Editorial: Black Sails, Historical Accuracy, and the Pirate Genre in Hollywood

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

Caution to those who have not seen all of Black Sails up to March 26, 2016 and wish not to spoil their first viewings – there are discussions that occasionally spoil small plot points from the show.  Also, this editorial and review covers the show’s first three seasons

“…Set in and around a historically accurate time and place, in Nassau in the Bahamas…”

– Jonathan E. Steinberg, Executive Producer/Co-Creator of Black Sails

“It’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it’s real…”

– Hannah New, role of Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

“It’s not the cheesy pirate thing, it’s not fantasy, it’s trying to actually portray how life could have been in the Golden Age of Piracy.”

– Clara Paget, role of Anne Bonny in Black Sails

On January 18, 2014, Starz released the first episode of their new show, Black Sails, on Youtube, in partnership with the entertainment network Machinima, a week before it officially aired on Starz’s premium American cable television channel.  This early preview included a ten-minute featurette about their new show and presented the previous three quotes.  Other promotional videos for the show featured similar claims about accuracy.  Two years after the premiere, the show continues to promote itself as “realistic”.  One claim they repeated involved avoiding the most common clichés in pirate films such as parrots, eye patches, and Robert Newton’s pirate accent.  So far, Black Sails avoided these obvious pirate stereotypes.  They did not perpetuate the most blatant tropes of pirates, but Black Sails still repeats many other tropes from the past century of film and television, resulting in many historical inaccuracies.  However, some aspects of this show are new to this media genre and present the smallest of steps towards historical accuracy.  It also stands as a unique production for the pirate genre in Hollywood. Continue reading

The Firsts of Blackbeard: Exploring Edward Thatch’s Early Days as a Pirate

A potential depiction of Edward Thatch, otherwise known as Blackbeard, in his earliest pirate days. (Portrayed by the late Joseph Ruggiero (1984-2010), with beard photoshopped black. Picture taken by David Fictum.)

Preface: A special Thank You goes to The Blackbeard Society for its generous financial support of the research I engaged in for this article.  The Blackbeard Society is a new organization that strives to support of research, writing, and events created to enhance knowledge and appreciation of the notorious pirate’s history.  More special Thanks goes to Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates (Amazon.com link here), and Jim Lawlor, author of The Harbour Island Story (Amazon.com link here), for their help during the research stage of this article.  Some of their references led me to more obscure information about Thatch’s, Bonnet’s, Hornigold’s, and Napping’s careers.  A further special thank you Bethany Easton of London who visited the National Archives at Kew and photographed some of the documents I needed for this study.

Of all the pirates who sailed during the past millennium, Blackbeard’s history possesses more legends, myths, and unverified information than any other pirate. If half of the tales about his treasure proved true, his plunder’s value would rival those taken by pirates in the Red Sea in the 1690s and 1720s.[1]  Unfortunately, for treasure hunters, the historical record does not produce the same rich details featured in these many legends.  After the defeat of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch, the navy did not find dozens of chests full of valuable coins like a creative writers might imagine.  Instead, the navy men found barrels sugar, cocoa, cotton, and several slaves.  When sold in Virginia, the perishable commodities sold for £2247.19.4 in Virginia currency.[2]  Some might propose that the navy and other people in the area missed or neglected to report Thatch’s other treasures.  But, such ideas can only be conjecture since there is no evidence that Blackbeard collected an enormous fortune.  The historical record often refuses to yield many of the claims made of Thatch’s story made by enthusiasts, writers, and even some historians.

This difficulty of matching period evidence to these perceived narratives plagues Blackbeard’s early days as well as his later ones.  In 2013, William Cronan in his presidential address to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association stated, “We [historians] are not allowed to argue or narrate beyond the limits of our evidence.”  In the realm of Blackbeard’s history, publications from enthusiasts and historians alike stray far beyond what period documents say on a regular basis.  Discussing the errors of every historian who published an account of Thatch’s career could fill its own book, but accomplish little towards bringing people closer to understanding what the historical record presents of Thatch’s history.  The few known documents about Blackbeard’s early career lack information on many issues, including a definitive date for when Thatch became pirate, when he became the captain of his own crew, and what voyages he engaged in before his raid off the Virginia and Delaware Capes in the latter half of 1717.  With period sources yielding few facts about this pirate, asking several questions of the historical record offers a means of understanding Thatch’s early days less hindered by centuries of old narratives and legend.

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