Tag Archives: Treasure Island

Now that it is over, a review of the television series Black Sails

Nassau harbor in Black Sails

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.

Long John Silver in the midst of battle

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.

Flint’s character does dominate the series

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 big winner in the series is Max, former prostitute turned successful businesswoman

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.

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Getting rid of a pirate captain in the Golden Age of Piracy

The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!

It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.

Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.

Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts' last fight

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts’ last fight

On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.

The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.

A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.

Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.

And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.

Weird fact: One of the "forced" men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore's great-grandfather!

Weird fact: One of the “forced” men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather!

That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!

Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy's

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy’s

At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!

They left Kidd's body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

They left Kidd’s body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.

Piracy: some basic history

Since quite a few posts to come are going to be on piracy because I’m teaching a course on the subject starting in January, this seems like a good moment to discuss the basic history of piracy as we know it, or at least think we know it.

He's more than just a name for a brand of rum. Henry Morgan was a successful buccaneer who was knighted for his efforts!

He’s more than just a name for a brand of rum. Henry Morgan was a successful buccaneer who was knighted for his efforts!

Piracy is the act of robbing people at sea, in contravention to the law. It’s a slippery definition. Who decides what law applies on the high seas? What about governments who sponsor robbery on the high seas? And what about people we might call pirates who raid the land? These are all questions worth considering at length. We call Captain Morgan a pirate, even though his most famous action was a raid by land on the city of Panama. But we don’t usually call Vikings pirates, though raiding shore towns was their most famous activity. The reasons why have a lot to do with history and culture, which I’ll be getting into in later posts.

Piracy seems to have existed ever since people took to the seas in ships. Pirates once captured Julius Caesar and held him for ransom. And pirates ply their trade today off the coast of Somalia and in the Straits of Malacca between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

However, when people think of “pirates,” what they are usually thinking of are the pirates who operated mostly in and around the Caribbean during the years between about 1640 and 1730. By convention, the earlier period, from about 1640 to 1690, is called the era of the buccaneers, while the years after, especially after 1715, are the “Golden Age of Piracy.”

What was so special about the Caribbean in those days? Piracy flourishes when there are valuable cargoes, weak enforcement of the law on the seas, plenty of trained sailors, and friendly ports. And the Caribbean had all of those things in between 1640 and 1730.

All of the land surrounding the Caribbean fell under the control of Spain in the 16th century. And Spain exploited the New World to fill its treasuries. Silver, gold, and jewels, even silks and porcelain shipped across the Pacific from the Spanish colony in the Philippines, all flowed through the Caribbean on their way to Spain. And the Spanish colonists in the New World demanded luxuries and manufactures in return. Oh, there were rich pickings!

Tortuga in its buccaneering heyday

Tortuga in its buccaneering heyday

Spain devoted its money to wars in Europe, and had little to spend guarding the Caribbean coasts. So interlopers settled on the islands: the Dutch on various small islands in the Lesser Antilles, the French on Tortuga and the adjacent parts of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti), and the English on Jamaica, seized in 1655. The didn’t find gold, but they did learn that sugar could be a profitable crop, when they could use slaves. So valuable cargoes of molasses, rum, and slaves flowed through the Caribbean as well.

And there was no one to enforce the law on the waters of the Caribbean! The other nations hadn’t just come to trade, but to make war on the Spanish and each other. Yet it was a secondary theater in the European wars of the era. Each power could devote only a fraction of its strength to the Caribbean, and they were more interested in fighting each other than in fighting pirates.

With so many islands and ports, the Caribbean had many sailors, and they quickly realized the opportunities for plunder. Better yet, if they promised one power they would attack only its enemies, they could be sure of a friendly harbor among the islands controlled by that power. Captain Morgan is a good example. He based himself in Jamaica, and usually attacked only the enemies of England.

By some accounts the most successful pirate, Henry Every's capture of a Mughal treasure ship made him and his crew rich

By some accounts the most successful pirate, Henry Every’s capture of a Mughal treasure ship made him and his crew rich

So long as piracy paid better than honest commerce, and the European powers couldn’t devote much attention to the Caribbean, so long did piracy flourish. But by about 1690, neither of those conditions were true anymore, and the pirates either retired (as did Morgan) or headed to more congenial waters, as did Henry Every, who rose to fame operating in the Indian Ocean.

And yet piracy flared up in the Caribbean once again after 1715. What happened is that 1715 marked the end of a long war, the War of the Spanish Succession. (The King of Spain had died in 1700 without an immediate heir, and the European powers fought over who would take his throne. Yeah, something like Game of Thrones, but for real.) Many sailors had served as privateers, essentially pirates hired by one country and given license to attack only its enemies, rather like the more successful pirates before 1690. With the end of the war, they all became unemployed, and many decided to continue being pirates, though now without a license.

The man in command of the Bahamas expedition, Woodes Rogers and his family

The man in command of the Bahamas expedition, Woodes Rogers and his family

However, conditions were not so propitious as before 1690. The European powers were less interested in tolerating piracy, and clamped down much faster. The English, for example, began hanging entire pirate crews when they captured them, instead of just the leaders. They even sent a major expedition to the Bahamas in 1718 to deprive the pirates of their base. The “Golden Age” turned out to be only a decade or so long.

So why is it the “Golden Age of Piracy?” We can thank Captain Charles Johnson (whoever he really was) for that. In 1724, his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates was published and became a best seller.

The fictional Israel Hands confronting the boy hero of "Treasure Island," Jim Hawkins

The fictional Israel Hands confronting the boy hero of “Treasure Island,” Jim Hawkins

The book would quickly run through four editions and double in size as Johnson added more pirate biographies. Johnson’s book became the source for pirate history and lore. Historians would plagiarize from it, writers would be inspired by it and borrow facts from it. Treasure Island? We know Robert Louis Stevenson read Johnson’s book; among other things, the name of the pirate Israel Hands is lifted directly from Johnson’s book.

As for the earlier period, we also have a contemporary work, De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, by Alexander Oliver Exquemelin, published in 1678 and then translated into English in 1684 as The Buccaneers of America (or variations on that title). Between Exquemalin and Johnson, we have two engaging works about pirates that have fascinated readers and created much of the popular image of what it means to be a pirate.