This is one of those times...
Having recently spent time enjoying Black Sails (thanks to a couple of pirate friends of mine who should probably remain nameless for legal reasons but we will call them Leo and Bobby) and the first episode of Crossbones, and being an avid reader and student of all things pirate, I have come to the decision that there are really two conceptions of pirates. The first is the larger conception, or if you prefer the conception held by the larger portion of the population and thus the more popular one; let us call it the ideal of pirates. This is typified by the Disney attraction The Pirates of the Caribbean and the films that were inspired by, and share the name of, that attraction. This is the sort of swaggering, arrrr matey, Talk Like A Pirate Day bollocks that sells so well in the form of merchandise. It is a mythical type of ideal, as so many are. When you think about talking like a pirate you are thinking of talking like Robert Newton who "invented" the pirate speak by exaggerating his native Dorset accent when he played Long John Silver for Disney. This is the sea food restaurant, drinks with umbrellas in, treasure hunting, plank walking, hook-hand-having, eye-patch-loving, raping, robbing, pillaging, freebooter lifestyle that inspires miniature golf courses and Halloween costumes and is typified today by Jack Sparrow.
Then there is the other conception, held by a very few (by comparison) and enjoyed fully by even fewer; let us call it the reality of pirates. To the larger group, when asked about the reality of the pirates they so love to emulate, they will most likely sheepishly admit that pirates were bad, bad people who engaged in theft, murder and destruction. Sadly that does not accurately or completely describe the reality and is akin to tarring all of a social group with the same brush for the rather public actions of a few.
Television and films, of course, are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience to garner the greatest possible market share. This means that the overwhelming majority of piracy shown is of the first type. When you do see more realistic piracy it is likely of the type seen in Captain Phillips, where Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama. Desperate men taking desperate actions. Yet this is not the same sort of thing as we would have seen during the age of Blackbeard. To some degree it is, but the exact specifications are a bit different. During the time of Blackbeard the vast majority of pirates were sailors, not just thieves and ruffians looking to make a buck. Those were bandits and lived on land. Ships at sea need skilled hands if they had any hope of staying at sea and those hands were accustomed to a certain amount of natural discipline. Not the lash of the cat type of discipline, but the sort of routine that kept their ship afloat, which was the difference between life and death. Piracy was, essentially, a business. It was the livelihood of the men (and yes, occasionally women) who turned pirate. If we look past the Hollywood and popular imagery and read the actual documents of the era we see a very different picture of piracy. We see real people with varied attitudes and personalities banding together to achieve common goals of survival, revenge, and even political achievement. Some of them, according to the documents of the era, where quite charming and intelligent even.
|A pirate (no really, just ask the British)|
We see this in Black Sails as well to a far larger degree. In the persons of Captain Flint, John Silver, and Jack Rackham, among others (landsmen included). With a show primarily about pirates each character must be a character, that is, must not be a simple stereotype, although plenty of extras will be. It's only natural. The swaggering, the "arrrs", the fannying about like a swishy gypsy rent boy (i.e. Jack Sparrow) are all absent. This is not the ideal of piracy, nor is it, strictly speaking, the reality, but it lists far more to the reality, and that's a good thing.
|Not a pirate. Not even close. Nancy the Swaggering Rent Boy, yes. Pirate, not so much.|
Even so, I confess that I do like Malkovich's portrayal thus far. It is more cultured master villain than pirate, but to me it is far closer to the reality of the legend than all the Jack Sparrows combined. In the hold. Of a ship. That is sinking.