; who believ’d that this humour of going a pyrating proceeded from a disorder in his mind, which had been but too visible in him, some time before this wicked undertaking, and which is said to have been occasion’d by some discomforts he met with in a married state.[4]

Bonnet struck out with a hired and (surprisingly!) salaried crew, knowing almost nothing about the profession and becoming one of the few aristocratic men to leave his life behind—though ‘[h]e had the least temptation of any man to follow such a course of life’.[5] Much of this is accurately represented in the television show. In this way, OFMD has broadened representation of historical figures yet to make it onto the big screen, but this isn’t what makes the show unique. Making up for centuries of heterosexual pirate representation—Jenkins’s playful portrayal of queerness at sea is not exactly overt, which is what makes it so convincing.

The love story between Blackbeard and Bonnet (dubbed by the fandom as ‘Gentlebeard’) is made up of small moments: the conversations they share about Blackbeard’s identity crisis, their collaboration in evading a French naval ship through simulating a lighthouse (dubbed a “fuckery”) and through gentle moments under moonlight, where Blackbeard reveals an old red kerchief that reminds him of his mother, childhood memories he shares only with Stede. These seemingly inconsequential moments had audiences wondering if they were merely being queer-baited again, as many shows, films, and literary texts have done before. It is precisely these coded moments that have previously been the language of implicit queer romance. Fans were happily shocked when, after signing King George the 1st’s Piracy Act (or the Act of Grace of 1717) thereby relinquishing piracy forever, Ed tenderly kisses Stede. Sexuality isn’t the defining feature of these characters. ‘The central thing that makes the show interesting for me is that Blackbeard took Stede under his wing, for some reason, in real life’, Jenkins shares in an interview, clarifying that ‘it really makes no sense — there’s all these holes in [their history]. Filling those holes in with things of your own invention is one of the joys of doing a true story like this’.[6]

Perhaps the biggest failure of the show is that it continues the tradition of avoiding representation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in pirate media. Despite the fact that the Queen Anne’s Revenge was originally a French slave trading ship, La Concorde, captured by Blackbeard in 28 November 1717, there is no representation of enslaved peoples or the ship’s history in the show. According to the Queen Anne’s Revenge project site: ‘Blackbeard left the remaining crew of La Concorde and many of the enslaved people on Bequia with the smaller of his two ships, taking about 75 enslaved people with him (sources vary on the total)’.[7] Records from La Concorde’s Captain, Pierre Dosset, and first lieutenant, Francoise Ernaud, reveal that sixty-one enslaved victims were sold in Grenada for 12,200 livres, and the remaining were sold in Martinique.[8] Despite Blackbeard taking this famed ship in episode 3, this history isn’t acknowledged.

OFMD does well in other arenas, showing multilingual crews of different ethnicities and engagement with Indigenous tribes in the West Indies. While it was historically likely that Blackbeard’s crew would have been made up of different nationalities, we must be careful to not romanticise racial equality as a reality onboard pirate ships. As Arne Bialushewski reminds us, enslaved peoples acquired during raids were often put to work in the most gruelling tasks on ships where they were captured.[9] Moreover, historical pirates and privateers were implicated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, often for the benefit of lining their pockets rather than aiding the enslaved peoples. Nevertheless, OFMD is, first and foremost, a romantic comedy that elects to obviate these facts, preferring to spend airtime on individual characters instead of these historical issues, which goes a long way toward offering new POC representation and perspectives in pirate media.

Even less likely to be positively portrayed in pirate media are Indigenous communities. With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and many examples before it, writers relied on the figure of the cannibal to stand-in for Indigeneity. Jenkins and Waititi opt for a friendlier take in episode 2, where Stede, his men, and their British hostages are captured by natives who place them on trial. The crew is found to be relatively innocent, the locals sell the hostages to the neighbouring pirate community, ultimately releasing Bonnet and his crew. While the show manages to get in a few jabs at colonialism and its impact on the local communities, some stereotyped representations still show up. For example, an elder tribesman acts as a spiritual guide for Stede in a scene that feels just as stereotyped as the cannibal trope. Happily, this elder tribesman’s character is given more than just a one-off scene, and serves as a rather crucial figure at the beginning of our crew’s journey. First, he provides Stede with the spark for his new name and identity when he states, ‘What I am saying is you’re more gentleman than pirate’, pointing out Stede’s place in two worlds. And, in the scene’s final moments, he offers Oluwande a place in their tribe, because, you know, ‘He’s gonna get you all killed’. Oluwande declines, not least because he’s harboring a crush on Jim (played by Vico Ortiz) but also because, that’s what being a pirate is all about, right? The thrill of the ride, come what may.

[1]Robert Llyod, Randy Myers, and Jack Seales, ‘Our Flag Means Death: Season 1 Reviews’, Rotten Tomatoes

(March 2022–January 2023), retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/our_flag_means_death/s01/reviews

[2]This scene occurs in episode 5 ‘The Best Revenge Is Dressing Well ’, Our Flag Means Death (10 March 2022).

[3]Jennifer Stock, ‘Bonnet, Stede’, Biographies, ed. Stock, in vol. 3 of Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library (Detroit, MI: UXL, 2011), pp. 37–44.

[4]Johnson, p. 49.

[5]Johnson, p.  49.

[6]Robinson, ‘Taikia Waititi…’, Polygon.

[7]Natash’ja Hunter, ‘Who was Aboard La Concorde?’, QAR Project: Natural and Cultural Resources (27 July 2019), retrieved from: https://www.qaronline.org/blog/2019-07-27/who-was-on-la-concorde

[8]Hunter, ‘Who was Aboard La Concorde?’, QAR Project.

[9]Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers and Thayne Stoddard, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The (Almost) Slaveless Caribbean, Race, and the Black Atlantic’, The Black Atlantic (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2014), retrieved from: https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/sample-page/contemporary-film-and-black-atlantic/history/disneyfied-histories-disneys-intentional-inaccuracy-historical-films-and-the-black-atlantic/pirates-of-the-caribbean-the-almost-slaveless-caribbean-race-and-the-black-atlantic/#_ednref1