Leading up to its first season, Black Sails was heavily promoted as a Michael Bay vehicle; leading fans to believe the series they would get could be something action packed but campy. Starz had a massive presence at San Diego Comic Con in 2013, with the show having a pirate ship on the show floor. The pilot was screened at the convention and was well received by the fans. Well before the first episode officially aired, Starz announced the series would have a second season. The hype surrounding the series was fervent, but when it actually aired in January of 2014, it was immediately clear this was unlike any pirate tale that had come before it.
Set in what is considered the “Golden Age of Piracy,” Black Sails deftly weaves historical figures and places with fictional characters. The series feels familiar because it is a prequel, of sorts, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved novel Treasure Island. Black Sails provides tremendous back story to characters like Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), Long John Silver (Luke Arnold), and Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) before they were made infamous in the book. Executive producer Robert Levine told Deadline that the series was always meant to end where Treasure Island begins, stating:
“You know, our goal with the ending was to get as close as possible to Treasure Island. It was to try to leave you in a place where you could finish the show and then start at page one of the book, and start reading it, and have it not only make sense in the narrative sense, but also be something of a new story for you. Because now you could fill in a lot between the lines in terms of the characters, and their relationships, and their histories.”
Here are several ways the stories are connected without trampling on established canon.
Black Sails viewers meet Ben Gunn (Chris Fisher) near the beginning of season 3 when the Walrus crew is captured by maroons after having survived the hurricane and the doldrums to escape capture by Captain Hornigold (Patrick Lyster) and his crew. Gunn is already in the cell when the Maroon Queen places Flint and his crew inside. He is the sole survivor of his original crew that was captured by the maroons, and having been jailed for so long, had some choice advice for the Walrus crew.
Gunn is a character Treasure Island protagonist Jim Hawkins encounters. And similar to his appearance in Black Sails, Gunn had been marooned on an island for a long while. However, in the book, Gunn had already been a member of Flint’s crew and had been tasked with finding the buried treasure that Flint hid. When he couldn’t produce the chest, he was marooned for 3 years until Long John Silver found him while seeking Flint’s buried treasure.
Israel Hands, who was actually based on a real pirate that sailed with Blackbeard, was just as ruthless in Treasure Island as he was in Black Sails. The TV show used him as Silver’s blunt instrument while pulling in some of Hands’ actual history; where the book tells Hands’ backstory as a former gunner on Flint’s crew.
By the time Treasure Island begins, Flint (who was never even given a first name) is already dead, Billy Bones is a cranky old drunk, and Long John Silver is one of the most feared and ruthless pirates known the world over. Starz’s was able to give each of these characters a very rich backstory without taking away from their characters in the book.
Billy Bones went from a seasoned, but even-tempered protector of his Walrus crewmates (under original quartermaster, Gates) to a jaded survivor after being captured by the English to, finally, a bitter and lonely man after he betrayed every brother he’d sworn an oath to serve. In Treasure Island, Billy has a map to Flint’s treasure and is always on the look out for Silver. With no companions, Bones weaves his own tale of piracy and how he was a great and fearsome captain before settling at the Admiral Benbow Inn. Perhaps this ability to fabricate stories is what led Black Sails writers to make it so Billy was the one to create Silver’s legend. Given his demise in the series is thanks to the “Pirate King” he created, it’s not a leap to see why he has such animosity toward Silver in the book.
Long John Silver is perhaps the most famous name in pirate fiction, and he’s certainly a major force in Treasure Island. When we meet Silver for the first time in the Black Sails premiere, it’s hard to imagine viewers not immediately wondering why he didn’t have a peg leg. With the persona of Long John Silver being fully realized by the time Treasure Island gets to its adventure, Black Sails took the liberty of literally building the character from the ground up while maintaining the air of mystery. Even as the series neared the end, fans were never clued in on Silver’s childhood or youth that lead him to be in the belly of the ship where Flint found him. In the book, Silver was so powerful that the scariest pirate of the time, Captain Flint, was said to have only ever feared his former Quartermaster, Silver.
Captain Flint was a legend both when we meet him in Black Sails and when Treasure Island begins. When mentioned in the novel, everything that is said about Flint is a secondhand accounting or hearsay. The loftiness of Flint and the secrecy of his hidden treasure make it easy to compare the former captain to a myth like the boogeyman. His presence hangs over the characters of Treasure Island much in the same way his name carries so much weight in Black Sails. After claiming his prize from a Spanish Galleon, Flint took six men with him to bury it on an uncharted island. After the chest was in the ground, he killed all of his co-conspirators, leaving one body (Allardyce) eerily pointing in the direction of the treasure. By the time Flint spirits away the treasure in Black Sails, it is just him and one loyal crewman, Dooley (Laudo Liebenberg). Like in Treasure Island, Flint eventually kills Dooley as well.
Treasure Island briefly mentions that Long John Silver had a wife and that she was a woman of color. There’s no other mention in the book, but with Black Sails concluded, it’s obvious that woman is Madi. Of all the pirates in the novel, Silver is the only one who is noted to have a wife, further separating him from typical notions of what a pirate is like. John Silver was anything but traditional in Treasure Island, and his desire for normalcy is evident through his character arc in Black Sails. It’s not hard to see how Silver could leave piracy behind and become a pub owner.
In Black Sails, Flint’s real name is James McGraw and he was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy before he was exiled from England. McGraw could be a nod to his last words from Treasure Island. In addition to his infamy, Flint was also known for his excessive rum consumption. He died somewhere in Savannah, Georgia, just after muttering, “Darby M’Graw – fetch aft the rum.” Since the character was known only as Flint in the books, the Black Sails writers had plenty of room to create a real person behind the name; including giving him a happy ending by reuniting him with his lost love, Thomas Hamilton.
The “Black Spot” first appears in season three of Black Sails as Billy digs up the old pirate superstition in order to drum up fear in Nassau. The mark is used as an ultimatum for pirates who have “forgotten their code,” meaning most of those who signed up to renounce their pirate pasts to become lawful citizens under Governor Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) rule. In Treasure Island, Billy receives two Black Spots from nefarious pirates. The first is delivered by a rogue named Black Dog, after which, Billy suffers a stroke. The second comes from a blind beggar named Pew, who happens to be a cutthroat himself. After receiving this second mark, Billy has another stroke and finally dies.
Narrative vs Canon
In the same Deadline interview mentioned earlier, Levine and Steinberg went on to say that leaving viewers on the first page of Treasure Island felt like the right thing to do — there was never any intent to overlap the tales. Yet over the course of four seasons, they were able give viewers a unique and expansive story without upending what we’ve already known about the characters. Steinberg adds:
“I think [Black Sails] has deliberately and largely, from the beginning, been a story about story and a story about the power of narrative and what it can do when it’s deployed in certain ways. So I think it felt like the right closing statement for there to be a moment of self-awareness that, at a certain point, you know, facts are important, and emotions are important. All of those things are important, but narrative is really powerful, and it can override those things when it’s compelling.”
Giving Treasure Island a re-read after completing Black Sails is sure to provide a wholly different experience.
Black Sails can be streamed via the Starz Play app or on Hulu.