The Gentleman Pirate Isn’t Such a Gentleman: a historical analysis of erasure in ‘Our Flag Means Death’

By Jendayi Omowale, @jen_omo

Our Flag Means Death, a show about queer pirates roaming the seas produced by Taika Waititi, made a big splash on HBO. It became one of the most in-demand shows in the U.S. last year, beating Marvel-backed shows like Moon Knight.[i] I came across the show as I have many shows before it, through a friend who recommended it after seeing queer fanart on Tumblr. As a viewer always searching for nuanced LGBT+ and global majority representation in film and television, I soon joined the #OFMD fandom. Each episode took me on a rollercoaster narrative of pirates and their adventures across the high seas, being led by none other than Stede Bonnet, the infamous ‘Gentleman Pirate’.[ii]Bonnet lives up to his moniker in the show with his aloof, naive, and kind-hearted manner, and the seemingly perpetual frills found in his outfits. However, Bonnet, historically, was everything but a ‘gentle’ man. In fact, he was a slave owner. Stede Bonnet was born in 1688 in Bridgetown, Barbados, the first Black slave society of the New World. As the son of Edward and Sarah Bonnet, white Barbadian landowning gentry, he inherited ‘over 400 acres of sugarcane plantations, a townhouse and manor house, two windmills, a cattle-driven mill, three servants…and ninety-four slaves.’[iii]

William Clark, ‘Planting the Sugar Cane on Bodkins Estate, Barbados’, 1823, from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed February 25, 2023,

It is strange the show literally whitewashes this reality. In the second episode of the series, Stede Bonnet’s ship The Revenge gets washed ashore on an island. He and his crew are captured by Indigenous people for trespassing on their land and are put on trial. An elder of the people states that capturing Stede’s crew was a necessary pre-emptive action, after their society had been destroyed by colonizers on numerous previous occasions. The Gentleman Pirate proclaims that he is not a colonizer and shoves this label on the British Navy. However, the chief replies to the crew’s claim of being pirates and not colonizers: ‘First time, light-skins wiped out the tribe, shame on them. The eighth time? Shame on us.’[iv] The truth is Bonnet and his later co-conspirator Edward Teach, whose alias is Blackbeard, were both comfortable in dealing with enslaved people and free African people during their sea-faring journeys. Teach came from a slave-owning family with plantations in Jamaica which he inherited in 1706.[v] As Blackbeard he famously attacked the La Concorde, a French slave ship, and Bonnet captured enslaved people during his raids on pirate ships.[vi]

While the show does depict racism towards the implied free people of color that work for Stede, the only people that lose their free will in Our Flag Means Death are captives from the British Navy. After their English captain is killed onboard Stede’s ship The Revenge, the two remaining Navy personnel become the property of Bonnet and his pirates. Bonnet saves them from unjust torture at the hands of his crew and creepy potential buyers, but do eventually give up one of the captives to Blackbeard’s crew and sell off the other British seamen to the Spanish military. Although in the early eighteenth century, white indentured servitude of prisoners, the destitute, Irish, and Scottish people was only just beginning to be phased out, and wouldn’t yet be uncommon, it is odd that the show includes this reality of the early colonial Caribbean world but fails to mention the very real experience of enslaved people at the cost of pirates’ search for booty.[vii]

Title page of The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates, 1719, London. The Library of Congress, Washington, KF223.B594 B594 1719.

Historically, the relationship between pirates and the trans-Atlantic slave trade is complicated. Pirates are said to have romanced the free African woman among their many stops in West Africa and recruited Africans to work on their ships.[viii] However, they also attacked slave ships for both human and non-human cargo so regularly that the Dutch West India Company and Royal India Company, two imperial corporations in the business of slave trading, warned each other of possible pirate encounters through correspondence.[ix] Pirates were therefore often complicit in perpetuating the slave trade when they sold enslaved people themselves or gave them back to state authorities to be sold away. The two pirates at the heart of Our Flag Means Death were directly involved in such action: ‘Of the 455 slaves who were still alive when Blackbeard intercepted La Concorde, all but 61 were given back to Captain Dosset, along with a small sloop, which he used to ferry them back to Martinique to be sold at auction.’[x] Furthermore, a slave shackle was found on one of Blackbeard’s ships.[xi] When Stede faced trial from the British authorities for illegal piracy, he used enslaved people belonging to another pirate to send a message to one of his associates about plans of an escape. In another incident, an enslaved person and an Indigenous person were killed when officials shot at Bonnet’s hideout.[xii] Enslaved people are an integral part of Blackbeard and The Gentleman Pirate’s stories, and one of the reasons why the pirates were immortalized in marine history.

The filming of a scene from Med Hondo’s West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, shared on Twitter by @TambayObenson

There are a few notable examples where the mainstream media and indie cinema has acknowledged the Caribbean slave trade with success and sensitivity. Med Hondo’s West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty depicts French colonisation and forced Caribbean displacement to the metropole. David Olusoga’s cutting documentaries illustrate the infinite connections to the ‘modern development’ of British society at the cost of the empire. A true progressive television show, as Our Flag Means Death claims to be, would depict the legacies of enslavement in which some of the mainstay characters of the European canon are entangled. Both Teach and Bonnet used their human capital as slave-owners to launch their career as pirates. And, as the archives show, their violent actions towards enslaved people were ingrained in their adventures as much as their swashbuckling battles on ships at sea. 

Cover image: ‘Co-Captain? Photo by Aaron Epstein’, @aaronepstein,

[i] Wilson, Angel, ‘All of “Our Flag Means Death’s” Impressive Rankings, The Geekiary, 12 April 2022.

[ii] Crawford, Amy, ‘The Gentleman Pirate: How Stede Bonnet went from wealthy landowner to villain on the sea’, Smithsonian Magazine, 31 July 2007.

[iii] Moss, Jeremy R.. The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet. Koehler Books, 2020. 

[iv] Jenkins, David. “Our Flag Means Death.” Episode. A Damned Man 1, no. 2. HBO, March 3, 2022. 

[v] Anon., ‘Ten Facts about Blackbeard’, The History Press,

[vi] Woodard, Colin, ‘The Last Days of Blackbeard’, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014.

Moss, Jeremy R.. The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet. Koehler Books, 2020.

[vii] Handler, Jerome S., and Reilly, Matthew C., ‘Contesting “White Slavery” in the Caribbean’: Enslaved Africans and European Indentured Servants in Seventeenth-Century Barbados’, in New West Indian Guide, 91 (1-2), 2017, pp. 30–55.

[viii] Bialuschewski, Arne (2008) Black People under the Black Flag: Piracy and the Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa, 1718–1723, Slavery and Abolition, 29:4, 461-475, DOI: 10.1080/01440390802486473

[ix] Sutton, Angela, “Infested with Piratts”: Piracy and the Atlantic Slave Trade, MA Dissertation, Faculty of the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University, 2009.

[x] Woodard, ‘The Last Days of Blackbeard’.

[xi] Anon., ‘Pictures: Slave Shackle, More Found on Blackbeard’s Ship’, National Geographic, 14 July 2013.

[xii] Moss, The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate.

1 thought on “The Gentleman Pirate Isn’t Such a Gentleman: a historical analysis of erasure in ‘Our Flag Means Death’

  1. There is almost nothing progressive about ‘Our Flag Means Death’. It is a classic piece of performative nonsense which allows the audience to gloss over all the imprisonment, rape (not romancing), violence and murder involved both in piracy and imperial colonisation. The makers confuse a faux transgressive presentation with any genuine empathy, complexity or historical understanding.

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