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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Two Generations of Pirates

I've been enjoying two series on the same group of pirates. One of those series, "Black Sails" is essentially a "prequil" to Treasure Island. Many of the characters are drawn from Treasure Island and the events it describes are semi-fictional and thus probably more historically accurate than a direct account would be [more on this later]. The other series is "Crossbones" staring John Malkovich as Blackbeard. The really fun thing about these series is that they just scratch the surface of the fun that is our privateering history.

Both of them have associated books and both are fun to watch:

Black Sails:
As a "Prequil" to treasure Island Black Sails focuses on the capture of a Spanish Treasure ship, "The Urca" and the politics of the Bahamas. It's fictional and focuses on the crew of the legendary "Walrus" under Captain Flint, against other mythical pirates including "Calico Jack" and others. The Politics is probably is as nearly historically accurate about those times as one can get.
Black Sails IMDB: []
Cross Bones:
But in some ways Cross Bones is more cartoonish. It focuses on the myth of Blackbeard and his life beyond that myth. Thus it dramatizes materials covered in a lot of ways by a lot of authors. It has outlandish plot elements like a submarine loaded with gunpowder intended to blow up the Spanish Fleet.

But what is important to me (aside from paying attention to the sets, the backgrounds and the beautiful locations where the series are shot) is the backstories they tell. Fiction frequently illustrates reality. And the story of pirates and privateers is a story of overlapping myths and official violence versus outlaws. Pirates are the "Robin Hoods" of the Sea. Often they are seen as romantic because in some ways, as outlaws, they are more free and their governance more roughly democratic than that of the official pirates who rob and steal for "King and Country" -- and hang the outlaws when not employing them as sailors and warriors to be exploited and discarded. I think the actual pirate captains probably deserve a better reputation than the Captains of the Royal Pirate fleet. I mean the Royal Navy. Our first navies for both countries (Britain and the USA) came from both traditions.

Black Sails

Black Sails is set in Nassau, in the Bahamas. And is fictionalized I think to protect the good name of the descendents of the guilty parties. The Wikipedia article notes:

"Black Sails is an American dramatic adventure television series set on New Providence Island and a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. The series was created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine for Starz that debuted online for free on YouTube and other various streaming platform and video on demand services on January 18, 2014. The debut on cable television followed a week later on January 25, 2014. Steinberg is executive producer, alongside Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, while Michael Angeli, Doris Egan, and Levine are co-executive producers."

Cross Bones

Cross Bones is set on a fictional Island, loosely based on Nassau and the Bahamas, where an aging Blackbeard holds court. It's set in 1729. And like Cross Bones it is fictionalized with some loose grounding in history. It is meant to be more of a psychological thriller:

"From Neil Cross, the award-winning creator of "Luther," along with James V. Hart & Amanda Welles comes "Crossbones," a compelling new one-hour drama filled with extraordinary action, adventure and intrigue - set in a world where one can never be sure just who is hero and who is villain." []
"It's 1729. On the secret island of Santa Compana, Edward Teach, better known as the barbarous pirate Blackbeard (Emmy winner John Malkovich, "Death of a Salesman," "Red"), reigns over a rogue nation of thieves, outlaws and miscreants. Part shantytown, part utopia, part marauder's paradise, this is a place like no other." [crossbones]

Pirate Families behind the Pirates

I've been looking into the history of privateering so I wanted to research these pirates. I wanted to look at the time line and to compare the narratives. I need money to do it properly. But thanks to the Internet I can do a draft just looking at digitized documents. What I'm finding would make a great job for a prosecutor.

The Earliest generations of Pirates date back to Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth. From the POV of the world Sir Walter Raleigh was a pirate. Same with Henry Morgan. What I'm finding is that they didn't all hang at the yardarms. A good number disappear from the records. Or the stories of their end are more fishy and likely paid for with laundered loot? I'll talk about this more in a future post.

Indeed that is the common thread. Both the official accounts and the legends. One can understand the legends. There is nothing more entertaining than a tall tale. But the official accounts are often incomplete, sketchy or even contradictory too. Web sites contradict one another. Books too.

What I find fascinating about these movies, is that they reflect multiple generations of pirating and privateering. Some of the characters are from a class of nobility that one can only call "The Privateering" class. The previous generation of pirates I'm referred to are the as mythic, but more heroically depicted pirates of Henry Morgan's time. While the pirates of Nassau and the Bahamas have a lot of fame, largely because of their connections to North Carolina and the future American Revolution. What fascinated me was the names. The earlier generation of pirates were associated with Henry Morgan.

Like the earliest generations of pirates such as Raleigh and Henry Morgan (and later generations such as our John Paul Jones and Robert Morris' entire pirate fleet (our Navy) in the 1770's to 1790). They operated sometimes under "Letters of Marquee" to conduct privatized war. They often took prizes not on the official list [Dead men tell no tale, because privateers could take prizes legally but pirates would get hung if caught.] Sometimes they got away with it; Henry Morgan. Sometimes they got caught and hung anyway; Captain Kid (1645-1701).

I wanted to research these pirates because I had been looking at a lot of pirate families and wanted to understand the time line. What was the relationship between the pirates of the 1700's and earlier generations of pirates? Why were the pirates of Nassau tolerated? Why were they often ruthlessly put down? Why did they use Nomme Du Guerres? And why are the legends about them myth and legend?

Successful pirates like Captain Morgan often are only distinguished from unsuccessful pirates like Captain Kidd by dumb luck. For more on this read:

After all, what does Trinity Church have to do with piracy?

Further reading and episodes:

Black Sails:
Cross Bones
I buried other URLs in the notes in the article. But here's the article on William May:
More on Captain Kidd:

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