by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 22, 2019
Sixty years ago, back in 1959, I read my first book, Treasure Island. Actually, my mother read it with me. I was seven and in the third grade. It was around Halloween because I went to a costume party dressed as Long John Silver. I’m not sure, but my faulty memory tells me I picked Treasure Island to read because I had seen the 1934 movie version on television, the one with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. I have reread the book and seen the old movie many times since. They are burned into my memory.
Sixty years later, in 2019 I’m watching a TV series called Black Sails (2014-2017) that features several characters that share names with characters in Treasure Island – Long John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and Ben Gunn. The producers of the show consider it a prequel to the novel. If you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many filmed versions of Treasure Island it hardly matters, but if you have, knowing the character’s future adds to the fun of watching the show. To make the show even more delicious, many of the other characters are based on historical people from the Golden Age of Pirates.
Black Sails is not your typical pirate movie (well an extended TV series of 4 seasons with a total of 38 episodes). Black Sails spends most of its time developing characters and a complicated plot arc. Sure, it has sea battles, sword fights, treasure chests, and waving skull and crossbones, but it’s mostly about business. Pirate captains are elected. They keep their leadership only as long as their bookkeeper keeps them in the black. Pirates steal on the high seas but fence their booty in Nassau which is resold in the American colonies. Everyone is concerned with their own bottom line. Nassau belongs to England but its colonial governors are always corrupted. The main theme of the story is how some pirates and some Englishmen want to make Nassau legit like the other colonies.
Black Sails does feature a great deal of sex and violence, including plenty of full-frontal nudity, swearing, and gore, so it’s not for children like the original Treasure Island. But it’s also been modernized with several significant roles for women. None of the women characters are from Treasure Island and only one is from history (Anne Bonny).
In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is dishonest, violent, and likable. That’s true of the John Silver character in Black Sails. Captain Flint is a vastly complex character in the show, even its main character, but Captain Flint was just alluded to in Stevenson’s novel, and generally for his monstrous reputation. Black Sails spends much of its time giving Captain Flint a backstory. Billy Bones was not very likable in the book but is very likable in the television show.
Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold were real pirates, and it’s worth following their links to read about them at Wikipedia. It’s also worth reading about the Republic of Pirates that the show builds upon that worked out of Nassau, and the pirate code of conduct. These six links will provide a significant history needed to truly appreciate what the show succeeds at doing.
Over my lifetime I’ve become acquainted with many fictional characters that have been legendary or mythic, ones which are constantly recreated and enlarged – Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Jo Marsh, Elizabeth Bennet – so that Black Sails is giving more life to Long John Silver. I like that. Maybe because he’s the character I’ve known the longest.