Pirates! -- Susan Price

Terrifying -- lives with witches and has knives in its feet.

 If you didn't watch 'Our Flag Means Death', then please find it on iPlayer and watch it there As Soon As.

I was slow to catch onto it myself, but after being urged to watch it by people who laugh at the same things as I do, I watched the whole series on BBC iPlayer. It's an original, playful, laugh-out-loud, gender-bending, pirate sit-com and there aren't many of those, so we have to grab them when we find them.

One of the main characters is Stede Bonnet, a wealthy Barbadian land-owner, circa 1700, who suffers a mid-life crisis. Fearing that he'll never be more than 'a little rich boy,' he builds himself a ship, deserts his wife and family and takes to the high-seas to be a pirate, despite knowing nothing about ships or piracy.

His crew are baffled by his lack of pirating skills, as well as the way he treats them like children in a remedial class, occupying their time and expanding their imaginative experience by setting them to design a new pirate flag for their ship. The cut-throats set to, stitching and sticking on sequins with gusto. That's one of the class projects, above. Another pirate challenges its designer: "Our flags are supposed to be frightening. What's frightening about a cat?"

"Everybody knows cats are frightening! They live with witches! They have knives in their feet!"

The disaffected first mate tries to get the crew to mutiny against their hopeless captain. "Not now," says one sailor. "I want to finish my flag." (There's a prize for the best.)

Others are opposed to mutiny because Captain Bonnet is the only one on board who can read and, without him, who is going to finish that story he's reading to them every night? "I want to find out what happens to the little wooden boy."

Captain Bonnet heads for the 'Republic of Pirates', where he plans to introduce himself as 'the Gentleman Pirate' and swan about in thrillingly dangerous dives where pirates meet.

Taika Waititi

He's in luck. He meets the pirates' pirate, Edward Teach, AKA Blackbeard. (You know, the pirate who stuck lit fuses in his hat, to look scary.) The meeting is heaven-sent. Bonnet wants to be a pirate, and Blackbeard wants to be a gentleman. So Blackbeard teaches Stede how to fight with cutlass and dagger; and Stede teaches Blackbeard how to crush people with  passive-aggressive put-downs. (Oh, and when to use fish-knives.)

Blackbeard is played, wonderfully, by Taika Waititi (left). He's extremely easy on the eye, if you're that way inclined, and, as a bonus, very funny. Terrifying in full-on pirate mode, he switches instantly to a sulky, disappointed little boy on meeting a French aristocrat's full-on sneer.

'Our Flag' is a lot of fun, and bends several genders in  different directions, but the underlying theme that came over to me is that Love isn't really about bodies, although they may get incidentally involved. It's about the people who 'get' you, who understand your feelings, who can teach you things you need to understand better and who you can teach in return. If you're really lucky, Love will turn up in a body you can also lust over. But Love's the important thing.

True Romance

I thoroughly enjoyed the series and recommend it, but what really knocked me sideways was the discovery that it's based (loosely) on truth!

I thought 'Stede Bonnet' was an odd name to give an invented character, when you could call him anything else. I mean, what kind of a name is 'Stede'?

It turns out that the character cops for that name because Stede Bonnet was a real person, born in 1688 and hung for his crimes, in Charlestown, Carolina, in 1718. Follow this link for a fascinating account of his life. (It seems almost everyone else has heard of Bonnet and written about him, except me. Until now. Never heard of him before in all my puff.)

Bonnet's alleged flag.
Just as in the series, Bonnet was a wealthy, married man, a Barbadian plantation owner, who threw it all up to run away to sea and be a pirate. And he really did see himself as the 'Gentleman Pirate.' He is said to have flown a flag similar to one at the top of this blog-- though, sadly, lacking the witch's friend with knives in its feet. (That thing to the left of the cat and the skull is meant to be a dagger. I would never have guessed. It looks like the stopper from a perfume bottle to me.)

Furthermore, Bonnet really did meet Blackbeard and sail with him -- though, as you'd expect, that 'friendship' didn't turn out as well in real life as it does on the TV screen. The real Blackbeard, predictably, robbed and deserted Bonnet. Well, he was the pirate's pirate, after all. He had a reputation to uphold.

On trial, Bonnet claimed that he hadn't been a pirate. No, not at all. It had all been a misunderstanding. It was his crew's fault. They would insist on robbing other vessels, even though he threatened that he'd leave them if they ever did it again. But they were incorrigible. Just rob, rob, rob, it was all they could think of. (Remind you of anyone in the news just now? Some things never change.)

As for the sloop, Francis, for the capture of which Bonnet was on trial -- he'd had nothing to do with that, nothing! He'd been fast asleep all the time.

After having a good laugh, the court dismissed these claims and sentenced Bonnet to death.

While awaiting execution, Bonnet wrote letters to the state governor, begging for mercy and promising that he would never commit another act of piracy, honest. Cross his heart and hope not to...well. He offered, if allowed to live, to have his own arms and legs cut off, to ensure there would be no more pirating of any kind.

His execution was actually delayed seven times, since even in 1718, it was recognised that Bonnet was  two stops from Dagenham.* But they brought themselves to hang him in the end.

Our Flag Means Death... BBC iPlayer. I'm telling you.

United States Public Domain

 The real Stede Bonnet, Gentleman Pirate. Drawn from life, obviously.

* 'Two stops from Dagenham'. A note for our readers from foreign climes:-- On the London Underground, the station two stops from Dagenham is Barking. As in the expression 'barking mad.'

Susan Price has won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Award.

You can learn more about her books at her website.



Jan Needle said…
Thanks for that, Sue. You've just got a taker!
Susan Price said…
I think you'll have a laugh, Jan!
I'm currently working my way through Outlander, which has a Stephen Bonnet pirate character in the later seasons set in North Carolina, so possibly based on the real Bonnet?
Susan Price said…
That'll be him! He was eventually hung in Carolina. More confirmation that everyone's heard of him except me. Don't know how I missed him.
Umberto Tosi said…
Wry wit with hilarious gusts hoist the mizzen. Avast mates, I agree. My youngest daughter, a big fan, introduced me.

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