How do the pirate series Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails compare in terms of historical authenticity? While both shows take great liberties in their portrayals of the past, there are also many elements of truth to their stories of swashbuckling, colonialism, and rebellion. Though Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails are very different shows in many ways, the fight for freedom from oppressive sociopolitical systems is the beating heart of both of them. They play into centuries of romanticized cultural fascination with pirates, much of which stems from a relatable yearning for a life outside of the established order of things. Pirates have long represented nonconformity and freedom in its purest form – a tradition that is upheld and updated through a modern lens in Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails.
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Starring Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby as the legendary pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, HBO Max’s Our Flag Means Death brings a deliberately anachronistic and comedic tone to the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean. While it doesn’t shy away from showing the more gruesome aspects of life aboard a ship in the 18th century, Our Flag Means Death takes a largely romantic perspective on piracy that fits the idealism, curiosity, and longing of its main character, Stede Bonnet. Because of this, however, its historical accuracy is often questionable, or even intentionally farcical.
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Starz’s Black Sails takes a much grittier approach to life on the high seas, which is more accurate in some ways and less in others. As a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, Black Sails combines fact and fiction in a manner that narratively favors the latter. Crossing the paths of literary characters such as Captain Flint and Long John Silver with those of real people of the time such as Jack Rackham and Charles Vane, Black Sails takes its history seriously but gives it a back seat to the journeys of its protagonists. Here’s how Our Flag Means Death compares to Black Sails in historical accuracy.
Our Flag Means Death Characters Vs. Black Sails
Our Flag Means Death utilizes a number of real-life pirates within its narrative, including Stede Bonnet, Edward Teach (a.k.a Blackbeard), Israel Hands, and “Calico Jack” Rackham. Bonnet and Teach really did sail together for a time. However, after taking control of Bonnet’s ship the Revenge with his initial consent, Teach betrayed Bonnet by abandoning him and ransacking his ship. He stole or marooned many of Bonnet’s crew, similar to the actions of Blackbeard in Our Flag Means Death’s season finale, until Bonnet eventually came to their rescue. While Stede and Blackbeard have an endearingly compatible and romantic relationship on the show, this is no doubt an instance of creative license being exercised for the sake of the story, as real life accounts suggest Teach found Bonnet to be wholly incompetent. Like Blackbeard in Our Flag Means Death, Teach did employ theatrics to scare his prey, though he probably did not deem it “the art of f**kery.”
Israel Hands – known as “Izzy” on Our Flag Means Death – really was Teach’s second in command, and lives on in popular culture as a character in Treasure Island. In contrast to Hands, the show’s portrayal of Blackbeard and “Calico Jack” Rackham’s frat-brother-like relationship is entirely fictional. It’s unlikely that Teach and Rackham ever even met in real life, as Rackham only began pirating around the time of Teach’s demise.
Jack Rackham plays a much bigger part within the cast of Black Sails, in which he is also shown to anachronistically interact with the show’s own version of Blackbeard. However, Jack is much more genuinely likable in Black Sails than he ever was in real life or as he is portrayed in Our Flag Means Death. His strong partnership with Anne Bonny, based on the most iconic female pirate in history, is a cornerstone of the show and serves to humanize them both.
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The real pirate Captain Charles Vane also plays a crucial role in Black Sails as a close ally of Jack and Anne’s, and a rival to fictional characters Captain Flint and Eleanor Guthrie. Additionally, Black Sails incorporates other notable historical figures and inhabitants of Nassau during the Golden Age of Piracy into its story, including Governor Woodes Rogers, who was tasked with taming the “pirate republic,” and Captain Hornigold, a former pirate-turned-privateer who accepted a royal pardon and turned on his former brethren. Hornigold is not present in Our Flag Means Death, but he is briefly mentioned as being a “d*ck.”
Our Flag Means Death Historical Timeline Vs. Black Sails
Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails both take place around the same time, with the former beginning in 1717 and the latter in 1715. While the Golden Age of Piracy is considered to be the roughly broad span of 1680-1730, many of the most famous images and instances of piratical behavior occurred specifically in the 1710s and 1720s. Both Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails position themselves firmly within this time period, though they tend to condense and distort the events of the two decades into much shorter, action-packed time spans that suit the episodic format of television.
As portrayed in Our Flag Means Death, Edward Teach and Stede Bonnet really did cross paths in 1717, though they parted ways later that same year. In 1718, Teach and Bonnet were killed within a month of each other. The Acts of Grace cited by Blackbeard for pardon in the show were very real, going into effect in late 1717. Teach did in fact encourage Bonnet to seek a pardon, and used him as a guinea pig before betraying him and seeking a pardon of his own. Their respective reformations did not last; both men returned to piracy before their deaths.
Over the course of its four seasons, Black Sails adopts a somewhat vague and inexact approach to how its characters function within a historical timeline. For example, Black Sails has Blackbeard and Jack Rackham seek revenge for Charles Vane’s death; however, Teach died in 1718 while Vane lived until 1721, and “Calico Jack” Rackham’s real career as a pirate only lasted from 1718-1720 before he was also killed.
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Our Flag Means Death Pirate Life Vs. Black Sails
Our Flag Means Death features several memorable moments in which the perils and pitfalls of a pirate’s life are demonstrated. While one crew member begins losing teeth due to scurvy, another develops a finger infection so bad that the appendage needs to be chopped off – though both instances are largely played for comedic effect. Stede’s ship, the Revenge, is also far nicer and newer than most of the time, so their surroundings (as well as Stede’s extravagant Captain’s Quarters) would not have been indicative of a general pirate’s lifestyle. Additionally, pirates were largely made up of mistreated merchant and Navy seamen, which prompted them to create democracies on their ships. Every decision would be voted on by the crew, and the captain only ever held total command while in the midst of battle. This side of piracy is not really shown in Our Flag Means Death, as Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard are the definitive decision-makers on their ships, and the crew’s doubts are not dealt with by voting, but by the occasional contemplation of mutiny.
In contrast, Black Sails places a large and lasting importance on the votes that could make or break a captain, even as the authoritative Captain Flint tries to find his way around the deliberately democratic nature of piracy. Black Sails also features much more realistically squalid conditions for its pirates, and deftly demonstrates the fragile crew dynamics and casually brutal violence that were common on these kinds of ships. For instance, John Silver loses his leg after it is mangled beyond repair while he is being tortured for information on-screen, and grotesquely barbaric public assaults are often shown to be used to subdue enemies.
Our Flag Means Death Historical Events Vs. Black Sails
Since the show has only had one season, the limited true story behind Our Flag Means Death has been portrayed fairly accurately so far in terms of historical events. The only major ones that have really been shown are Teach and Bonnet’s initial partnership and eventual schism, both of which did happen, albeit for different reasons than those depicted in the show. If Our Flag Means Death gets a second season, it will be interesting to see how close the romantic comedy sticks to the truth, which was unfortunately quite tragic. Assuming Stede and Blackbeard would meet again, further seasons would already be off to an inaccurate start, as the real Bonnet sought revenge on Teach after his betrayal but was never able to find him.
Black Sails incorporates many more historic figures and events than Our Flag Means Death, and therefore has a lot more inaccuracies in those regards. One of the most memorable examples of this is the death of Blackbeard. While the real Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) was killed in battle by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, Black Sails sees Blackbeard captured and barbarously keel-hauled past the point of recognition by Governor Woodes Rogers. Both Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails are highly inaccurate in their own ways, but they do display a surprising amount of authenticity as well. Overall, Our Flag Means Death has so far shown a better grasp on the broad strokes of history, while Black Sails recreates life in the 18th century Caribbean from a ground-level perspective more realistically. Regardless of accuracy, both shows manage to be hugely enjoyable and quietly boundary-shattering pieces of television that reframe the past for the modern world.
Next: Everything We Know About Our Flag Means Death Season 2
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About The Author
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Kylie lives her life training for the day that TV-watching becomes an Olympic sport. Should that happen, she plans to win. In the meantime, Kylie lives in LA and has worked on various television productions. She will continue to do so until someone lets her write and produce her own.
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