Feb 022017


Black SailsThis season deals with the occupation of Nassau by Woodes Rogers. Or as I like to call it, The British Empire Strikes Back.


Flint the Avenger

Following the destruction of Charleston last season, Flint (Toby Stephens) has been leading punitive raids against any colony that hangs pirates. Even though they kill everyone, the pirates still hide their identities, presumably because the disguises look badass. These raids are part of a war of terror to protect Nassau, but the campaign seems to be modelled on the real Blackbeard’s raids during the fall of 1717.Flint

Unlike most pirates, who were satisfied with maritime theft, Blackbeard clearly wanted to attack the British economic system, since he destroyed any cargo that he did not take. After spreading terror among the coastal towns along the Atlantic coast, the arrival of two English frigates in Boston convinced Blackbeard that the New England waters were becoming dangerous, so he sailed south. Once he had captured a French slave ship large enough to mount forty cannon, he started to raid the weakly defended colonies in the Lesser Antilles, such as Gaudeloupe and St. Christopher, leaving a trail of half-destroyed towns behind him.



Before proceeding further, I should deal with a major problem with the script.

At the end of last season, Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and his crew captured the Urca gold, brought it back to Nassau and then decided to invest it in a shared trust to defend the island against England. Interestingly, the season starts after Rackham and Max had dealt with the understandably angry Flint and Vane when they had returned from bombarding Charleston into rubble. The climatic confrontation was merely referred to, rather than shown, probably because the writers could not figure out a believable way to resolve the conflict without killing off several characters. Also, how did Jack persuade the rest of his crew to back the plan, rather than withdraw all of their shares? I have no idea, and apparently neither did the writers, since it is never explained. In reality, the Urca gold was divided among the crew members, most of whom spent it on rum and whores. An unknown number of pirates retired, using their shares as a nest egg to start over in life.



Blackbeard AKA Edward Teach is a zealot.

In the imaginary universe created by the writers, Nassau has been a haven for pirates for more than ten years, not a couple of years. Elanor (Hannah New) took control by uniting with Benjamin Hornigold (Patrick Lyster) and Vane (Zach McGowan) against Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson), the most powerful pirate, to exile him from the island. Learning that Elanor Guthrie had been arrested, Teach travels to Nassau hoping to find men to return to the old days. To his disgust, Nassau has become a place of order, rather than a refuge for lawless men.

Last season, Vane had no interest in defending Nassau but became a convert off-screen. When Teach wonders why they should defend Nassau, Rackham makes a stirring speech where he states that it is because Henry Avery said it was a place for free men, and because Teach, Hornigold, Henry Jennings and Sam Bellamy sailed from there, giving it life. Teach responds that they have ruined Nassau with prosperity, “strife is good, strife makes a man strong”.

While the screen Blackbeard’s resolution to live life on his own, violent terms sounds stirring, he has nothing in common with the real man. Following Rogers’ occupation of Nassau, the real Blackbeard declined Vane’s invitation to attack Nassau because he had already arranged a safer and more lucrative situation. Even before the arrival of Rogers, Blackbeard had realized that open piracy was no longer feasible. Unlike Vane who seemed to desire a glorious death, Blackbeard wanted to enjoy his wealth, so he obtained a pardon from the governor of North Carolina. Actually, he and the governor made a deal where Blackbeard and his closest followers would discreetly hijack ships travelling past the area, preferably from Virginia, which looked down on North Carolina. The governor’s friends would fence the cargoes, and he would protect the operation.



Sooo, who is Woodes Rogers?

Rogers (Luke Roberts) appears as head of the expedition to retake Nassau, and everyone has heard of him because he wrote a book, but there is little background, which sounds like my cue.

Woodes Rogers, a Bristol merchant, had led an expedition to attack Spanish ships in the Pacific in 1708. Aside from capturing several rich cargoes, they rescued Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned on an island for four years, and whose story would inspire Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Despite careful attention to avoid accusations of breaking the East India Company’s monopoly, when the little fleet finally reached London in 1711, most of his profits had to be given to the company. However, his book A Cruising Voyage Around the World proved to be a best-seller.

Aware that the court was bombarded with appeals for help from the governors in the Caribbean, Rogers decided that a public-private partnership wold be the best solution. The navy would contribute several warships, and the crown would offer a pardon, but the governing of Nassau would be carried out by a consortium of private investors, the Copartners for Carrying on Trade and Settling the Bahama Islands, with Rogers as an unpaid governor. Following the completion of an astonishing amount of paperwork, Rogers received his commission from King George on Jan 6, 1718.



A pardon is more effective than a fleet.

All of the talk about the defence of Nassau proves to be empty words as soon as Rogers’ fleet actually arrives. Serving as Rogers’ emissary, Benjamin Hornigold lands on the beach, reads the offer of a general pardon, and half of the crews promptly lay down their weapons. While it was a suitably dramatic scene, in reality news of the pardon had arrived much earlier than Rogers, since the proclamation of the pardon was distributed throughout the colonies. In fact, the governor of Bermuda even sent copies of the proclamation to Nassau, and Henry Jennings, one of the pirates mentioned in Rackham’s stirring speech, had already taken a privateering commission from the governor of Bermuda before Rogers arrived. It is true that many of the pirates on Nassau did sign the pardon. Some, like the real Hornigold, genuinely accepted it, while more signed just to get away from Nassau, which would no longer welcome enterprising merchants with aggressive purchasing tactics.



Escaped slaves and pirates, working together against the oppressor.

Captured by a large community of maroons, escaped slaves, Flint admits that they had sold more slaves than they had freed. Given the incomplete records kept by the pirates, it is difficult to tell, but probably true. Escaped slaves and indentured servants were members of many pirate crews, but slaves taken off slave ships were generally used to perform the hard work on the ships. Recognizing that both groups are filled with people who hate England, Flint negotiates an alliance with the maroon leader.

Up until now, Black Sails was a fantasy, but when Flint proposed transforming Nassau into a haven for escaped slaves, it became a fantasy to satisfy modern desires, a wish for an organized alliance between the abused sailors-turned-pirates and the even-more abused slaves that could possibly bring down the entire British empire. When I was reading Colin Woodward’s Republic of Pirates, the basis for the show, I kept wishing for such an alliance. Apparently, I am not alone. While I wish it had happened, it didn’t. None of the pirate leaders appeared to have sufficient vision.

I realize that Black Sails revolves around Nassau, but the whole idea of driving Rogers off Nassau makes no sense. While the maroons’ island is smaller than Nassau, it is still sizeable, and since most of the Caribbean was uncharted at the time, they could avoid detection for a long time. They could start hitting plantations on other islands to free more slaves and take cannon from captured merchantmen until they had a community of thousands, which would be much more likely to preserve its independence, especially if they lived on an island that had not been claimed by any of the powers.



She’s back.

Elanor had been arrested last season and was sentenced to be hung until Woodes Rogers arranged for her to be freed in exchange for advice about Nassau. Naturally, she soon becomes his most trusted adviser and his lover, not necessarily in that order. When Rogers becomes feverish and can’t work, he orders all communication to go through Elanor, enabling her to once again rule Nassau.

While Elanor already knew that the pirates were led by Flint, her former ally, and Vane, her former lover, she remains unaware of Mr. Scott’s (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) involvement. Years ago, he had made a deal with a small community of Maroons on a remote island to care for his family in exchange for a steady supply of goods from Nassau. The writers made a mistake by not enabling Elanor to learn that Mr. Scott had founded the maroon community and now opposed her directly. A substitute father figure, their relationship had been quite touching. The knowledge that her most trusted adviser was a leader of the other side might have made her reconsider her choices. Probably not, given her hunger for power, but it would have been interesting to watch.



More money, more problems.

Aside from her share in the Urca gold, Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) owns several business, including a brothel and a tavern, and shares in many more but she believes that she will lose everything when the English come back. To be honest, this fear seems illogical, since her businesses provided her with legal revenue. After Woodes Rogers occupies the island, Max remains in Nassau, rather than start over somewhere else, in order to become respectable because she wants the life that her father, the owner of the plantation, gave to his legitimate daughter, and she is willing to pay a steep price for that life. When Rogers does not offer her a seat on the new council, even though she is the most powerful business owner on the island, Max hands over her entire share of the Urca gold in exchange for wiping out her past criminal record and full involvement in the colony’s government. As a stakeholder in the colony, she even takes the lead in retrieving the share of her former partners Bonny and Rackham. Despite their cooperation to defend the island against the pirates, Max and Elanor remain rivals, and it becomes clear that while the two women are equally ruthless, Max does not share Elanor’s habit of making more enemies than she can handle.



Wow, the treasure of the Urca has been the McGuffin for three seasons.

To gain Spain’s permission to become governor, Rogers had to promise to return the Urca gold within eight weeks or Spain would invade. Rackham and Bonny (Clara Paget) are about to leave the island with their fortune when he decides that he wants the pardon so he can keep his name. To his surprise, he is arrested because the Spanish now want Rackham in order to satisfy their pride. Actually, the Spanish were not consulted and Rogers constantly feared a Spanish attack.

Flint arranges for both Rackham and the treasure to be rescued in order to lure Rogers to send his entire force to attack the combined maroon/pirate force at a battlefield of their choosing, which turns out to be the maroons’ secret island. The maroon leader’s reaction to the news that her island will become a battlefield is brilliant. Unlike everyone else who becomes resigned to Flint’s tendency to make up plans as he goes, she tells him that she will not face her people with “I don’t know yet”.



Charles Vane…martyr?

Captured during the raid to free Rackham and retrieve the gold, Vane refuses to be rescued, believing that his execution will spark resistance on Nassau, which is more dramatic than the real man’s fate. Deposed by his quartermaster Rackham after he refused to attack a warship, Vane and sixteen followers were given a small sloop and sent away, a humiliating experience for a man whose name had terrorized colonies throughout the Caribbean. Given his reputation, Vane soon attracted more men, but a storm wrecked his ship, leaving him the sole survivor. Arrested by a former pirate, he was taken to Jamaica, where a flood of witnesses testified against him. Hung in Port Royal on March 29, 1721, Vane’s body was left hanging near the entrance to the harbor for months as a warning.



Focusing on the struggle between Flint and Rogers misses the bigger picture.

Meeting with Flint, Rogers points out that he is merely completing the plan originally proposed by Flint and Lord Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones), as shown in the previous season. Flint replies that both Hamilton and Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes) were killed because they had asked England for pardons, so he is tired of asking England for pardons, he simply wants his island back. Yet again, it is all about Flint, not the economic hardship imposed by an empire.

Aware that Flint keeps trying to make him the villain, even though he is a reasonable man, Rogers declares that any man who commits piracy will be considered to be a member of Flint’s crew and will be hung by Rogers, so it is basically a fight between the pirate Flint and the pirate-hunter Rogers. It is a very dramatic scene, but it is also complete nonsense. Instead of a struggle between two alpha males, the fight was between the pirates and the entire English empire, mainly the American and Caribbean colonies, since the Royal Navy had sent more warships to the other colonies in the Caribbean, and several colonial governors had hired privateers to fight the pirates.

The writers even screw up Charles Vane’s trial. At one point, Elanor explains that the governor does not have the authority to try Vane on Nassau, which once again misses the scope of the government’s intensified effort against the pirates. Originally, pirates had to be tried by the Lords of Admiralty in London, but the colonial governors had received authority to try pirates, and they often tried the entire crew, rather than simply shipping a captain and few key men to London.

As ever, the show is exciting. It is cool to see John Silver, the arch manipulator, become Long John Silver, the quartermaster who thinks only of his men. Determined to win Flint’s respect in order to function as quartermaster, Silver reveals that he arranged for Rackham to reach the gold first. Impressed with Silver’s scheming ability, the two men then drag a shark onto a rowboat and kill it.

This season is fun, lots of fun, but frustrating, since the writers are mixing fantasy with large chunks of historical accuracy. Despite my rampant negativity, I have to admit that no other show has me on the edge of my seat like Black Sails. Except The Expanse.