This month’s post will be slightly different from others I have written in the past and will focus on the popular television show Black Sails and not on sea chanteys. I just recently finished watching all four seasons of the Starz show and was struck by two competing thoughts: there are a great number of accurate historical representations of pirates, but there are also nagging glorifications of pirates which work to further imbed a romantic attachment to these figures which, in turn, inures them as heroes and sex symbols in the modern consciousness. 1 Throughout the seasons, there are small glimpses into the early maritime world, some of which point to conversations in maritime history that are only covered by a few scholars; however, there are also the expected treatments and reenactments of the life of a pirate that ultimately have the viewer, at least this was true for me, siding with the pirates and hoping for their success or victory (perhaps even wishing to emulate them). I plan to deconstruct the show in a series of two posts, beginning with this one, which will delve into the interesting pieces of pirate and maritime history that were accurately portrayed in the series, focusing specifically on the homosocial and homoerotic relationships between the characters Captain Flint and Lord Thomas Hamilton as well as Blackbeard and Charles Vane. The next post will discuss the ways in which the show reinforces cultural stereotypes of the “outlaws of the Atlantic,” to use Marcus Rediker’s description, and how these stereotypes and narrative depictions take certain liberties that work only to sexualize and valorize the early modern pirate, solidifying him (and, sometimes, her as was the case with Ann Bonny and Mary Read, who each make an appearance in the show) as the heroic underdog fighting for freedom against oppressive political systems. 2 Though Black Sails certainly comes closer to a historically accurate representation of pirates and the maritime world, the show is ultimately a further cultural object circulating similar narratives as that of Treasure Island, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and other popular representations of pirates produced for the consuming public which tender sex, adventure, violence, vengeance, and sometimes triumph over adversity. This latter aspect of the show will be the focus of the second post in this series to come next month. I want to make clear that this is not a film/series critique by any stretch. Instead, I want to open a dialogue concerning the cultural representations of the sea and sailing life produced in the modern world, far removed from the Age of Sail and the Golden Age of Piracy. I contend that what Black Sails does is often what other films and cultural products ultimately do: provide the consuming audience with a mixture of fact and fiction, bleeding the two together to the point where fact becomes fiction and vice versa. The question that I want to consider (to a fuller extent in the second installment of this series) is whether or not it is possible to fully and accurately represent the sailing world as it was in the Age of Sail or whether, as character Jack Rackham states in episode 35 of the series: “the truth isn’t nearly as interesting.”
To begin, there are certainly facets of the sailing world that lend themselves well to the fodder expected in popular entertainment. The early modern maritime world was full of danger, intrigue, sex, death, violence, etc. If one is to open any captain’s log, surgeon’s log, or sailor memoir, it will be apparent that the early Atlantic realm was one rife with tales of the dangers and terrors of the sea. Black Sails undoubtedly delivered on these facets of the maritime world and produced creative and imaginative representations of the world at sea that were incredibly accurate in places. For instance, there is the very extended and gruesome scene where character Long John Silver loses his leg. Medical intervention, on shipboard, was much like what can be found in land bound warfare: primitive, frightful, and often applied without anesthetics. John Woodall, a ships’ surgeon who wrote the handbook The surgions mate, or, A treatise discouering faithfully and plainely the due contents of the surgions chest that “Of the dismembering knife, and of the Catlinge” that:
These two instruments are to be used in dismembring [sic]: as namely, they are to amputate or take of any ofensive member or part of mans body : I meane all the fleshie part, or whatsoever may bee incised even to the bone. And also in dismembring of the legge or arme below the knee or elbow, you shall have occasion to use the incision knife to cut a sunder bewtixt the bones or else where, whatsoever the Catling or dismembring knife cannot come at by reason of their greatnes or vrisitnes [unclear] ; and then proceed to the sawe.
In Black Sails, episode 18 introduces viewers to the painful reality of ship board medicine in the era. After John Silver has his leg smashed several times with a crude axe, his fellow seamen gather together, assess the damage, the surgeon claims he can remedy the situation but that John “is not going to like it,” and reveal to him that they will have to remove his leg. Viewers look on as the crew provide Long John Silver with a bottle of rum, each man holds him down, and the surgeon proceeds to saw methodically at his leg as Silver screams in agony. This scene is a remarkably sound rendering of the ship board experience of surgery at sea and reproduces for an audience far removed from the Age of Sail the horrors of disease and injury without the comforts of modern medicine.4
Outside of gory scenes such as the extended amputation, there are two key storylines that serve as interesting and important opportunities to discuss the landscape of the sailing world. One of the strongest and delightfully unanticipated aspects of maritime life highlighted was the nature of same-sex relationships in the period, especially as they were lived at sea. Black Sails does well in representing, especially in terms of pirates, the nature of collectivity and adherence to a code of ethics (much like a code of thieves) which renders pirates almost paragons of brotherhood, fairness, collective rights, and opposition to the larger tyranny; the example of John Silver’s leg amputation (above) helps to exemplify the nature of this caring brotherhood. Much has been written about the pirate and his role in the early modern world; however, some of the most interesting texts shed light on the pirate as not only an outlaw, but also as a social outcast who seeks the shelter of the pirate ship so as to live his life as he desires, without the tyranny of the social majority, and also spend his life in the presence of other like-minded men. Nowhere is this truer than in the scholarship written about pirates and their affinity for each other, a relationship that sometimes blurs the line between the homosocial and the homoerotic. There are many examples of the pirates’ adherence to a code of brotherhood as well as examples of pirates coming together to democratically combat the injustices they observe in their floating world in the episodes throughout Black Sails; however, the show succeeds the most in showcasing alternative sexualities and ambiguous love connections through the characters of Captain Flint and Blackbeard. For Captain Flint, it is clear throughout the series that his affections lie with Lord Thomas Hamilton and it could be conjectured that Thomas’ supposed death pushes Flint to the life of a pirate. For Blackbeard, his relationship with the pirate Charles Vane relates to what B. R. Burg points to, in his Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, which is the deep connection that some pirates had with their much younger sailing charges that might enter the realm of the homoerotic.
The relationship between Flint and Hamilton is interesting in that it broaches a topic in the early modern history of sex and sexuality that is often glossed over or completely misunderstood in popular culture. Many scholars have discussed, at length, the fact that the early modern world was one of general freedom of sexual interaction, as long as those sexual experiences did not negatively impact the wider social world of the time. Alan Bray was one of the first scholars to open the discussion of early modern same-sex encounters and paved the way for other scholars to begin grappling with some of the questions that had received little attention until his text Homosexuality in Renaissance England was published. Bray articulates that “In general homosexual behavior went largely unrecognized or ignored, both by those immediately involved and by the communities in which they lived; in this individual and society were at one”; however, he later tempers this statement by showing that “This was not tolerance.”5 Though there was no identity category for those who practiced same-sex sexual encounters, there is a wealth of evidence which shows that underground cultures of men flourished where they were able to express their desires.6 The Molly House Subculture is at least one space in the eighteenth-century where men could express their same-sex desires.7 Taking this back to pirates, Burg discusses how early modern pirates may have sought the shelter of the pirate ship when a lifestyle ran in opposition to the expectations of the land bound world. One particular facet of pirate life that Burg discusses is the possibility of pirates seeking out piratical ships so as to be in the presence of other men; for, their sexual desire was to be with men. In fact, he argues that “The single certainty is that the only non-solitary sexual activities available to buccaneers for most of the years they spent in the Caribbean and for almost all of the time they were aboard ship were homosexual.”8 Burg discusses how the early modern pirate ship was one that was militantly male with some ships so exclusively homosocial that women, when discovered, often met a terrible end. He shows that “Determined to enforce his rule of no women at sea, Blackbeard was known to strangle captured women and pitch their bodies overboard.”9 It is clear, in Black Sails, that all of Flint’s conquests are fueled by the rage he feels at the loss of his lover Hamilton. In fact, Silver confronts Flint about this detail in one episode. The show does well humanizing and showcasing the experience of same-sex love and sexual experimentation regarding men, especially highlighting the ambiguity of what modern viewers would call bisexuality in men. The show does, however, err heavy on the side of what Laura Mulvey denoted as the “Male Gaze.” More on the heavy reliance on female-female same-sex sexual encounters and their tie to titillating and reinforcing an expected masculinized sexual expectation in the second blog post to come. Though more time and camera focus could have highlighted the complex relationship between and among Flint, Hamilton, and Miranda Barlow, the show does at least circulate a new narrative concerning the sexual lives of sailing as well as early modern men.
Another male-male relationship in the series that is not only incredibly interesting (and not nearly plumbed enough) but also illustrative of another facet of the pirate world that Burg discusses specifically is the relationship between Edward Teach and Charles Vane (Burg describes a particular type of relationship that these two characters exemplify; Burg did not discuss Vane and Blackbeard together). The relationship between these two men, in the series, is representative of what Burg identifies as a “matelotage” which is “an institutionalized linking of a buccaneer and another male—most often a youth—in a relationship with clearly homosexual characteristics.”10 Burg offers several examples of very deep, emotional connections between pirates and their charges or “cabin boys,” which is also demonstrated through several small scenes in Black Sails. Burg argues in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition that there are some interesting narratives of pirates who were so devoted to their cabin boys that they left them all that they had in the world or that they would jump ship, sacrificing their lives, in an attempt to save a beloved boy. Throughout the seasons, Black Sails viewers watch as Teach, a fearsome pirate in both the series as well as historical documentation, demonstrates an affection for Vane that runs similarly to what Burg outlines in his Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. Though stopping short at jumping ship to save a beloved boy, Teach certainly embraces the pirate Flint’s mission to take Nassau back in retribution for the hanging of his beloved Vane.11 In at least one conversation with a fellow pirate, Teach discusses how Vane is close to if not more than a son to him, especially when he realized (at least in the series) that he could not have children. A further example of his devotion to Vane which is clearly more than Blackbeard (or any other pirate in the series demonstrates, for that matter) has for another character is when Vane steps in between Blackbeard and Flint as they are dueling. It is clear that no pirate would deign to step in between the two men (if they had, they would likely die in the process), yet the moment that Vane steps in to protect Flint, it is as if Blackbeard is rendered immobile. Confronted with the choice to either be humiliated or to kill Vane, Blackbeard chooses to spare Vane’s life, a choice that he likely would not have made for any other pirate or person. In a similar historical example, Burg describes how Bartholomew Roberts killed a member of his ship and “When the dead sailor’s partner, a man named Jones, learned of what had occurred, he sought out the captain and shower him with vituperation. The captain was no more willing to accept insults from the man Jones than from his mess mate. He again drew his sword and ran the man through…Jones was only injured. Ignoring his wound, the enraged sailor grabbed Roberts, threw him over a gun and beat him soundly.”12 Burg’s example is a testament to the fierce emotional connections pirates had to one another, especially to one mess mate to whom they might have entertained a particular affinity. Brothers certainly fight ferociously for fellow brothers; however, it is worth speculating that something else much deeper and more intimate spurred the reactions that are documented historically.
Black Sails is, indeed, incredibly accurate in much of its representation of the sailing world for the era. Though many liberties were certainly taken in terms of the actual pirates themselves (many of the pirate characters were actually living pirates in the history of the Golden Age of Piracy) and the narratives of their lives, the series does well in portraying the essence of the period for modern audiences, especially those aspects of the sailing world that are often not the topic of robust discussion. Too often, cultural products dealing with the sea and sea life in the Age of Sail fully romanticize the landscape of this historical era to the point where it seems these historical figures lived fantastic and even enviable lives when, in fact, their lives were, as Thomas Hobbes puts it, “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” The next installment of the blog series, however, will touch on the ways in which the series contributes to the cultural ideal and ultimate fascination with pirates which solidifies them as sexy outlaws who fight back against tyranny and pursue pleasure at every turn.
- If the reader is unfamiliar with Black Sails, it was a series created by Robert Levine and Jonathan Steinburg which began in 2014 and culminated in the final season in 2017. The series is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and follows the pirates involved in Stevenson’s novel in the era before the novel picks up. In fact, the final season ends in roughly the same place where Stevenson’s novel begins.
- Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, (Beacon Press, 2014).
- John Woodall, The surgions mate, or, A treatise discouering faithfully and plainely the due contents of the surgions chest : the uses of the instruments, the vertues and operations of the medicines, the cures of the most frequent diseases at sea: namely, wounds, apostumes, vlcers, fistulaes, fractures, dislocations, with the true maner of amputation, the cure of the scuruie, the fluxes of the belly, of the collica and illiaca passio, tenasmus, and exitus ani, the callenture; with a briefe explanation of sal, sulphur, and mercury; with certaine characters, and tearmes of arte, (London : Printed by Edward Griffin for Laurence Lisel, at the Tygers-head in Pauls Church-yard, 1671) https://archive.org/details/surgionsmateortr00wood, 2.
- There are also a few other bits of the show, alongside of Long John Silver’s surgical intervention, that reveal important aspects of the early modern sailing world. There are some excellent representations of early modern navigation. Specifically, in the fifth episode of the series, pirates are filmed as they count the knots on a rope for the speed of the ship. The viewing audience is also treated to several examples of burial at sea as well as the creation of a fire ship to use in attacking and disorienting an opponent.
- Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Columbia University Press, 1996), 75.
- Both Katherine Crawford and Alan Bray indicate that same-sex relationships may have occurred because of the marriage/sexual environment within early modern Europe. See Crawford’s European Sexualities, 1400-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
- Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke, in their anthology Queer Masculinities, 1500-1800, indicate that, for the most part, many early modern societies (outside of London) viewed homosexuality as a sin against nature and prosecuted it (when it actually came to light) with the full extent of the law; however, it was not only very rarely prosecuted, but it was also usually lumped in with other sins of the flesh such as masturbation, adultery, or even gluttony. In fact, many of the early modern societies saw sodomy as a symptom of a larger, cultural issue of gluttony and widespread vice. It is important to mention, however, that when and if same-sex practices were uncovered, they were often met with brutal consequences. Even though sodomitical acts were demonized, there is still evidence to support same-sex couplings in the early modern period.
- B. R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean (New York University Press, 1995), 111.
- Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, 115. Interestingly, in Black Sails, Edward Teach sails with Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny in tow, and he communicates his displeasure to Rackham that a woman is on board his ship. Bonny remains on the ship and she does not meet her end in the series. Bonny’s character, in the show, does not follow the same narrative path as the real life Bonny. Anne Bonny does historically, based on what we know about her, end up with both Rackham and Mary Read, as viewers are treated to in the Black Sails series; however, Read, Bonny, and Rackham were all tried and eventually convicted of piracy. Bonny and Read were spared; for, they plead their bellies once the sentences were read. It was later found that both were, indeed, pregnant (David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996, 59-65). For many years, though, Bonny did survive on pirate ships by cross-dressing and “passing” as a male pirate.
- Ibid., 128.
- Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, see pages 130-132 where Burg discusses the evidence of pirates’ devotion to their young sailing boys.
- Ibid., 130.