This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The Netflix docudrama “Lost Pirate Kingdom” took the world by storm last month, rising to the #2 most watched show on the streaming service’s U.S. site, #3 in the U.K, and #1 in Denmark. It may be the most watched six hours of early 18th century history out there, and has likely introduced millions to the true story of Blackbeard and his Caribbean pirate cohort, a fascinating tale I researched and told in a 2007 book, The Republic of Pirates, which is why I was one of the series’ principle on camera experts.
But how much of Netflix’s version is true?
The vast majority, I’m happy to report, is — including some unlikely sounding episodes: Sam Bellamy’s nude attack on a French vessel; Henry Jennings sacking a Spanish treasure salvage base in Florida; Blackbeard buying the protection of the governor of North Carolina; Jamaica’s governor getting arrested and hauled away in chains for helping set up many of the pirates. The pirates really did found a base in Nassau and grew so dangerous that they became a threat to the imperial commerce of four empires and, because they welcomed escaped slaves into their ranks, the security of the plantation colonies surrounding them.
The producers of the six-episode series generally follow good docudrama practice. The “documentary” part sticks to facts and evidence delivered by experts or the narrator (in this case the delightful Derek Jacobi of “The Crown” fame). In the “drama” portions, actors and screenwriters speculate within the known parameters to imagine how scenes, situations and relationships might have played out.
But there’s some bad history in the series too. It’s a pity because the pirates’ actual story is often more fresh and interesting than the made-up stuff and historians have only recently managed to get the upper hand over myth and legend.
Much of the problematic material revolves around the show’s principle female characters, the pirate Anne Bonny and Bellamy’s alleged love interest, Maria Hallett of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In both cases on-camera experts and actors alike present legend as fact or simply invent significant elements out of whole cloth.
Anne Bonny really existed and probably was the wife of James Bonny, a reformed pirate who pops up regularly in period documents. Witnesses testified at trial that she and her partner in crime Mary Read (not mentioned in the series) wore men’s clothes in combat and fought as good as the rest of them. But Bonny’s pirate career didn’t begin until the summer of 1720 — two years after Woodes Rogers’s seized control of the island for the crown — when she, Read, and Calico Jack Rackham stole a sloop from Nassau harbor and went on a two-month piracy spree. They were all captured and sentenced to death by a Jamaica court, but the two women were spared when discovered to be pregnant. We don’t know where Bonny came from, who her parents were, or how and when she died.
But “Lost Pirate Kingdom” concocted a fantasy backstory for Bonny: her origins as the illegitimate daughter of an Irish landlord; affairs with Blackbeard and Benjamin Hornigold; Rackham buying out her marriage with Gov. Rogers’ assistance; and a great deal of unsourced material about her alleged motivations and inner thoughts. Some of the assertions are based on a set of “family documents” once in the possession of Bonny biographer Tamara Eastman, but which she never allowed scholars to examine and, when questioned by a Charleston newspaper reporter, said had been lost in a fire and, in any case, only “might” have been about the pirate.
The Maria Hallett subplot is literally the stuff of legend: a story Cape Codders have been telling since the 1930s. We don’t know if she fell in love with Bellamy at a tavern, if they had a child or if it died, if she went mad and started spooking children as the “sea witch of Billingsgate,” or if she existed at all. The only actual evidence we have is the discovery — unearthed by the late historian Ken Kinkor — that there really was a young woman named Mary Hallett living on the outer Cape in 1715 whose brother was married to tavernkeepers and who died childless and unmarried in 1751. The events depicted in the show as fact might have happened, but that’s about all a responsible historian can say.
There’s also some misdirection about the pirates’ stance toward slavery. From the fragmentary evidence we have it’s clear the Bahamas-based pirates of European origin had no problem accepting people of African descent as fellow humans, crewman, and even captains. There were more than 30 Black individuals in Bellamy’s crew, and at least 70 served with Blackbeard, many of them remaining in his inner circle until the day he died.
But this acceptance appears not to have necessarily extended to people recently arrived from Africa itself who were “othered” and treated as property. When Blackbeard captured the slaver La Concorde — his future flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge — he gave nearly 400 of the slaves chained in the hold back to the ship’s captain to sell at auction. How it was decided which people were crew and which were cargo remains largely a mystery, beyond that the lucky minority were able-bodied males.
Blackbeard didn’t, as the series claims, betray his Black crewmen and sell them to North Carolina officials. I did some research this week to figure out where this claim comes from and found my way to the footnotes of (the most excellent) historian Ed Fox’s 2014 doctoral dissertation. Two former pirates who had left Blackbeard’s company sold “two negroe men” to one official and his former quartermaster was detained in Virginia in the company of two “slaves” he admitted he didn’t own. As evidence goes this is, as the English say, weak tea.
The Netflix show also boldly proclaims that Blackbeard contracted syphilis in late 1717 and went “crazy,” tying fuses in his beard and scaring mariners. This theory is built on even flimsier evidence: that in May 1718 Blackbeard and his men were eager to ransom captured Charleston ship passengers in exchange for a medicine chest. When archeologists excavated the Queen Anne’s Revenge they found a syringe used to, yes, inject mercury into the penis to “cure” the venereal disease. But was this item, of all the stuff in the chest — including items for treating scurvy and dysentery — what the pirates so desperately wanted? Was Blackbeard the one who needed it? Nobody knows and Blackbeard appeared in fine health for the rest of his life and married a local girl in Bath.
There are a few other errors in the show. Paulsgrave Williams was not related to William Kidd (though his stepfather’s family fenced his goods). Woodes Rogers did not get shot in the face by pirates (he was the one doing the pirating and was shot by the crew of one of the Spanish King’s galleons). There’s no evidence Charles Vane was born in Wapping (or anyplace else). And Virginia’s acting Governor, Alexander Spottswood, wasn’t motivated to order a hit on Blackbeard by the latter messing up slave commerce; the pirate was threatening the ordinary shipping in and out of the Chesapeake.
But the series does get most things right, something too few stories about the Golden Age pirates ever even attempt.
Colin Woodard is the author of six books including The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.