Since I’m teaching my “Pirates!” course soon, it seemed time to go finish watching the fourth and last season of Black Sails, which only concluded its four year run in 2017. Black Sails pretends to tell the story of the pirates of Nassau in the Bahamas in the Golden Age of piracy, apparently taking place around 1715-20. “Pretends,” sadly, is the operative term, never more so than in the final season. While it has its points, and improves on how pirates have been depicted in movies and on television, it’s best watched as a rousing adventure story. And skip the ending. Please.
The plot of Black Sails revolves around two stories: the British attempt to reimpose their rule in the Bahamas and the pirates’ resistance to that; and the capture of a Spanish treasure galleon and the subsequent fate of the treasure in it. These are both sort of based in history. The British had indeed lost control of the Bahamas during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and sent out Woodes Rogers as governor to reassert their control in 1718. And there was a major Spanish treasure loose in the Caribbean, though it was from a treasure fleet wrecked during a storm off the coast of Florida. I’ve already written a bit about this in my post on “Calico” Jack Rackam, one of the pirates of the era.
Neither actual bit of history has the melodrama of plots and counterplots so common to soap operas that have made their way into many “historical” television series. So both bits were altered. The pirates organize against the return of British rule and recruit the maroon and slave communities to help them. The treasure takes on the attributes of the Wagnerian Rhine Gold, everyone wanting it, none ever benefiting from it. And a cast of characters is given conflicting motives and a sufficient number of improbable events to allow them to change sides with amazing rapidity.
I do appreciate that the pirates are a dirtier and less respectable group of people than Hollywood used to make them (e.g. 1935’s Captain Blood). And there are some nice moments in the series that reflect a real sense of history, whether it be careening a ship or the ruthless punishment of slaves to quell a revolt. On the other hand, New Providence feels less like the down-at-the-heels frontier community it was circa 1717, and more like a period theme park for middle class tourists, complete with a bordello that would have looked a bit too wealthy even for Charleston in this era.
Oh, and did I mention that the fictional pirates of Treasure Island are shoehorned into this thing? This is supposed to be the story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver in the years when they sailed together, long before the events in Treasure Island. Easy to forget this, since it doesn’t matter for most of the series.
Over the run of the series, the plot becomes more focused on Captain Flint’s attempt to use the pirates, maroons, and slaves to overthrow colonial rule. The level of violence rises higher and higher. Major characters get killed. The story suggests that greed and the lust for power consume people in a never-ending struggle the violence of which will destroy them all. The viewer comes to expect Götterdämmerung at the end.
The viewer will be disappointed, inevitably so. The destruction of all the leading characters would diverge too far from history, and be a real downer for the audience of the series. The developers of the series were not courageous enough to either depart unmistakably from history or teach their audience an unhappy lesson. So we get contrived happy resolutions for all the surviving downtrodden characters we were supposed to sympathize with. At the end, the fictional version of real-life pirate captain Jack Rackam, depicted in the series as a remarkably weak cross between a bad auto salesman and a nervous publicist, waxes philosophical about how real history doesn’t matter, that the stories that get retold become history. Well, at least now we have the series developers’ philosophy.
Should you watch Black Sails? If you’re the type of person for whom movies and television help you visualize and understand a world much different from your own, this isn’t a bad starting place. But do go read a book afterward, preferably some edition of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724, 1728), or David Cordingly’s nice introduction to the subject, Under the Black Flag (1996). If you want a rip-roaring adventure filled with violence, betrayals, and occasional sex and nudity, then, yes, this is a series to watch. Just don’t watch the final episode. Imagine a conclusion yourself. You can’t do much worse.