HBO’s recent pirate offering, Our Flag Means Death, is set in the Golden Age of Piracy and it’s actually weirdly accurate, historically speaking. So Blackbeard is gay, confirmed? Not quite…
Our Flag Means Death is quickly becoming one of my favourite shows. It tells the story of Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), the Gentleman Pirate, who abandons his family in order to pursue a life of piracy. Great premise for a show. Not only that, Bonnet teams up with Blackbeard (Taika Waitit), one of the most famous pirates in history who trains him to be a pirate. Historically, these things happened, but the reasons why they happened are lost to history.
As showrunner and creator, David Jenkins, told Collider,
You would think with that description that most of the show is fiction, and it is, but there’s also a surprising amount of history here that hasn’t been ignored. Let’s get into it.
Homosexual Relationships Were Normal For Pirates
There were plenty of same-sex relationships out on the high seas, they don’t joke about the Navy for nothing. And pirates actually had a legal same-sex civil union called matelotage (French for seamanship).
Bonnet and Blackbeard’s romantic relationship (as well as others) is the most heart-warming and interesting part of the show, and they didn’t just pull it out of nowhere for shock value. Well, maybe for a little bit of shock value as I doubt many people think of Blackbeard as a homosexual, but it actually makes sense. Remember what Jenkins said about their relationship? “It’s lost to history.”
To understand how normal it was for pirates to be in homosexual relationships, we have to talk about matelotage. This was a civil union in which two sailors would share their income and inherit their partner’s property should one of them die. There was also an assumed pledge to protect and fight alongside each other in battle. This practice was originally created as an economic partnership but soon evolved into a romantic and sexual one.
Hans Turly’s Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masucline Identity (1999) and Barry Richard Burg’s Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean (1995), both claim that matelotage was akin to a same-sex marriage. Burg argued that the practice was “an institutionalised linking of buccaneer and another male – most often a youth – in a relationship with clearly homosexual characteristics.” It has been thought to be not dissimilar from the pederastic relationships of Ancient Greece.
As to how widespread this practice was, we can look to the island of Tortuga, a pirate haven. On the island, many pirates were in matelotage relationships. It was so widespread that Governor La Vasseur wrote to the French government in 1645 to request that 2,000 female prostitutes be sent to the island. The hope was that with more women around, there would be fewer relations between the pirates themselves. This actually backfired when the pirates started marrying the prostitutes and sharing them with their matelotage partners!
However, generally speaking, there is no reason to suspect that most pirates were gay, as the general rates of homosexuality would have mirrored the population at large. But there was less of a stigma attached to homosexuality at sea whereas on land, they were still very much persecuted (you could be jailed or hanged for homosexuality on land).
The Real Gentleman Pirate
Stede Bonnet was not only real but his story in the show is quite accurate to his actual life, none of which I knew going into this show. He was a wealthy aristocrat from Barbados and inherited his family estate in 1694. He married his wife, Mary Allamby, in 1709 and had three sons and a daughter (one son died in 1715).
When Bonnet decided on a life of piracy in 1717, his reasons why weren’t exactly clear. The only written reason we have comes from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724). Johnson claimed Bonnet left his wife due to her incessant nagging. The show doesn’t go with that reading, instead his motivations are linked to his dissatisfaction with married life and a need to prove himself to others.
In the show, Bonnet’s ship, the Revenge, was commissioned by him in secret with all the lavish and unnecessary furnishings of a countryside manor. This isn’t completely inaccurate, as Bonnet, in contrast to most pirates, did commission the sixty-ton sloop to be built instead of seizing a ship for himself via mutiny or boarding. Though, it’s unlikely Bonnet actually had a fully equipped library onboard.
Bonnet had no knowledge of sailing or navigation, so he relied heavily on his quartermaster and officer to get things done which meant that he wasn’t well respected by his crew. This is in keeping with the show.
The Spanish stabbed Bonnet in September 1717 while on his way to Nassau and almost died. The show changes the sequence of events, however. In the show, Bonnet visits the Republic of Pirates (also a real place) and gets stabbed after a double cross from Spanish Jackie and is promptly saved by Blackbeard. In history, Bonnet is stabbed after attacking a Spanish man o’ war and then goes to the Republic of Pirates to recover from his wounds. This is where he met Blackbeard. While recovering from his wounds, he ceded captaincy of the Revenge to Blackbeard which happens in both the show and history.
One merchant ship captain, Captain Codd, who was attacked by the Revenge said that he saw Bonnet during the attack walking on the deck in his nightshirt, lacking any semblance of command, and still clearly unwell from his wounds. This is in the show and a great anecdote about his character while also providing ammo for plenty of jokes.
Unfortunately, the Gentleman Pirate did not have a black cat on his flag, but a more standard skull and bones depiction.
Who Was Blackbeard?
Edward Teach was the name Blackbeard often went by, but we don’t know for sure that was his real name strangely enough. What we do know is that he used fear as his primary weapon of choice. Blackbeard, as described by the General History of the Pyrates, would have hemp and lighted matches knitted into his beard to add that fear factor. This caused the man’s head to be covered in smoke whilst he would snarl and shout. Many sailors would say he looked like the devil.
Much like in history, the show highlights Blackbeard’s reputation and even questions it as before the crew of the Revenge meet the pirate, they talk stories about his mythology and his fearsome reputation. When we meet him, while he is fearsome, he is still a man. Our Flag Means Death shows that Blackbeard has gotten bored because piracy has become too easy for him thanks to his reputation. He also states that, in the show, he hasn’t actually killed anyone since his father.
That sounds ridiculous but you would be surprised to find that there is some history backing that up. Blackbeard didn’t kill his father (as far as we know), and in fact, there are no reports of the man killing anyone. Most eye-witness accounts depict a man who honoured his word with hostages, and never caused indiscriminate violence for the sake of it. This is in stark contrast to his contemporaries and his own reputation. Blackbeard knew the power of image over simple brute force. And that all plays into his characterisation on the show.
Fun fact, his second-in-command on the show, Izzy Hands, was a real person named Israel Hands or Basilica Hands. Blackbeard cuts off his pinkie toe after his breakup with Bonnet in the show, which seems to take inspiration from a real-life event. Instead of cutting off Izzy’s toe, Blackbeard accidentally shot him in the knee whilst reprimanding another crew member. Izzy was maimed for the rest of his short life.
Blackbeard’s flag depicting a devil stabbing the hearts of his presumed enemies is in the show as well. However, the hearts are added after his breakup with Stede Bonnet. In reality, he probably never used this flag and it’s just part of his mythology, but doesn’t it highlight the showrunner’s knowledge of the events and people in the Golden Age of Piracy.
There is so much more that I have missed or omitted purely because this article is already so long! I would be here all day detailing the Golden Age of Piracy and all the politics and events involved. I hope you enjoyed this and be sure to check out Our Flag Means Death!
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