Features Reviews

“Know No Shame”: Black Sails and Writing the Historical Fiction of Sexuality

Written by Jess Womack. The television series, Black Sails, approaches the question of "pre-modern" sexuality. Through a range of individual experiences, it offers a route to writing the historical fiction of sexuality.

“The sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species.” Writing in 1978, Foucault posited that what we understand as the modern homosexual did not exist before the late Victorian period. Rather than an inherent identity that has existed across time and space, the homosexual identity emerged directly out of a discourse of repression. Foucault was not the first to suggest that sexuality emerges out of its cultural context and power relations, and his theories are far from flawless. For example, The History of Sexuality makes no consideration of how interactions with non-Western communities shaped Western ideas of gender and sexuality. However, his work raises an important question. How do we contend with understanding sexuality in contexts where our contemporary identities and meanings simply do not apply? And how do we approach this problem in the specific case of historical fiction, which faces the dual task of being true to its setting and relatable to the modern audience?

Enter Black Sails. Running from 2014 to 2017, the four-season television series tells the story of the pirates of Nassau as they attempt to carve a place for themselves in the rapidly shifting world of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic. From the outset, Black Sails straddles multiple contexts. It covers the lives of real-world figures including Ned Lowe and Anne Bonney, while telling the story of a prequel to Robert Louis Steven’s Treasure Island. It spans boundaries of geography, race, class, and time, bouncing between two time periods and several contrasting perspectives. And within this, the show posits the question of what it means to be Queer in a world shaped by definitions of insiders and outsiders.

It is, quite simply, an overwhelmingly Queer narrative. Five main characters are shown to explicitly experience attraction and engage in relationships with members of the same sex, and several more are written with clear Queer subtext. These characters represent all corners of the Atlantic World, from English Lords to Caribbean prostitutes. Despite many also being pirates, curiously the show does not lean on the practice of Matelotage commonplace among crews. This was a form of civil union, which ranged from an economic agreement of inheritance to deeply affectionate fraternal and even sexual bonds. Professor Barry Richard Burg described Matelotage as “an institutionalised linking of a buccaneer and another male – most often a youth – in a relationship with clearly homosexual characteristics.” However, this is not a type of relationship explored in the show, possibly because there is no modern-day equivalent of the dynamic.

The Queer characters in Black Sails are never referred to by their sexuality. Not once is a character described as gay or lesbian, and characters never appeal to each other’s shared experiences or stand in solidarity with each other’s Queerness. In many ways, it is treated as an individual characteristic. For example, the line of dialogue revealing one character as Queer is not “you were gay” but “you loved him”, presenting sexuality as secondary to individual emotions and relationships.

This does not mean that the show side-steps the issue of sexuality. Instead, piracy itself becomes a metaphor for sexuality, and the British Empire acts as a stand-in for the social and political pressures that regulate acceptable and unacceptable sexualities today. As multiple factions fight over control of Nassau and the meanings of civilisation, so too do they debate meanings of Queerness. It is not just the colonisation of the island at stake, but the colonisation of the self.

Such meanings are embodied through the characters of Captain Flint and Eleanor Guthrie. The former, a naval-officer-turned-pirate, is driven to piracy directly as a result of English intolerance towards sexuality. As such, all his statements on piracy can be viewed through a Queer lens. “Everyone is a monster to someone,” he states, “since you are so convinced I am yours, I will be it.” Later, he decries a British Empire that “paints the world full of shadows”, including anyone who cannot fit into the narrow vision of socially-acceptable life. The very act of rebellion against the imperial system of control, of engaging in piracy and challenging English hegemony, is Queered through his character. Guthrie, meanwhile, engages in Queer behaviour not just through same-sex activity but through a subversion of gender norms while in Nassau. She lives outside of the institution of marriage, employs male dress such as waistcoats, and engages in economic activity typically reserved for men. Through these behaviours, she fits into the framework of “lesbian-like”, which Judith Bennet argues is a necessary lens to consider pre-modern female Queerness. By including demeanours beyond the sexual in our historic understandings of lesbianism, we can subvert the limiting debates of “was she or was she not” and instead consider a wider range of subversive behaviours. When she returns to England, however, Guthrie adopts respectable dress and marries a man. This does not erase her sexual identity but makes a statement on the ways in which the disciplinary influences of structures like empire regulate behaviour towards what is deemed ‘acceptable’. This idea is as applicable to characters in the eighteenth century as it is to the modern Queer viewer.

Black Sails approaches the question of pre-modern sexual identity through an individualist approach as well as one that reaches across time and space. By appealing to experiences and processes that shape the modern sexual experience, it transcends the contextual limitations of the historical period. The debate about how to write the history of sexuality continues. But Black Sails provides a highly successful example of how to write the historical fiction of sexuality.

Written by Jess Womack

Bibliography

Bennet, Judith. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Cocks, Harry G. “Approaches to the History of Sexuality since 1750.” In The Routledge History of Sex and the Body, 1500 to the President, edited by Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher. Philadelphia: Routledge, 2013.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume One. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Milne, Andrew. “Inside Matelotage, The Same Sex Partnerships Between Colonial-Era Pirates.” allthatsinteresting.com/matelotage.

Image: Starz Entertainment

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