what our flag means death is right about the golden age of piracy

HBO’s new show Our Flag Means Death brought the golden age of piracy to television to life, chronicling the life of bumbling gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet.

The first season primarily focuses on the fictional Stede’s memorable and oddly romantic encounter with the infamous Blackbeard, told through absurdist comedy that softens and sheds light on the brutality of true hacking.

Stede Bonnet in Our Flag Means Death is a hilarious and likeable figure – but who was the real Stede Bonnet in the story and how accurate is the series in depicting the life and times of the ‘gentleman pirate’? »?

Our Flag Means Death portrays historic pirate Stede Bonnet as a dimwitted and somewhat harmless character.
IMDB

What was the golden age of piracy?

Hackers have been around since ancient times and still exist today. Julius Caesar was captured by Cilician pirates in 75 BC. He was ransomed and freed, then returned and defeated the pirates and crucified them as punishment. Hacking still exists today with over 100 attacks in 2021.

The Golden Age of Piracy, in which Our Flag Means Death is placed, is generally accepted to be the period from the early 18th century to around 1730.

It was during this period that there was a marked increase in pirate attacks in the seas of the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of the Americas and Africa, due to a series of factors , including an increase in the amount of valuable cargo being shipped to Europe over vast areas of ocean, a decrease in navies policing these waters, and corrupt and inefficient European colonial governments.

Who was Stede Bonnet?

The historical Stede Bonnet was a prosperous plantation owner in Barbados in the early 1700s. Also known as the “Gentleman Pirate”, Stede has been described as:

A gentleman who had the benefit of a liberal education and who is generally considered a man of letters.

For unknown reasons, Bonnet in 1717 decided that life as a plantation owner was no longer for him and bought a small ten-gun sailing ship, called it the Revenge, and embarked on a career of piracy.

Bonnet immediately distinguished himself by hiring a crew and paying them a salary, something unheard of in the world of pirates, where most relied on a share of seized booty as payment.

Bonnet sailed around the American colonies and captured a number of ships off the capes of Virginia before returning to the Bahamas. It was then that Bonnet had his fateful encounter with Edward Teach, infamously known to history as the villainous Blackbeard.

His relationship with Blackbeard

A news report of the day claimed that on the way to Nassau, Bonnet had been involved in a fight with a Spanish man-of-war and that his ship had been damaged and Bonnet seriously injured. But some authors do not take this into account, since the accounts of such a fight are not recorded in the Spanish archives.

Recovering from his injuries, Bonnet hands over command of the Revenge to Blackbeard, who takes the ship on a raid into Delaware Bay, where they plunder a number of ships. The authors described Bonnet’s accounts as essentially a passenger on his own ship, playing no role and wearing morning dress.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted 1920.
Wikipedia

Bonnet and Blackbeard parted ways for a short time, only to reconnect. Blackbeard then owned his own ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The wreck of this vessel was located in coastal waters off North Carolina in 1996. Bonnet’s crew abandoned her to serve under Blackbeard, who put one of his men in charge of the Revenge and kept Bonnet on Queen Anne’s Revenge a virtual prisoner.

Bonnet was present when Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charles Town in 1718. After leaving Charles Town, Blackbeard and Bonnet traveled to Bath Town where they were pardoned by the Governor of North Carolina.

Bonnet returned to find that Blackbeard had passed him and jettisoned most of Bonnet’s crew, stripped the Revenge of its supplies, and flew away with the spoils.

While history has portrayed Blackbeard as a bloodthirsty murderer, the character in this series is more nuanced and complex. More recently, scholars have questioned the murderous portrayal of Blackbeard and suggested he was a literate, well-educated man of social grace – perhaps lending some credence to Taika Waititi’s depiction of the pirate in Our Flag Means Death.

Rhys Darby as Taika Waititi as Blackbeard (left) and Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet (right).
IMDB

Back to hacking

Seeking revenge but unable to locate Blackbeard, Bonnet returned to his life of piracy. Bonnet hoped to retain his pardon by using a pseudonym and changing the name of his ship. After capturing a number of ships, Bonnet sailed to Delaware Bay with Revenge and two other ships.

Capitulation of Bonnet.
Wikipedia

Authorities learned that Bonnet had docked at Cape Fear River and that the governor of South Carolina had sent a naval force. In the ensuing battle, Bonnet and the naval forces sent to capture him ran aground and stood idle for hours, pot-shotting each other as they waited for the tide to rise. With the rising tide, the naval force captured Bonnet and his crew.

Arrest and trial

Bonnet and his crew were taken to Charles Town. Bonnet, being a gentleman, was separated from his crew and with two of his officers was held at large at the home of the town marshal. A few days later, Bonnet escaped and fled for 12 days before being recaptured. This time he was imprisoned with his crew.

Bonnet was charged with two counts of piracy; he pleaded not guilty and provided his own defense. He was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death. Bonnet was hanged in Charles Town on December 10, 1718.

As for the treacherous sea wolf, Blackbeard, on November 22, 1718, he met his own end when he was killed in combat with naval forces. His head was taken as proof of his death and displayed by the Governor of Virginia as a warning to other potential pirates.

Edward K. Thompson