The real gentleman pirate behind HBO Max’s new series Our Flag Means Death

A nervous man in 18th century costume.
Enlarge / Rhys Darby stars as the gentleman-pirate Stede Bennett in the upcoming HBO Max comedy series Our flag means death.

It’s no secret that Ars employees are big Taika Waititi fans. He always brings his distinctly skewed sensitivity to his projects, from What we do in the shadows, Wellington Paranormal, and Hunting for Wilderpeople, to JoJo Rabbit, reservation dogs, and Thor: Ragnarök. After filming wrapped Thor: Love and Thunder last year, Waititi somehow found time to develop a new period comedy series for HBO Max.

It is called Our flag means death, and HBO has just dropped the first teaser. The series is about an aristocrat who gives up his comfortable life to become a “gentleman-pirate”. Even better: The main character, Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) is based on a real person who sailed with the infamous 18th century pirate Blackbeard (played by Waititi in the series).

The Real Place Bonnet was born on the island of Barbados in 1688 by a wealthy English family and inherited a 400-hectare estate when his father died in 1694. According to some accounts, he was a bookish kind, and his early life was imperceptible. He married, had three sons and a daughter, and served briefly in the military as a major, although there are no records that he engaged in active combat.

But as a 29-year-old, Bonnet experienced a kind of mid-term crisis and decided to leave his family and become a pirate, even though he had no experience with ships and sailing. Apparently he was tired of his wife’s gnawing, or as one account put it, he was disillusioned with the “discomfort he found in a married state.” Most pirates seized their ships; Bonnet was a man of means, so he hired a local shipyard to build him a 60-ton sloop with 10 guns. He christened the ship Revenge and hired a crew of more than 70 men. Bonnet actually paid the men regular wages instead of sharing looting with them like a normal pirate.

Bonnet's variegated crew is ready to loot and loot.
Enlarge / Bonnet’s variegated crew is ready to loot and loot.

YouTube / HBO Max

Given Bonnet’s lack of experience, much of the day-to-day sailing operations were handled by his quartermaster and officer, and he does not appear to have gained much respect from his crew during his short pirate career. (In fairness, piracy was a dangerous occupation, and few pirates lived to a ripe old age.) Piracy went well in the beginning: Revenge captured and plundered half a dozen vessels between the spring and September 1717. But a battle with a Spanish warrior left both the Bonnet and the ship in a bad way, though both eventually escaped.

That Revenge He then limped into port at Nassau in the Bahamas to repair, which was when Bonnet met Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach. Given the debilitating nature of his injuries, Bonnet relinquished command Revenge (temporarily, he thought) to Blackbeard. Over the next few months, they looted a lot of ships, and Blackbeard seized and took command of a 200-ton vessel called Concord, which he renamed Queen Anne’s revenge.

Eventually Bonnet’s frustrated crew left him and joined Blackbeard in the spring of 1718, and Blackbeard betrayed Bonnet and put one of his own henchmen to lead Revenge. At this point, Bonnet longed to retire from piracy, and he actually received a pardon from the governor of North Carolina on the condition that he would renounce piracy forever. Bonnet tried to keep his promise, but food became scarce when the Atlantic hurricane season was in full swing, so he resorted once again to piracy under the alias “Captain Thomas.” He gave Revenge also a new name: Royal James.

Taika Waititi stars as Blackbeard.
Enlarge / Taika Waititi stars as Blackbeard.

YouTube / HBO Max

All the fights once again took their toll Royal James, and after it had been repaired, Bonnet decided to moor in the Cape Fear River to await hurricane season. The news of his presence quickly spread to the relevant government authorities, sealing the fate of the master pirate. Bonnet and his men fought against Colonel William Rhett’s naval forces, but they lost, and the entire crew was arrested on October 3, 1718. Bonnet was convicted and eventually hanged (after briefly escaping and recaptured) on December 10, 1718. All in all, Bonnet’s life as a pirate lasted less than two years. Then again, if he had just stayed in Barbados and lived a life of quiet desperation, we probably would not know his name.

Bonnet’s mentor, Blackbeard, did not fare much better. In November 1718, just a month before Bonnet was hanged, Teach and his crew engaged in a fierce battle with a small group of sailors led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Eventually, Teach found himself surrounded by Maynard’s men, one of whom stabbed him in the neck before the rest of the crew joined the attack. When Maynard examined the body, he found that Teach had been shot five times and cut about 20 times. His head was placed on a pole in the Chesapeake Bay for several years to serve as a warning to other pirates.

Based on the teaser for Our flag means death, it is unlikely that the series will try much in the way of historical accuracy, which is the right decision. Tonally, it evokes something like Hulu’s extraordinary period comedy series, The big, which takes historical characters and facts and embellishes them, complete with the strange conscious anachronism. (The attributions for The big claims that the show – just renewed for a third season – is “an occasional true story.” The big is a high bar to deal with, but it’s Taika Waititi we’re talking about and we have faith in his idiosyncratic vision. We will definitely tune in.

Our flag means death debuts on HBO Max in March.

Teaser for HBO Max’s new original comedy series, Our flag means death.

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