Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet and Taika Waititi as Blackbeard share a moment in 'Our Flag Means Death'

Is ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Actually Based on a True Story?

Our flag means acceptance.

With all the episodes now streaming on HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death became the pirate-themed rom-com we didn’t know the world needed. Not only did the comedy land, but it slew toxic masculinity and brought queer characters and romances to the forefront of the show. I am used to stars Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby delivering A+ material, yet the show exceeded all expectations.

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Many of the characters in the show are pure fiction. However, the two main characters, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi) and Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) were real people who sailed during the Golden Age of Piracy. The writer and creator of Our Flag Means Death, David Jenkins, wrote the story loosely based on history. That being said, how much of the show is based on actual events?

History is Ambiguous

Our Flag Means Death hits most historical highlights. Although both Teach and Bonnet lived, we know little about their early lives. Prior to piracy, Teach’s life remains a mystery. Adept at sailing and captaining, many think he must have been a sailor before stealing from England. Most pirates started out as sailors on British Naval ships until they thought they could do better on their own.

Since Bonnet came from a land-owning family, history knows more of his early life. The series stays pretty much in line with the truth (although Bonnet may have also had a military career for a time). Bonnet lived a life of luxury, then turned to a life of piracy. The Gentleman Pirate experienced difficulty with his crew, similar to how the show begins.

Upon meeting Teach, already a known pirate, the two formed a partnership where Bonnet turned over the captain’s position to Teach. No one knows exactly why this happened, or why the two continued to sail together. Some theorize that Blackbeard seized the ship and kept Bonnet prisoner, but others say there’s no evidence to suggest this. It’s possible Bonnet turned over captainship because he had far less experience on the seas. And while no definitive proof exists that they formed a romantic relationship in real life, there is also nothing proving they didn’t. What Jenkins did with Our Flag Means Death explained a situation that has no answer.

The Problem With Pirates

Most of the notorious historical pirates, including Blackbeard, only pirated for a few short years. The Golden Age of Piracy hit its peak right at its end, about 1717 to 1720. Blackbeard himself pirated between 1716 and 1718. Most of the cool pirate nicknames (Calico Jack, Black Bart, The Dread Pirate Roberts) didn’t exist during the pirate’s lifetime. And historians added so much to these figures, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and myth begins.

During the early 1700s, society viewed pirates as common criminals—not the rebellious, romantic image people obsess over today. The vast majority of pirate knowledge comes from one book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Published in England in 1724, the book’s author detailed the personal lives and public conquests of notable pirates. The problem? The author, Captain Charles Johnson, was not a real person.

Scholars still argue over who actually wrote it. Also, many historians looked for corroborating primary sources for the book’s claims and came up empty-handed. Many think the author embellished events or flat out lied to sell copies. Basically, most of what we know about our favorite pirates might be true or it might be pure fiction.

A Pirate’s Life for Me

Taika Waititi as Blackbeard shares tea with Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet on 'Our Flag Means Death'
(image: HBO Max)

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly about Our Flag Means Death, Taika Waititi said Jenkins wanted to “piss off homophobic historians.” And while this was probably a bit tongue in cheek—this comment underscores the problem with so much of recorded history. That old adage proclaimed the victors write history, and it is painfully true when looking at what was written down. More affluent, white men knew how to read and write, leading them to record people like themselves as heroes. The historical record so often leaves women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people out of the narrative. Or bigoted-minded historians skewed information to hide or cover up what made them uncomfortable.

We may not know if Teach and Bonnet, specifically, had a romantic relationship, but we do know pirates practiced matelotage, a kind of same-sex civil union. Upon entering a matelotage, your partner would receive your possessions or insurance money upon your death. The two partners would share everything. Even though we can all read this as a type of marriage, many historians downplay the potential sexual aspect of such a union.

And sure, some of these partnerships may have formed out of platonic friendship, but let’s be real: few people get married to their platonic BFF. And there’s at least some evidence of matelotage involving shared sleeping and intimacy. Take Richard Baker and Olaudah Equiano who had one such agreement. The pair, who lived in the late 1700s, were extraordinarily close (they were even mixed race—with Equiano having been formerly enslaved). In Equiano’s diary, he acknowledged the oddness of a formerly enslaved man being so close to a man who had “many slaves of his own.” And yet, he said they were “inseparable” and wrote that they comforted each other during their “many sufferings together on shipboard” and at night had, “lain in each other’s bosoms [during times of] great distress.” Again, we can’t say for sure that those late nights, sharing a bed, holding each other, were ever romantic in nature, but …. certainly, our minds can wander.

Our Flag Means Death is not 100% historically accurate. Yet, it is not wholly inaccurate either. No one can say with the utmost certainty—either way—if Blackbeard and Bonnet loved each other. But stories of pirates have, for so long, ignored that there were, most likely, some same-sex relationships on board. So, why not tell this story through Blackbeard and Bonnet? Our Flag Means Death shares the odd tale of two pirates who had a partnership and then grounds it in a relationship that feels real and relatable. No, we are not all pirates who revert to murder and mayhem when spurned. But, honestly, we’ve all done crazy things for love.

(featured image: HBO)


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Author
D.R. Medlen
D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a pop culture staff writer at The Mary Sue. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer in 2019. She expertly fangirls over Marvel, Star Wars, and historical fantasy novels (the spicier the better). When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse, offspring, and animal familiars.