'Black Sails' Depicts the Untold Story of Queer Pirates

The prequel to 'Treasure Island' emphasized how absent queer characters are from historical television shows.

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Apr 4 2017, 5:45pm

Clara Paget (Starz)

In most television shows set before the 20th century, there are very few characters in them who aren't straight. At most, they will feature a supporting character who's "revealed" to be gay or bisexual, with maybe a love interest who gets killed or disappears tragically. Sometimes—very rarely—there will be one relationship that lasts more than a season, though chances of that decline the more seriously a show tries to take itself. If marginalized people often don't see themselves reflected in modern media, the problem only intensifies when it comes to stories set in the past.

Starz's Black Sails was different. Although it aimed to be prestige TV for much of its run, the queer characters on Black Sails were never secondary. In fact, their choices, romantic and otherwise, were the bedrock of the show. The series was a violent, big-budget production about politics, power, civilization, colonialism, and piracy in the 18th century. Yet it was also ultimately about a bunch of queer people choosing between struggle and a quiet, peaceful life with their lovers—and all the nuances and complexities of those decisions.

Black Sails is an explicit prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 book Treasure Island where Captain Flint is a fearsome, legendary pirate who buried a great treasure in the ground, sparking a hunt for it many years later. Black Sails's adult version of Flint is everything Stevenson's book—written as children's fiction—implied. He's a born leader: cunning, ruthless, and a brilliant strategist. In the first season, we see him covered in blood, lying to his entire crew, dueling to the death, and murdering his own best friend—all in the pursuit of some hidden ulterior motive that none of his subordinates understand.

However, by the second season, Black Sails uncovers Flint's secret. The only reason he became a pirate was because England took away the one thing he cherished most: his boyfriend.

As a young naval officer, Flint unwittingly chooses between gaining power over the lawless, pirate-infested island of Nassau, and a quiet life with the English nobleman he's in love with. But power is precarious and uncertain, as the show keeps emphasizing. As a result of his choice, Flint loses everything and leaves England to become a violent outlaw.

Another main character, Eleanor Guthrie, is faced with a similar choice. Brought to Nassau as a little girl, Eleanor manages to cobble together a criminal empire based on selling stolen pirate goods. By her early 20s, she's practically in charge of the island, with every pirate captain desperate to remain in her good graces. But when disaster strikes, she's given a choice between remaining in Nassau and fighting for more power or leaving to live with her girlfriend, Max, who's tired of working at the brothel across the street from Eleanor's tavern.

Eleanor chooses power, only to see everything she built—including her relationship with Max—crumble soon afterward.

Max is presented with the same predicament twice. After Eleanor, Max becomes part of a triage with historic pirates Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham (who in reality were likely in a similar arrangement with a woman named Mary Read). In season three, Max must choose between betraying Anne's trust and retaining the power she's worked so hard to acquire in Nassau. Max chooses power, as Eleanor did. Then Max witnesses the destruction of all that she worked, just as Eleanor did. In season four Max does it differently: She refuses to choose power of the island over distancing herself from Anne. She thinks of Eleanor and demands to be given both power and her lover—or only Anne.

Flint, meanwhile, gets his own second chance. Hell-bent on a rebellion against England, Flint's new best friend (Treasure Island's Long John Silver) offers him a choice between giving up the war effort and reuniting with his lover, the English nobleman Flint had thought to be long dead. Eventually, Flint chooses love over power, and he and Max both get their happily-ever-afters in the show's final episode.

It's frankly stunning that the fabric of an entire show about 18th-century pirates can be summed up entirely through the choices made by its queer characters. Queer love and desire play such a huge, fundamental role in everything the show has to say about history, narrative, power, sacrifice, civilization, politics, and criminality.

But Black Sails doesn't stop at being a character drama. It loves to make meta statements, as befitting a piece of fan-fiction. In one of the show's final scenes, when Long John Silver is working hard to convince Captain Flint to give up his war against England, Flint replies with, "This is how they win, you realize."

Long John Silver has tasted resistance to the empire and would rather rather bury his sword and live happily with his wife. But Flint points out that this is precisely the mechanism through which England stays in power: making the cost of resistance too high for most people. He explains that if Silver dismantles the war effort, history will be written by the victors. In one way, Black Sails is referencing Treasure Island and the role of pirates as morally repugnant villains. But in another way, Flint's words are about how history remembers queer people, which is to say, mostly not at all.

By giving up the fight, Flint seems to say, you're resigning yourself to letting them twist our stories and erase the parts of us they don't want to remember. But is being remembered correctly—and making an indelible impact on history—worth a life defined by a violent struggle? Most of the characters on Black Sails spend the series wrestling with that question.

Queer people rarely get to see themselves represented in historical narratives, let alone represented positively. But on Black Sails, the 18th century was full of queer characters, and their stories mattered. Their lives were riveting and their choices determined the fate of the world. These characters and stories were revolutionary for a period show, let alone TV that aims for a serious and prestigious tone. If anything should be the legacy Black Sails, it should be us demanding better from the rest of television.

Follow Marina Berlin on Twitter.

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