‘The image of Libertalia, the utopian pirate experiment, has remained an endless source of inspiration for those on the libertarian left; it has always been felt that even if it did not exist, it should have existed’ (Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, 2021: 3).
Like the legendary Libertalia, the enigmatic pirate characters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) also didn’t exist. From the deranged Billy Bones to the manipulative Long John Silver (where did that nickname come from?) and the ruthless Captain Flint, readers have long been captivated in imagining what this crew’s adventures must have been like before the burial of titular treasure. Enter Black Sails (2014-2017), created by Ted Levine and Robert E Steinberg, the series purports to tell the story of Flint and his crew prior to the events of Treasure Island. To achieve this, the creators have brought to life ‘the golden age’ of piracy in the Caribbean and pitted Flint and crew against or indeed, at times working with, real life pirates of the period: Anne Bonnie, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane and Jack Rackham. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of the show is the eventual arrival of Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who, historically, sailed with or around all of those mentioned above.
Whilst the ruthlessness and savagery of our pirate heroes is not hidden in the slightest, it is the image of Flint and colleagues as proto revolutionaries that is the series most interesting device. And why not revolt? As Peter Lamborn-Wilson notes in Pirate Utopias: ‘Labor conditions in the merchant marines of Europe presented an abysmal picture of emerging capitalism at its worst--and conditions in European navies were even more horrendous. The sailor had every reason to consider himself the lowest and most rejected figure of all European economy and government--powerless, underpaid, brutalized, tortured, lost to scurvy and storms at sea, the virtual slave of wealthy merchants and ship-owners, and of penny-pinching kings and greedy princes.’ (2003: 22).
Developing on Rediker’s notion of naval workers as ‘seafaring proletarians’ (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1987: 288), Lamborn-Wilson posits that pirates represent a form of social resistance: ‘The pirate who […] “warred against the world” was first and foremost the enemy of his own civilization’ (2003: 23). In Black Sails, Flint, his fictional crew and their real-life historical counterparts become the vanguard of revolutionary force of pirates and slaves who, as the clip above suggests, will take the island of Nassau from the British Empire to “bring it all down”. Whether centered on the historical independent republic of Salé (Morocco 1624 – 1668) or the questionable existence of Libertalia (Madagascar, c. 17th century), the scholarship is clear that the telling of the stories of these ‘pirate utopias’ is in itself significant. As Graeber notes: ‘It's hard to escape the conclusion these stories endure because they embody a certain vision of human freedom, one that still feels relevant’ (2021: 6).
In Black Sails then, like the legendary tales of pirate utopias which precede it, the viewers are invited to reimagine ‘criminal’ acts of piracy as reasonable acts in defending the oppressed and achieving a fairer and more just society. As Captain Flint says in one of his closing speeches: ‘They paint the world full of shadows and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light; their reasons; their judgement. Because in the dark there be dragons. But it isn’t true.’ (‘XXXVIII’, 2017). If all that matters in the history of pirate utopias is the existence of them in story and legend, then audiences should do well to heed the call of the Black Sails revolution – one that may not have actually been, but might still be today.
Black Sails (Levine and Steinberg, 2014, Starz: USA)
Graeber, David, Pirate Enlightenment or the real Libertalia: Buccaneers, Women Traders, and Mock Kingdoms in Eighteenth Century Madagascar (2021: published in Italian as L'Utopia di Pirata Libertalia, Eleuthera Editrice: Italy)
Lamborn-Wilson, Peter, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (2003, Autonomedia: USA)
Reddiker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (1987, Cambridge University Press: UK)
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