Friday, April 14, 2017

The Pirate Lenin

“Black Sails,” Starz TV, Seasons 1-4, 2014-2017

Pirates usually get the corny clichéd treatment, as if Robert Lewis Stevenson was still alive writing books for young boys.  Black Sails is not quite that way.  It forces you to look at the very real material world they lived in.  The series tells the tale of a rebellion by pirates, maroons (escaped slaves) and slaves against the British empire, interwoven with the story of Captain James Flint and “Long” John Silver from the book Treasure Island. They become two of the leaders of that rebellion.


The first thing is dates.  There is an interweaving of real history and literary history here. The events in ‘Black Sails’ start in 1715.  That is the date of the sinking of a Spanish treasure fleet near the coast of Florida, including the ship the “Urca de Lima,” which was beached.  Pirates led by Henry Jennings and Charles Vane looted that ship and came away with a considerable amount of money.  In 1716 an actual ‘pirate republic’ was established in Nassau the Bahamas on New Providence Island, independent of the British.  In 1717 a British pardon was issued to pirates on New Providence who would take it, though not all did.  The events in the book Treasure Island took place in 1754 or 1734, so this story predates that book.  In this story the Urca treasure ultimately ends up on Skeleton Island, the mysterious island that Stevenson invented. 

Earlier, one of the most successful slave rebellions took place in Mexico, when slave runaways led by Gaspar Yanga lived in the mountains above Veracruz from 1570 to 1618, when they were legalized by the Spanish.  Later Toussaint Louverture led the anti-slavery and independence rebellion in Haiti from 1791 until he was killed in France in 1803, and subsequently JJ Dessalines led it to victory in 1804, when Haiti declared its independence.  Famous U.S. based slave rebellions – Gabriel Prosser, 1808; Denmark Vesey, 1822; and Nat Turner, 1831 – all post-dated these events in the Caribbean.  The slave trade was abolished by England in 1807, and slavery itself abolished in 1833.  It took until 1865, after a violent civil war, for slavery to be abolished in the U.S. 

The Caribbean Revolution

The Pirate Lenin - Separated at Birth
So ‘Black Sails’ is a factual / fictional window into the Caribbean in the early 1700s, long before the U.S. revolution or Civil War or most famous slave rebellions. The conflict between Flint and the British is visualized by Flint and the maroon leader Madi as a combined anti-slavery and independence revolution involving all the slaves in the Caribbean – under Spanish, English or French rule – in unity with every pirate in the Americas.  They want to take back not just Nassau but the whole region.  The actor playing Flint not only looks like Lenin, but his resolution and scope parallel Lenin.  That is why the absurd ending of Season 4 is so ridiculous.  I’ll get to that later. 

Most reviews of “Black Sails” will concentrate on the betrayals by various pirates who go over to the British; the love affairs which twist events in their own way; the emotional bond and conflicts between Flint and Silver; the chest of riches; the incredible plot dives and rises.  The pirate acolytes will point out that the pirate ships used in the series are much bigger than in reality; that the women in Nassau are far prettier than the prostitutes would have been.  The feminists will correctly note that the high status and ‘modernity’ of women in ‘Black Sails’ – mostly as merchants, sometimes as lesbians – might not be correct.  Two women are key leaders of the Nassau business community, which is attempting to go 'legit' throughout most of the tale.  It is the real history of slavery and piracy that grounds this story and gives it gravitas. It is the bones of the tale.  Bourgeois reviewers will concentrate on anything but a united black/white struggle against empire – fictional or not - so I am doing otherwise.

What is true is that two leaders of the ‘Black Sails’ slave rebellion – The Maroon Queen and Madi, her daughter – closely parallel a real Maroon rebel in Jamaica, Queen Nanny, who led a successful struggle in 1720, holding land in the mountains of Jamaica against the British for years.  Like many maroons, she also united with indigenous Arawaks and other Amerindians against their colonial oppressors.  ‘Maroon’ is a term meaning escaped slave, perhaps coming from a Spanish word meaning ‘untamed.’  One of Toussaint Louverture’s military commanders was a man called ‘”John Julian.”  In this story a “Julian” is the leader of the slave rebellion on New Providence Island.  Real pirates play leading roles too – Anne Bonny, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Jeremy Hornigold, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Ned Low and non-real ones – Billy Bones from Treasure Island.  The British governor of New Providence Island, Woodes Rogers, was also a real person.

‘Civilization’ and Freedom

So lets get to the politics implicit in this story, reminding ourselves who is writing it.  The conflict between British ‘civilization’ and the pirate way actually shows civilization to be perhaps more cruel and brutal.  The British embraced slavery, while many pirate crews included maroons who had escaped the plantations.  In fact it was probably one of the best gigs to get after escaping.  Black pirates were treated as equal members of the crews, shared equally in the spoils, got to vote equally with the white pirates.  Some of Blackbeard’s ships consisted of 40% black maroons.  Black pirates would not accept a pardon because they would be sent back to slavery or jailed, unlike white ones.   For the white sailors, many had come from the poverty-stricken streets of London or Ireland or off a British ship, where sailors were treated like dirt.  There was more democracy and freedom on a pirate ship than on a British Man-o-War by a long shot.  The pirates actually vote for their captains, which is a continued theme in 'Black Sails'.  And there were more earnings for the sailors.  Stealing gold and silver from the Spanish, who had turned the silver mine at Potosi, Bolivia into a prison and death camp for indigenous people was not really a crime.  Most of the ships the pirates stopped would have been filled with the spoils of colonial oppression.

The descent of Governor Rogers from an educated and ‘smart’ British businessman and warrior into a brutal killer hints that ‘civilization’ isn’t all its cracked up to be.  

Thar Be Spoilers Ho!

Riffing off of history, the writers imply that Flint’s decision to wage a revolution is merely a psychological issue.  He gets more radical only after his lover is shot by the British.  So he’s obsessed!  Yet Flint's attempt to broker a peace with Britain is literally ‘shot down’ – compromise has become impossible.  Many pirates like Vane and Blackbeard die in the rebellion but others are looking for pardons or deals.  So Flint is not the only pirate who does not relish the idea of the British regaining power.   He is the 'hard left.' Nor is the point about slavery a minor, psychological matter.

John Silver and Madi ultimately fall in love, and this unity of a maroon and a pirate joins the two groups.  In the U.S. unity between white and black is essential for the success of any rebellion, in spite of what the guilty liberals, white bigots or right-wing black nationalists say.  The series shows how there are always people on both sides who want to break unity.  In 'Black Sails' it is made fictionally real.  At one point the Spanish unite with Woodes Rogers to suppress the slave rebellion on New Providence, showing that all the colonial powers at that time had the same agenda.  Pretty progressive stuff, aye?

What is to be Done?

The last episode actually begins with these words and mentions the conflict between the 'human debris' - pirates and maroons - and 'civilization.'  Silver, who had been part of Flint's hard-line faction, ultimately can’t follow through on the rebellion, even when success is in the pirate/maroon grasp.  He is weary and that is somewhat understandable.  We can thank the writers of ‘Black Sails’ for that failure, as many other outcomes of this story could have been devised then the right-wing one they settled on.  As I've pointed out before, endings are the hardest part, and it is where the ideological - and even artistic - failures of nerve most often occur.  At this point in the story, money for the rebellion, unity of the maroons and pirates and the defeat of Rogers have all been accomplished.  A huge fleet of pirate ships has been assembled to take back Nassau. Slaves everywhere would be responsive.   This is Flint and Madi's position - to move forward.

Instead ... Flint is grabbed by Silver and his allies and sent to a prison work farm in Savannah, Georgia where Flint’s former gay lover is imprisoned.  Flint is rendered happy with this reunion, in these absurd ending that has no reality except for 'identity' writers in Hollywood.  Madi ultimately makes up with Silver for his betrayal of the revolution, so that is also a ‘happy’ ending.  An invisible deal is made with the maroons led by Julian – which the writers don’t bother to detail.  Slavery continues.  The British return to rule Nassau with the help of some ex-pirates and not-so-ex pirates.  The peace of empire is restored. And we assume that one day Long John will go back to Skeleton island looking for the buried treasure.

Jack Rackham closes the series by telling the tale of the dangers of the Urca treasure to a wannabe pirate… and we truly are back to Robert Louis Stevenson. A colossal failure of nerve ends 'Black Sails.'

Red Frog
April 14, 2017

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