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Black Sails: A Short Testimonial Essay

Updated on January 30, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Is the Starz network show, Black Sails, the best thing on television or what?

Time's up!

That was a rhetorical question, because Black Sails is the best thing on television. This is a show about pirates: late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, I would say. The first thing I would say is that Black Sails is, quite literally, "The Godfather" of shows about seventeenth/eighteen century pirates.

What I mean by that is that Black Sails features all of the complicated, humanizing dynamics of Mario Puzo's famous Mafia novel and movies, whose scripts he co-wrote. What I mean by that is this: The pirates are all very clear-eyed about what they do and why they do it.

The pirates all understand very clearly how the so-called legitimate, lawful world views them. The pirates, for the most part, each wish that they would have been presented with more life options that wouldn't have necessitated them taking the path of outlaws. Of course, there are one or two truly villainous types who seem to actually revel in being pirates. We see a clear difference between them and those persons whose pirate affiliation is more utilitarian and practical.

But, to a man, we are given to understand that each and every one of them have chosen this lifestyle because each of them "refused to be fools," as Godfather Vito Corleone (Marlin Brando) said in that famous scene, the gathering of the Mafia Dons to sort out the Sollozo/narcotics issue.

The truly visionary pirate is interested in charting a path of redemption for his kind. That is, they understand that their long-term future lies in "reconciliation" (an oft-invoked word on Black Sails) with the legitimate world. But to be clear, this reconciliation they envision does not imagine the pirates going back to the lowly, degraded station, they previously occupied before taking to the seas as raiders.

The pirates and their associates must be reconciled with the legitimate world in a position of wealth and power, with the same conferred upon their descendants.

You know, if you ever saw the television Mafia movie, The Last Don, based on another Mario Puzo novel, you may remember a certain scene. Danny Aiello plays Don Clericuzio, the head of the most powerful Mafia family in America. In a private meeting with his sons/lieutenants and nephew/Mob assassin, the Don shares his vision of "reconciliation."

The Don says, "Twenty, thirty years from now, we'll all disappear into the lawful world, to enjoy our wealth without fear." The plan is to transition from their usual criminal enterprises (drugs, unions, extortion, prostitution, and so forth) and focus exclusively on gambling. If their Machiavellian schemes work out, gambling will be legalized in all fifty states. If this happens, the Clericuzio family will be in position to rake in billions. They will fuse with the legitimate world in a position of wealth and power, without having to spend their lives looking over their shoulders in apprehension of law enforcement pursuit and inevitable capture and criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

Anyway, this is exactly what "Captain Flint" and others are angling to do.

I love the way that Black Sails disposes of each and every stereotype many of us have ever had about pirates. In this world, there is no "yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, walk-the-plank, batton down the hatches, eye-patch-wearing, hook-handed, peg-legged" survival of the fittest, only the strong survive rubbish. One is struck by how democratic the operations of the pirate ship apparently were. The captain was chosen by vote of the crew and could be deposed the same way.

Captains seem to have been chosen for a variety of complex reasons. He didn't have to be the best sword fighter, or anything like that. Of course he had to be a competent sailor, fighter, have access to good "intelligence" (I'll come back to this), and the like. The men had to like and respect him and willingly agree (by majority vote) to accept his leadership.

The captain seemed to function more like a "first among equals" than the stereotypes would have had us believe. Once elected captain, it was understood that he was the leader of the crew. He was in complete tactical command in a fight or raid; and the men had to obey his orders on a day-to-day basis.

Still, matters of major policy were decided by vote. Of course, the captain in this democratic situation, was free to exercise all the influence he could on what the crew decided on a given matter, to the full extent of his charisma and powers of persuasion. It makes sense when you think about it. The men who became pirates usually escaped dreadful circumstances of virtual slavery. They hadn't done so to exchange one yoke for another.

The thrills and adventure are by no means limited to the action on the sea. In fact, in the world of Black Sails, most reasonable pirates would prefer that each operation go as uneventfully as possible. They would certainly prefer not to have to injure or kill anybody from a given captured ship. They want your "loot," not your life.

Much of the intrigue takes place on land---specifically the island of Nassau. We get to see that the pirates themselves are only a part---perhaps the most significant part, but still only a part---of larger networks of criminal activity. The larger network both benefits from and enables the seaborne raiding the pirates carry out.

Nassau is home base of several such overlapping, interpenetrating, interconnected networks. This island is administered, as it were, by Eleanor, called the "trading boss" of Nassau.

I suppose one can best relate to Eleanor's role in this world, as that of a "fence" for stolen, which is to say pirated goods. As "trading boss" of Nassau, the "Queen of Thieves," as one character only half-jokingly referred to her, Eleanor moves stolen merchandise brought in by all the pirate crews who make their home base at Nassau. She is at the hub of all of the raiding networks coming out of that island.

The trading boss owns and operates a saloon, perhaps The saloon, on the island. Eleanor is one of those "thieves" that wants to go legitimate, to "make money the way London makes money; and in amounts that mean something. You see, she sorely wants and works for the redemptive transformation of Nassau, its reconciliation with London, and legitimation as a port of honest commerce.

What is so interesting is that it is the island of Nassau, itself, its reconciliation and legitimation, which comprises the hopes and dreams of most people involved in the raiding networks, as a way out of the life of the outlaw.

Anyway, then we have an enterprising young woman who runs The brothel on the island. She and her seductive female employees, have a sideline. The women are charged to use their charms to get their clients to talk about the movement of valuable seaborne cargo. This "pillow talk" comprises the "leads" which "Max," the brothel operator, then feeds to her own associated network of pirates.

But with the ascension of Captain Jack Ragam (whose rise she facilitates), the young madam seems to have found herself a steady, perhaps exclusive piratical partner.

The thing to understand is that the "enterprise," let's call it, is, from the start to finish, always about freedom. But "freedom" means something different to different players in the Nassau network. To some, Nassau "freedom" means turning to piracy as a means to escape a life of precarious misery which culminates in legitimation and reconciliation with England.

To others, like the rough and rugged Captain Vane, Nassau "freedom" means turning to a life of piracy to escape a life of precarious misery period. Men such as he desire nothing else. He sees "reconciliation" with England in the hope of acquiring "legitimacy," as nothing more pathetic than a return to the "yoke" of slavery.

It is this fascinating, contrasting views of "freedom" within the Nassau raiding community, which drives the drama. One sees the same dynamic, again, in The Godfather novels (there are actually three) and movies.

For example, in the second Godfather novel, The Godfather Returns, Don Michael Corleone has a conversation with the Don of the crime family in Chicago, one Louie Russo. Michael Corleone says something about the longstanding Corleone dream of "reconciliation" with the "lawful world," "legitimacy." Michael Corleone says that they might aspire that their children be U.S. senators, governors, and such like---as Don Vito Corleone had dreamed. Remember, in the movie when Vito Corleone said to Michael: ("I knew Sonny would have to go through this and... Fredo... But I never wanted this for you. When it was your time, I thought you could be 'Governor Corleone,' 'Senator Corleone,' something...")?

To that Michael said: "Another pezzanovante."

But years later, in novel number two, Michael shows himself to be his father's son. He says something like this to Don Russo of Chicago, who seems to be genuinely appalled at the suggestion. Russo says, in the novel The Godfather Returns: "We got guys like that on our payroll. Why would we wish that on our children?"

Again, we have contrasting and conflicting views of "freedom" within a major criminal network. Still, we are given to understand that Vito Corleone's generation of Italian immigrants had turned to organized crime in an effort to secure their "freedom," because they had all "refused to be fools."

By the way, did I mention that I find the opening theme music utterly addictive, vaguely Celtic, and I can't get it out of my head? I cannot imagine this music without the show, nor the show without this music.

Another by the way for you: With Black Sails, we seem to get an insight into a world of relative gender equality and racial integration which became the norm on Nassau, long before their arrival in the so-called legitimate world.

The thing that is so great about this show is its dual-purpose usefulness: 1) As a simple, wildly entertaining "guilty pleasure"; 2) As a window into an interesting and often neglected part of the colonial history of the New World.

Thank you for reading!


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