Fact or Fiction – Where Nassau’s pirate history meets Black Sails plot
Black Sails is the latest TV offering to satisfy the craving for historical dramas, joining shows like The Collection, Vikings and Marco Polo. The Starz original currently sits pretty on Netflix, sporting a 5-star rating at the end of heart-thumping final episode, closing the curtain on 4 enthralling seasons of sex and scandal in the Golden Age of Piracy. The Emmy Award winning production has drawn fans into the world of 18th century Nassau, mixing historical happenings with fiction. The question being bandied about on Black Sails fandom sites, Reddit forums and across social media, is just how accurate is the history behind the popular pirate plot.
The legends in the lore
If there’s one thing Bahamians know it’s our pirate history! The show’s Bahamian fans as well as lovers of Pirate lore, would have felt a surge of excitement at the inclusion of real life, salty seadogs – Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach. Though there are many other characters who played equally important roles both in the unfolding plot of Black Sails and Nassau’s history, none would have stirred pirating passions as the members of the Flying Gang and one of the most fearsome pirates of all time.
Charles Vane’s character in Black Sails seems on point with the picture history books have painted of him – ruthless and dedicated to a pirate’s way of life. Vane is one of the most infamous members of the Flying Gang and certainly one of the most brazen and callous pirates of them all. In June and July of 1718 Vane and his crew captured many ships and sailed back to Nassau with a large fleet, intent on taking over the town. After striking fear into many merchant hearts on the high seas, the pirate captain was finally arrested, tried and hung on the 29th of March, 1721 at Gallows Point in Port Royal and his body displayed in a gibbet at Gun Cay. Based on the show’s timeline, series writers unfortunately consigned Vane to an early death (1718), at least 3 years before his actual demise.
‘Calico’ Jack Rackham
John Rackham best known as Calico Jack, was equally famous for his piracy as he was for keeping company with two well-known female pirates – Anne Bonny and Mary Read. As in the popular television series, Rackham did indeed serve as quartermaster on the Ranger under Captain Charles Vane, before a mutiny on Vane’s ship rendered him deposed of his captaincy and elevated Rackham as leader of the crew. The design of Rackham’s Jolly Roger flag – a skull with crossed swords, has easily become one of the most popular pirate symbols of all time. Calico Jack’s Black Sails character saw him attempt to take advantage of Woodes Rogers’ pardon in season 3, not unlike the true-life pirate captain who sailed to Nassau in 1719 to take advantage of the amnesty that was offered to pirates. Rackham’s pardon was short lived, while still in Nassau, Jack began an affair with Anne Bonny, wife of a sailor employed by Governor Rogers. In an attempt to save Anne from a whipping, the pair stole a sloop and fled the island with a small crew.
Strong and independent, that’s how Anne Bonny is portrayed in the Black Sails saga, no different to her real-life character. Anne McCormac later Anne Bonny, was born in Cork, Ireland and after marrying a poor sailor and small-time pirate, James Bonny, moved to Nassau. Her husband accepted the King’s pardon and became an informant of the then Governor – Woodes Rogers. Anne had formed many friendships among the pirates in New Providence, one of those was Calico Jack Rackham, who later become her lover. In season 3, fans heard 1st hand from Jack, that he saved Anne from her husband, though the show’s version paints his actions as more chivalrous than they may have been. In October 1720, the crew of “Revenge” was captured and taken to Port Royal to stand trial. Everybody was found guilty for the crime of piracy. The sentence was death by hanging. However, Anne and Mary Read, another famous female pirate who was part of Rackham’s crew, were temporarily spared, because they pled their bellies, claiming to be preganant. Another account of Anne’s pregnancy is put forward by Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). It is claimed that Anne gave birth to Rackham’s child in Charles Town, after her father paid to secure her freedom. Anne supposedly remarried in 1721.
One of the most notorious acts committed by the lawless Charles Vane, was sending a combustible fireship at the British blockade of their pirate haven at Nassau.
Charles Vane was vehemently against any British authority on his self-proclaimed island. He became the leader of those who refused the pardon, and soon began outfitting a vessel the Lark, a 20-gun French ship that was in his fleet, in order to become a weapon. He loaded his French prize ship with explosives and set it adrift as a fireship aiming right at the British blockade. When the magazines and gunpowder on the ship exploded, it created a massive fireworks display that shot into the sky. As the pirates cheered onshore, Rogers and his crew hastily tried to avoid the incoming fireball. As the fire tore away at the warships, Vane and his crew slipped away in the chaos on a smaller sloop after firing a few shots at Woodes Rogers. Black Sails does a great job of paying homage to this daring act by the pirate captain in the action packed season 3.
Spanish Gold – Urca de Lima
The Urca de Lima, at the heart of Captain Flint’s quest, was an actual vessel that was part of a Spanish treasure fleet, she was wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1715. The original name of the ship was Santísima Trinidad. Her nickname Urca de Lima is derived from the Spanish term urca for cargo vessels and its owner Miguel de Lima y Melo. History has pegged Charles Vane and Henry Jennings along with many members of the future Flying Gang including Samuel Bellamy, as looting the fabled 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet. When the Treasure Fleet sunk, it deposited tons of gold and silver on the seafloor, some of which continues to show up on beaches to this day. As the surviving Spanish tried to salvage what they could of the wrecks, the pirates raided the camps and made off with around £87,000 in recovered gold and silver.
Core to the series storyline was the ownership and control of the fort. This fort was built in 1697 and named Nassau, after King William III (House of Orange-Nassau). The fort had been built of stone in the shape of a 4-pointed star with its two high walled ends projecting northward into the harbour. The fort guarded the western end of the port.
Fort Nassau underwent several invasions, rebuilding and final dismantling in 1897. The fort suffered severe damages with the guns being immobilized when allied forces of Spain and France attacked New Providence. The inhabitants were forced to leave the town leaving it open for pirates who began frequenting the island. On the urgings of the business community of London, George I sent forces, in 1718, to govern the island and to get rid of pirate operations. The governor set to action by restoring the island to normalcy.
More than just a plundering plot
Fans of the hit TV series may be surprised to uncover the historical truths keeping the series afloat. The show is laden with historical Easter eggs if you’re willing to go on a treasure hunt to discover them! There’s still lots to tell, like the story of Governor Woodes Rogers, a compelling character in the show, Benjamin Hornigold – pirate turned pirate hunter and of course the infamous Blackbeard. You can download our ebook to find out Blackbeard’s fearsome secret!