An Exploration of Storytelling in Black Sails
All our lives we tell ourselves stories. Stories to help us make sense of our world. Stories to help us figure out who we are. We share these stories with our neighbors and build a culture. We share these stories with the world and declare our identity.
Growing up in Florida, I spent a lot of time at the beach. Clear blue-green water and sugar-white sand beaches held an immeasurable trove of inspiration for my active imagination. I was curious about everything that the beach could offer: the seashells, the plants, the wildlife, and the history.
In among learning about the ocean, I learned about the people who used to sail upon her.
In my teens I’d had a fascination with pirates, spurred on by the release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 and the subsequent films in the franchise. In the Disney movies, pirates seemed to have it all: freedom, love, good looks, bravery, and swashbuckling adventures all out on the jeweled sea. Pirates did what they wanted, said what they thought, and cared little about what was said of them—and for a quiet and shy teenage girl, these attributes were very attractive.
I am now years separated from my teens and my pirate enthusiasm, and like the rest of the world, I am choosing to remain in my home to prevent the spread of the deadly illness we now face. Thus, the environment was ripe for me to stumble upon an unknown show, chosen by chance by my boyfriend and his brother, Black Sails (2014-2017).
The show centers around a wily cast of characters inspired by real pirates (Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, Blackbeard, Charles Vane) famous fictional ones (Long John Silver, Billy Bones) and some new inventions (Captain Flint, Eleanor Guthrie) as they scheme, hunt for treasure, and fight to protect their beloved Nassau from the threat of a British takeover. It is in part a swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part political drama.
I fell headfirst into the show, filled with the sweet, exuberant elation that only comes from being fully immersed in a story. The writing and acting were so superbly executed that even the most far-fetched of plot points seemed plausible, without any heavy-handedness. And here, the show fully lived up to our intended purpose of escaping our current situation for a little while.
As the show progressed, I noticed a fascinating, and so very subtle, theme running in a steady flow beneath the show’s exterior. Each character held a unique and deeply felt respect for the power of stories.
Charles Vane gives his life for Nassau. As he fights for Nassau’s independence, he comes to realize that the narrative surrounding his death will be a more potent fuel in the hearts of the people than his continued efforts. When he is captured, and has the chance to escape, he declines, and his death is one of the most important turning points in the show, shifting support from the British establishment to the pirate rebels. While the real Charles Vane was not involved in a grand fight for independence from the British, his reputation of being a dangerous and ruthless pirate lives on.
John Silver evolves from a cook with a mysterious past into the image we know from Treasure Island, a one-legged ruthless cutthroat with a silver tongue, each word uttered weighted with influence. His greatest gift, and his greatest weapon in the show is his ability to persuade and manipulate through the stories he tells.
It is not until Captain Flint observes in the end of the last season that we know nothing of John Silver’s past that I realized it. By this point in the show, I knew John Silver’s character so fully that I did not realize I was missing his backstory. Possibly the greatest feat of his character was that I did not feel like I needed backstory to better understand him because the story I had witnessed was enough. He was a complete character. His past, as he says does not matter.
John Silver is not singularly responsible for crafting his own legend. As the rebellion against British rule builds momentum, Billy Bones and his crew of rebels on the island carefully cultivate the legend of John Silver, writing letters to the authorities and signing it in Long John Silver’s name. His reputation grows, the stories spread, and when John Silver finally makes return, the port is ready to stand behind him.
Jack Rackham is continuously concerned with his legacy—his worst fear is that the story of his life will be forgotten. Incidentally, the flag that we envision when we think of pirates—black with a white skull over two crossed swords—is the flag that belonged to the real Calico Jack. While we may not know his name or details of his life, the legacy of the real Calico Jack still lives on today, as his flag has become one of the most famous symbols of piracy.
The power of storytelling is in its versatility. Stories are everything, and nothing. They are truth and fiction. They can be all at once, or nothing at all. We are as immersed in stories as we wish to be. We seek them in news articles, in books, on social media, and on TV. Simultaneously, we are the product of the narratives we feed on. After we are gone, our lives are reduced, elevated, to story.
The pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries are long dead, but their lives have transformed into legend.
We tell stories to comfort, to educate, to inspire, to understand, and to entertain. Some stories fade away as those who told them pass on. Others survive, take on lives of their own, spread, thrive, and adapt.
They become legends.