(SPOILERS ahead! You’ve been warned…)
There’s a moment late in the first episode of the highly underappreciated series “Black Sails” that hints not only at the troubled past of its lead character Captain Flint but also describes the larger theme of the story.
Flint has gotten himself into trouble. Along with his crewmember Billy “Bones,” in an effort to secure the financing he needs to capture the gold from the Spanish warship known as L’Urca de Lima, his recklessness has gotten Nassau’s governor shot and injured and his plans all but evaporated. Billy feels they are now in too deep and they should not only turn back but perhaps new leadership is needed for Flint’s crew. It is here that Flint reveals a bit where his true ambitions lie.
On the first viewing, Flint ominously declaring the pending arrival of “civilization” to the new world could mean anything from simply the imperialistic tendencies of the British and Spanish empire, to the draconian rulership of the crown or just “taxes” as he makes light mention of in this speech. But as the series progresses, especially in the second season, “civilization” begins to take a darker, more personal meaning.
The story begins to reveal that the dangerous pirates of Nassau are not at least inherently dastardly, although certainly violent, but victims of their various circumstances; a former slave turned prostitute turned keeper of secrets in Max, a neglected daughter becoming the bookkeeper of the pirates with Eleanor Guthrie, another former slave turned ruthless pirate captain in the vicious Charles Vane, and an abused woman turned deadliest pirate on the island Anne Bony, and none more painfully revealing than that of Flint himself.
You see Flint didn’t always go by this name, he used to be a prominent officer in the British navy named James McGraw until he met Thomas Hamilton, a wealthy proprietor tasked with solving the problem of the pirates of Nassau many years prior. Thomas had the radical idea of pardoning the entire island to bring them back into society, to avoid violence and bloodshed, and to better understand the people who would turn to piracy.
As James gets to know him more and his revolutionary philosophies of empathy and enlightenment the two unexpectedly fall in love and thus seal the fates of both their downfalls from “civilized” society.
With England unwilling to see any other way to end the pirates without exterminating all of them and looking to exploit weaknesses in Thomas to Parliament, he is outed and imprisoned. James along with Thomas’s wife Miranda, who lives in a polyamorous relationship between the two, are persona non-grata-ed and the two flee to Nassau to finish what Thomas started in an act of rebellion.
There are few things as personal as love and “Black Sails” uses this to show how far society can go to villainize people. Flint wasn’t born a monster, and he is not one for loving Thomas; he is a monster because “civilization” wanted him to be one.
As our own civilization enters a timeline that may promise great change, people who have been othered and victimized by society are finding themselves grappling with their pain and grief in the same way as Flint. People have tried peaceful reconciliation and conformity into society to avoid violence throughout history despite the labels they have been given for no other crime than being who they are, but civilization’s need for a monster always brings people down no matter how hard they try to do it the “right way.”
African Americans tried becoming rich like their white counterparts in places like “Black Wallstreet” in Tulsa, Oklahoma and were still bombed and massacred for it.
Asian and Latin Americans immigrated here to flee war and death largely caused by white imperialist countries, to survive and work jobs white Americans would not. Both are othered as foreigners, face violence from the state, and are deported everyday.
Poor working-class Americans try fruitlessly to keep their head above water as they become mired in debt, fighting a pandemic on slave wages essentially, all while our government cuts wealthy companies a fat paycheck annually with our own tax dollars. And anyone who fights back finds themselves without an income and health insurance during a recession and a pandemic.
And the LGBTQ+ community ask for the dignity to be left alone and treated normally but not only are they harassed for it but they are beaten, tortured, and killed for being different.
Flint, himself, tries one last time, toward the end of season two, to peacefully resolve his vendetta with England and save Nassau from a war with them but instead finds himself facing the gallows anyways by the Charlestown government.
As they read out his charges, many of them real heinous things he did but also many that were fabricated, Flint stops them from proceeding any further and delivers a final act of defiance to the court.
“I have one regret,” he begins to the court of high society folks who are only interested in seeing him punished before the masses. “I regret ever coming to this place with the assumption that a reconciliation could be found. That reason could be a bridge between us. Everyone is a monster to someone. Since you are so convinced that I am yours, I will be it.”
It is at this point in the story that Flint, perhaps like other revolutionaries of the past, recognize that the system doesn’t want to reason with him, that these people aren’t looking to understand or empathize with him or even try for that matter. They wanted a monster, they made one in him, so he decides there that “civilization” as he had noted in the series first episode is not worth reconciling with and certainly not worthy of forgiveness.
And Flint spends the rest of the series in bloody war with them.
“Black Sails” is about queerness, race, social politics, and the way conformity by force is used against it. It’s about the rage that boils underneath many of us as we are wronged over and over again by society, while being exploited to no end, and what happens when someone finally says “enough.”
Anyone who has experienced what it is like to be othered can find something deeply personal with the anger that Flint carries around with him in each scene of this series. We feel his pain of rejection by society, his grief for feeling ashamed of himself when he and the audience know he shouldn’t.
It’s what makes the eventual reveal of his relationship with Thomas so cathartic, as we see the rage-filled guard of Flint drop as he reads Thomas’s words left for him in a book they both loved and shared.
“Know no shame” is so important to growth of this character and the message of this story. Civilization and those who wish to keep the status quo want those who do not fall in line with their authority and judgments to feel shame for who they are. They not only want monsters, they want you to feel like one and the reason Thomas line speaks so much to both Flint and the audience is that it reminds us there is no shame in who we are.
The country we live in is a powder keg right now experiencing the same rage that Flint feels and more specifically how he felt at the end of season 2. Though this country’s racist attitudes and subjugation of the vulnerable hardly started with this presidency it cannot be argued that it has brought all that hatred in our government and the people who support those views painfully to the surface. When people peacefully protest, peacefully assemble, and peacefully try to cast their vote and are still met with resistance, still met with hatred and violence, people have to start to wonder if operating within the system’s rules can actually affect change.
A lot has been made about the way protesters may have violently lashed out over the past three weeks, with media talking heads and privileged elites asking unironically why they couldn’t do things peacefully but more has been done as result of the rising tension than the previous 50 years combined. You can tell people to “#vote” all you want but it doesn’t change the fact that people have been trying that for decades and people are still getting quite literally killed for it.
If there’s one takeaway I hope a viewer gets from “Black Sails” is that revolution, no matter how serious you are about it, should never be off the table when confronting systemic inequality. A racist, sexist, classist, and/or, in the case of Flint, homophobic power structure does not concede their power if you play to their convenience and when people are being put down, beaten, and often killed for showing their anger at this, calling for “law and order” becomes a slap in the face to the victims.
A government or system that treats you unjustly doesn’t deserve peace.
I’ll say it again.
No one wants it to get this far, I definitely don’t, and certainly not every peaceful mean has been exhausted yet in this fight perhaps but this country was literally founded on violent rebellion after being slighted all the same by out of balance power structures. I’m not advocating for violence or to take up arms against the state right now BUT no one should ever rule it out when the social contract keeps being broken and broken and broken again by those in charge who clearly don’t want to listen.
A government should always feel the threat of an uprising if it keeps wronging its people.
As the more fiery weeks of the protests seem to be in the rearview mirror and we find less activity and calls to action on our social media timelines, I want to remind you all to not let up with whatever you are choosing to do to help and keep fighting back out there. The people who stand to benefit from having angst of the general public leave and dissipate from our collective consciousness want us to forget how angry we are, they want us to feel fatigued and disinterested in continuing the push forward because “this is how they win” as Flint would say.
We have so much more power than we realize, just look at how much got done just by everyone uniting behind one marginalized group finally over the past three weeks. When we realize we are fighting essentially in the same battle for respect and dignity, justice in our society can be achieved. It can be done, and maybe just maybe we can finally change the world. Afterall who else has been as close to achieving it as we are right now?
Fight for your dignity and respect and stand in solidarity with others in their own fights as well, and always remember “know no shame.”