Monday, January 25, 2016

Season 3 of Black Sails

Well, it’s January again, and for the third time, we’re welcoming the opening shots of Starz’ bloody, violent, sexy pirate series, Black Sails!

Image result for black sails season 3 poster

Last season’s overriding theme was that the world the pirates left behind – the world of “law and order” – is not such a nice place. 18th century society was based on position drawn from birth, cash on hand, and complete intolerance of anything the least bit out of the ordinary. (The crowning injustice being the incarceration of one of the characters for the crime of being gay, and the ruination of the character’s family and associates. Actual historical practice would have hanged all participants in the gay sex, so the series’ Death-by-Incarceration-in-a-Brutal-Mental-Institution was actually quite merciful.)

At the end of Season 2, the pirates also realized, to quote the famous pirate associate Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will hang separately.” No matter how much the Nassau pirates dislike each other, they must overcome their differences if they are to survive.

Season 3 opens with the problem of repairing Fort Nassau, the repository of the massive haul of gold won from the Spanish ship Urca.  With plenty of cash and plenty of booze and women, the working-class pirates just aren’t interested in the hard drudgery of repairing their fortifications.

So, while the mad pirate Flint (the fictional Flint, from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) sails up and down the east coast of what will someday be the US, murdering any magistrate who dares to hang a pirate, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane (based on real-life pirates of the same names from the Golden Age) try to scare up some labor to repair the fort.

The easy answer is to employ slaves. But they run into a problem or morals. These pirates are fighting for freedom. Is it moral for them to use slaves (captured as cargo on the high seas) to further their own ends? This is when the series is at its best, when the real life personalities and the problems of real pirates come to the fore.

From a historical perspective, there’s a lot wrong with the show. The costumes are far more fantasy than reality (thought the actors look good in them) and the blatant inclusion of fictional characters in an otherwise real world leaves us with some problematic plot twists.

F***ing sunglasses

Still, it was possibly a great idea to pitch the show as “All the pirates from Treasure Island are real, and they meet the pirates from history.” The thing is that the real pirates make far more believable characters.

My favorite out of the whole bunch is Charles Vane. I’m not real fond of the historic Vane – he had far too much fun torturing his captives. But the Vane of Black Sails is a different animal – brutal, and sold initially as a cigar smoking, leather pants wearing bad boy, Vane has been revealed as a deep and nuanced character, hopelessly in love with the wrong woman and haunted by his past.

Image result for black sails season 3

A wide swath of the real pirating world is here – Ben Hornigold, Edward Lowe, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny. This year we’ve also been promised Blackbeard. So far, the part, played by Ray Stevenson with quiet, cultivated control, understated menace and offstage megaviolence. I’m looking for great things from this character, and not in the least because the writers already have a couple of thing right, including that the real Blackbeard was buddies with the real Vane.

Also appearing this season is Woods Rogers, the man who ultimately broke the power of the pirates in Nassau. This incarnation of Rogers (played by Luke Roberts) shows us a golden boy, not quite the same man who historically fumbled his way through life, one step ahead of a series of disasters that might have never started for a luckier or more careful man.

The historic Rogers passed out bibles and religious pamphlets to the pirates of Nassau, who signed the papers to accept the Royal pardons mostly because pirate leader Ben Hornigold told them it was a good idea, and everyone who might have disagreed with Hornigold was too drunk to argue. (Pirates + rum = poor decision making.)

This is the year when we find out if Black Sails will make a serious break from history. With the addition of Stevenson’s fictional characters, anything COULD happen, and I’m hoping that in this version of history, the Nassau bunch maintain their pirate stronghold.

If you can’t get Starz on your TV subscription, the Starz website lets you stream all the episodes for free, starting right back in Season 1, and continuing through the latest release. I will warn you, it’s an intense show, with a lot of gratuitous nudity, blood, and violence – especially against women. But if you’re up for it, the men are handsome (and sometimes naked) the women are beautiful (and often naked) and the production values are first rate.

Try it out and see if you like it.

Or, if you want slightly less megaviolent stories, still based on the real-life pirates of Nassau, try my pirate series The Pirate Empire. It stars a hard-drinking female pirate captain who fights, robs and loves her way through the Caribbean, meeting many of the historic pirates along the way. The Pirate Empire’s three books – Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas and Storm Season – are available in paperback or as a Kindle download for your instant reading pleasure. Take home a pirate today! 

Gentlemen and Fortune: Book One of The Pirate Empire      

And join me in watching Black Sails Saturday nights on Starz.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Black Pirates

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s blog is about Black (African) pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.

First let’s get our terminology straight. Every once in a while, I run into someone who wants to call these people “African American Pirates.’ Sorry, guys. “African American” is a term that only works in the United States of America. Since, during piracy’s Golden Age the US had not yet broken free from England, there were no African Americans at the time.

However, the terms that were in use are not specific, mostly because these people were not viewed as a homogenous group. Some were slaves. Some were slave owners. Some, as we shall see, were Dutch, or French.

The story of many Black pirates was at many times also the story of slavery. Since the first founding of colonies in the New World, European countries scraped up their poor, or occasionally just their unlucky, and forcibly shipped them off to New World colonies as “indentured servants.” That the term of servitude (often 7 years) outlasted life expectancy in the harsh new colonies (sometimes as little as 2 years) bothered the authorities not at all.

However, ship captains bent on kidnapping prostitutes, thieves, beggars and gypsies for transportation sometimes also scooped up relatives of the rich and powerful. By 1700, indentured servitude was on the decline.

Landowners looking to acquire lifelong or hereditary workers also enslaved non-Christians. This could be done under the excuse that by “Christianizing” these people, the slaver owner was benefiting them. But problems surfaced when Jews, Muslims, Native Americans or Africans converted. Could Christians be held as hereditary slaves?

Disputes also broke out about what constituted a Christian. Catholic Spain and France claimed that Protestants were non-Christians, while Protestant England said the same about Catholics.

By 1700, the vast majority of slaves brought to the West Indies, the area that we now refer to as the Caribbean, were Black people from Africa.

Pirates had long had problems with slavery. Beginning in the 1600’s, pirates who captured slave ships often gave the slaves an opportunity to join their crews. In the beginning, human cargo on captured ships might amount to 6 or 7 people. By the 1700’s, purpose built slave ships were carrying hundreds of slaves from Africa.

Capturing a slave ship could vastly increase a pirate captain’s power. At one point, pirate captain Sam Bellamy’s crew consisted of more than 50% freed African slaves.

Bellamy’s friend Blackbeard had a crew that was estimated at 30% African. In fact, some historians believe that Blackbeard’s famous black beard came from African heritage. Some people even claim that Blackbeard was the offspring of an English nobleman and a mulatto (half-African) servant. Will we ever know for sure? Probably not. But descriptions of Blackbeard’s appearance make this plausible.

We are certain that a Black pirate who called himself Black Caesar was a pirate captain who occasionally ran with Blackbeard, and was with him when Blackbeard fought his last action against the Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy. Caesar had been given the duty of blowing up the ship if it looked like the pirates would not win. Though willing to carry out his suicidal mission, he was stopped by two (presumably white) pirates with less bravery.

The problem with these African pirates is that, like most working pirates of their day, their stories remain untold. But a few names are noted in history. Hendrick Quintor, for instance, was a skilled Dutch sailor of African origin. He joined Bellamy’s crew when the Spanish brigantine he was sailing on was captured. Quintor was one of the few pirates to escape the disastrous hurricane that sank Bellamy’s flagship.

Quintor was tried with his fellow pirates, and found guilty. But unlike the others, he and John Julian, a Native American pirate, were sold into slavery. It is noted that both men made bad slaves, but their ultimate fates remain unknown. Was it better or worse than facing the hangman’s noose, the fate of the other members of Bellamy’s crew?

Other black pirates of note include Diego Grillo, a man of African descent who was born in Havana. He took up the pirate trade in the 1630’s. He was esteemed by his comrades, and was elected to the post of captain.

The legend of Diego Grillo has attached itself to many Black Caribbean pirates from the era. One Spanish priest writes of being captured by Grillo, and states that the pirate captain felt a particular hatred of the Spanish, who had enslaved him, and that Grillo made a special effort to burn Spanish ships.

Grillo is said to have made his base either Tortuga or New Providence, the later home to the Pirate Republic. Some even claim that he was a ship’s captain during Morgan’s raids against the Spanish.

A pirate by the name of Old South, a Black man, is said to have captained one of the many pirate ships called the Good Fortune.

In 1731 Juan Andres, a man of mixed African heritage, was the leader of a pirate crew of runaway slaves and Indians. They plundered along the coast of Venezuela. Authorities assumed Andres had died two years later when the attacks ceased. In reality, Andres and his crew had merely moved to the safety of Curacao before resuming their assaults.


Peter Cloise, a former slave, became a pirate after Edward Davis took him from his owner in 1679. They became close friends and went pirating in the Caribbean and along South America’s Pacific coast. After Davis’ ship put into Philadelphia in May 1688, Cloise was arrested, but no records of his execution have been found.

Stede Bonnet, the gentleman planter who turned pirate to get away from his nagging wife, summed up the piratical attitude when settling a dispute between one of his African crew members and a white recruit. Stede’s judgement was that piracy was a race in itself – it trumped color, nationality and station of birth. A man who called himself a pirate could never be called a slave.

So, to all those who were confused by the recent hullabaloo about Paymobile offering a Black pirate with a slave collar around his neck... It's a valid image if you change one thing... The pirate should be holding the slave collar in his hand (having just ripped it off his own neck) and he should be waving a pirate flag!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Outlander, Pirates, and Individuality

Some thoughts about the 18th century…

I don’t get Starz, the channel that shows the hit show Outlander, so I had to watch it as a marathon on DVD. Being a pirate fan, some unusual thoughts came to me while I was viewing the episodes. (Though I’ll offer one spoiler… I did REALLY enjoy all the handsome men in kilts!)

Outlander is very close to our own time period. (It’s set in 1743, and the Golden Age of Piracy ended in about 1723.) The Jacobite cause near the center of the Outlander action was near and dear to the hearts of many pirates. But the most pervasive thing I see is a well-researched show that tells us a little more about what life was like for Golden-Age pirates.

One of the first things I see is that everything is hand-made. Why? Because except there was no factory production of anything. Every shirt, every sock, every needle, shoe was made by hand by someone. Every item was different from every other item.

This shows up in some strange ways. One is that clothing was much more valuable than it is today. Weaving, cutting, sewing and finishing clothes was all done by hand by skilled artisans, instead of whipped out by high-speed electric looms, laser-cutters, industrial sewing machines, and starvation-waged Chinese workers.

Not only was clothing a major expense, but second-hand clothes were much more valuable as well. And third-hand clothing. And so on. Even the rich saved clothing that was out of style or worn, recycling it and re-working it into new garments. Or they handed them down to servants, who re-dyed and re-worked them into everyday clothes, or sold them for a substantial profit. So, when pirates stole clothing and wore it, they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

BUT, the corollary to this is that people could identify stolen clothing. Think about it. If one of your dress shirts was stolen, you’d have a hard time picking it out of a lineup. But 18th century people would have known immediately whose shirt was whose. During trials from the time, identification of stolen clothing often sent thieves to jail, the pillory or the gallows.

Follow this one more step, and you’ll realize that there were no BRANDS. Today we depend on brands to decide what to buy. Some brands are affordable, some not. Some fit us well, others don’t. And if you want to convey status, you depend on the tag inside or the logo printed outside your clothing. In fact, the label is often the most important part of the item.

Let’s go on. Every item was hand made. This meant that the parts of a house, or a ship, or a gun, were all purpose-built for that house, that ship, that gun. Which meant that if you tried to take the door off one house, it would not fit into another doorway. If you took the parts off one ship they might not fit into another ship. (This was one of the reasons carpenters were so important on a ship – new parts needed, at best, to be re-shaped to fit the ship, and at most built especially for the ship.)

Pistols, muskets, and even cannons had parts that were not interchangeable. Today, if you have a Beretta 9mm, you can take parts for it from any other Beretta 9mm in the world. During the 18th century, not only could you not necessarily use the parts from one pistol to repair another pistol, but there was no reliable brand of pistol (or musket or cannon) to buy.

Individual makers had a local reputation, but once the weapon in question had left the region, it would not be recognized. Each weapon would be valued according to its individual quality and usefulness. And no two guns were ever quite the same.

In some ways, this accounts for the hodge-podge look of a pirate ship and a pirate crew. When a new ship was being fitted out, the builders would buy all the cannons from the same foundry, and therefore all of them would look much the same. But a pirate crew amassed its weaponry from a number of sources – stealing a cannon here, a brace of pistols there… So each piece would look quite different.

Think for a moment about what this means. Today we expect regularity in things. Every stitch in a garment is the same as every other. Every t-shirt in the pile is exactly the same. Windows come in standard sizes, and we see them in the houses around us without even noticing. We see identical cars, identical phones, identical chairs and tables and toys and even identical pieces of art. In the days of the pirates, each piece was unique.

Is it important? Maybe, maybe not. But if you I for one like to think of things, people, eras, in context. And the individuality of things in the past is an important part of the pirate context.