It is as if Black Sails, Starz’s pirate-themed TV series (first aired in 2014 and now slated for its fourth season) wanted to pay off its generic and cable TV racketeers in as few episodes as possible in order to sink its teeth into what good art always does: imagine another possible world. As someone who just finished her doctoral dissertation on nineteenth-century Anglo-American sea narratives, I met the show with hackles up – and ended up crossing over to the dark side. What is it about piracy that has captured our collective imaginary for at least three-hundred years now?
Nassau, the self-governed colony on New Providence Island in the Bahamas (circa 1715), is populated with the rogues of the Earth. Inn- and brothel-keepers, bootleggers, prostitutes and exiles, slaves in various stages of reclaiming their freedom, buccaneers, murderers and idealistic megalomaniacs all find themselves infesting the same burrow, foraging their way through another day. Pirate Bay indeed.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Captain Flint, John Silver and Billy Bones cross swords with the historical Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Charles Vane. Bringing together fact and fiction is a trait of the genre: the sea tale has always relied on history as much as imagination. Black Sails adds another, metanarrative dimension, not only by fictionalising history and refictionalising Treasure Island, but by being a twenty-first-century commentary on both.
The series pays successful tribute to the wider hypertext of sea tales, where it rubs elbows with the Hakluyts, Columbuses, Melvilles and Conrads of sea narration. Flint is Ahabesque in his obsession with Spanish gold and ferociousness against the British Admiralty as cause of his trauma; he also reeks of Kurtz in attempting to redeem cruelty with philosophy. John Silver has Odysseus’s cunning and Ishmael’s even keel and storytelling skills, not to mention Ariel’s plot machinations. In pirate shipboard hierarchy, Dufresne the intellectual quartermaster gets farther than any of Dana Jr’s or Melville’s genteel intruders of the forecastle could have dreamed of, even unto a brief taste of captaincy.
Another trait of the genre is spectrality: dealing with things that are not there. It can take many forms: the spectre of land, out of sight and reach at high seas; mirages at sea, from Northern lights to St Elmo’s fire to Flying Dutchmen; the glaring absence of departed lovers or fellow sailors lost at sea, whose death denies mourning because it bears no gravesite. Belatedness is another form of spectrality, taken from Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel: James Fenimore Cooper reached back some fifty years to fetch John Paul Jones for The Pilot; Melville’s Benito Cereno found its slave rebellion plot in the turn between the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and his Billy Budd did the same for the British Navy. Belatedness allows for clarity of historical perspective from the safe vantage point of the narrating present. But it also creates a quintessential ghost tale, summoning back to life that which was dead and buried. Not only do Billy Bones, Charles Vane and Captain Flint rise from the dead through several episodes in Black Sails, but conjuring Flint into life from his trace in Treasure Island renders Stevenson’s novel as his cenotaph in turn. The rogues of Black Sails are ghosts of themselves: their rapaciousness comes from the knowledge that they are already dead.
Instead of setting up a hierarchy to be either climbed or disrupted, as do other outlaw-type series involving (supposedly) affable mobsters, bikers, drug dealers and the like, the maritime world of Black Sails is made up of overlapping semantic fields whose boundaries are painfully tested against one another. Women are viciously reminded that they are women, slaves that they are slaves, prostitutes that they are prostitutes; the memento mori particularly hovers over the brows of pirate captains as they validate or lose their legitimacy on the hour, elected and deposed by their own crews in direct response to their leadership skills. However, if the narrative delimits its characters to bitter historical plausibilities, it also authorises them to fight against them with any means necessary: each character is the absolute hero of her or his semantic field, with license to kill.
The institutions and hierarchies established in the series by land-based societies such as England or Spain ensure separation between degrees of power; in Nassau, there are no untouchables. Ships, fortresses, brothels, information, freedom and lives change hands in constant competition: the reach of piracy is cunning and brute force, but the realm of island trade and sex work is information and intrigue; they meet in the middle of business, and of death.
The ship has been a longstanding archetype in the Western cultural circle, including its microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions, from the ship of state to ship-as-state, from the ship of Theseus to the ship of fools. A well-known trope in literary and maritime studies is Michel Foucault’s concept of the ship as heterotopia, an other space, ‘a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.’ Ships are self-sufficient entities separate from land, yet they are slivers of land, tied to it in continuous becoming-monad and becoming-fragment. In other words, they are tied to the law.
What the pirate ship does is something entirely different. It introduces a new semantic matrix. The quartermaster, existing in land-based armies and some navies as a petty officer, is a position of much greater consequence on a pirate ship, serving as second-in-command and, in effect, the check to the captain’s balance. Pirate captains in Black Sails are voted in and out of position with a degree of participatory democracy that our contemporary citizenship can only dream of, while political and economic mistakes are sanctioned with a swiftness unseen in state governments. For every ship of fools expelled from society to the ends of the Earth, pirates raise a Randall character, embracing and protecting its traumatised and its insane. The pirate prize – the ship and cargo captured – is a tangible measure of a leader’s legitimacy, and the kind of Volksphobie evinced by Dana Jr’s and Melville’s neurotic protagonists has no place on a pirate ship because the people are all there is.
It is misguided to think of piracy as either illegal, or lawless. Defining any practice against the law means that one can only ever occupy one position, either the good or the bad side of it. Piracy cancels out this semantic matrix, and imposes its own, where the law of the land, of kings and empires is not a rigid boundary, but a supple one, to be used as a porous membrane. The pirate code is far from lawlessness: the difference lies in its fluidity and dynamism. Loyalty and betrayal, survival and greed, are part of these codified practices, yet they are not opposed to one another, but part of the same assemblage, often occurring in one and the same gesture. ‘Liked is just as good as feared,’ John Silver says, capturing the ethos correctly.
If the ship is the heterotopia of society, its other space, the place of its self-sameness and self-difference defined against the law, then piracy is its unthought. Not its negation, antithesis, or its other, but its own unthinkable: a compossible world of its own making, inhabited by its own men and women, whose way of life, business and war won’t be subsumed under principles imposed from without. The existence of a different possible maritime world, with its own form of seamanship and governance, by no means more noble even if more equitable in appeasing its monsters, destabilises the self-righteousness of civilized society. A Charles Town scene at the end of Season 2 shows a hanged dead pirate next to a wooden cage of Black slaves about to be sold, exposing the hypocrisy behind what society considers to be legal and illegal. Piracy shows what civilisation won’t tell: that the violence of self-legitimated colonial projects is not a necessity. It is one route among many. It is chosen. It is deliberate.
Black Sails has a lot stacked against it: the commercial logic of pay cable TV, whose quantity and distribution of sex and violence content thwarts new spaces of articulation; the mythological principle of narrative organization typical of adventure narratives (‘So what happened next?’), which requires quick narrative turnover but where binge-watching is actually reductive of the series’ complexity; not least, piracy itself as a theme only too easy to botch for its heavy rotation in the collective imaginary. Instead of giving in, the series actually utilises these constrictions to carve out its own politics of gender and sexuality, its own approach to dealing with trauma, and a geopolitics where every action immediately meets its reaction: the compossibility it offers is that of absolute accountability, so sadly missing from society proper.
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