What is it? A television drama about the life of notorious pirate Anne Bonny, screen time equally divided between her days with Jack Rackham and Mary Reed and a fictionalized narrative about her part in the American Revolution. Imagine Black Sails meets HBO’s John Adams meets AMC’s TURN.
The History of an Idea.
Long before the remarkable Starz series Black Sails, I was intrigued by the idea that the pirate Anne Bonny had survived the Golden Age of piracy in the Caribbean to live a long life, perhaps not dying until the 1780s. I imagined this wizened old rover, hiding away in New England, influencing the nascent revolution against British rule by whispering words into the ears of its prime movers, a sly and witty old Wise Woman not unlike Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey, but with a less-polished sense of the world’s gritty reality.
As I watched the fictional Captain Flint stir up a similar rebellion against England in Black Sails, and play out a narrative that set up a known story (the plot of the novel Treasure Island), I could not help but see the clear parallels to the Anne Bonny concept I had come up with. The long arc narrative I had conceived could certainly exist as a stand-alone story, but it would also work well as a spin-off of Black Sails. And, I have long been a fan of the writing on the series.
The fans of that series are certainly clamoring for a spin-off and, after the moving finale that sends Long Silver Silver toward Treasure Island and Jack Rackham’s crew off on their own adventures, it’s clear that there are two stories left to be told. An adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novel is almost inevitable, either as a feature film (or trilogy) or as another television drama. In the meanwhile, what better opportunity to keep fans engaged than a spin-off featuring Jack, Anne, and Mary?
And who better to stand as the central figure of that spin-off than the tragic, strong, long-lived Anne Bonny?
If not a Black Sails spin-off, the series would lack the potential for cameos by some incredible actors and incredible characters. But, even as a stand-alone, the real-life characters involved would hold up the tale on their own. Can you imagine Benjamin Franklin and Anne Bonny, both in their late 60s, meeting halfway in New York to talk about the growing rebellion in the colonies?
The Characters and their Stories.
Key to my Bonny story is the role of repeating archetypes, how narratives are built up by characters who, either by choice or happenstance, end up in dynamics with other characters that drive their stories in directions they may not have foreseen. I wanted to have the narrative of Bonny’s past and the narrative of the Revolution mirror each other in this way, with Bonny as the thread that ties these stories together, warning the Revolutionaries of the dangers in their path because she’s seen them before.
This juxtaposition would mean that the two timelines individually would have far narrower scopes than either of them would if shot as a stand-alone series. For example, the pirate timeline would have to focus almost exclusively on the back-and-forth between Rackham’s crew and the British officials in Jamaica, with the occasional side-plot being necessarily connected to that core relationship. The Revolution timeline would have to focus on the internal tensions between the New England rebels, with only an occasional side-plot reaching into Philadelphia or New York.
The story between the stories, tying the stories together—the story about how story is inescapable—is the real story. And that’s the story only Anne Bonny can tell.
At each plot point, the tragic mistakes we see in the scenes featuring Rackham’s adventure also play out in the scenes of the Revolution. And, Anne sees different aspects of Jack’s character in the New England rebels, some of his good qualities, but a lot of his bad qualities.
This part would work whether the series is a spin-off or not. “But,” Rackham might say in his scheming way, “what a magnificent story it would be as the linchpin between other stories. A story binding other stories together, the entire story therefore elevated beyond its individual parts. That’s the art that leaves it’s mark.”
The opportunities for comical juxtaposition alone would be worth it. Imagine an elder Bonny, shaking her head as the Sons of Liberty debate how to design a new flag after their old flag of vertical red-and-white stripes was outlawed by the British. This reminds her of the obsession pirates (particularly Jack) had with their flags, an obsession that provided Black Sails with its closing image. “For Chris’sake,” old Anne could say, “just turn i’ on its side!” Which is exactly what the Sons of Liberty did in the real world, the previous vertical stripes becoming horizontal stripes.
Let’s start with the characters from Bonny’s past, the piracy timeline.
Nicholas Lawes, the governor of Jamaica. Alongside his reputation as an executioner of pirates, Lawes made uneasy alliances with the Miskito Kingdom, notably to hunt down runaway slaves in the mountains of Jamaica. He is the Ultimate Villain of the piece, a symbol of British tyranny.
Elizabeth Lawes, the governor’s wife, and his daughter Judith play key roles as sideline victims of English rule and Lawes’s brutality. Judith eventually chooses to marry an earl in Ireland rather than stay in the horrific violence of the Caribbean. In the show, this decision could be in lieu of her true love, Jonathan Barnet, who ultimately disappoints her by handing over Rackham and his crew to her father.
Jeremy II, the king of the Miskito, a mixed-race kingdom in Central America who fought the Spanish and occasionally made deals with the British, most notoriously to hunt down runaway slaves. His uneasy alliance with Lawes as a competing villain drives much of the early narrative.
Jonathan Barnet, the captain of the sloop Snow Tyger that ultimately captured Rackham for Governor Lawes. Barnet is a conflicted character, originally sent out to recruit pirates to fight with the English against the Spanish in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. He admires Rackham, and is torn when Jack refuses the pardon. Barnet is Lawes’s Proximate Villain, but a sympathetic version, a Vader-type who eventually regrets his path. Barnet, however, is ultimately also a tragic character, failing to go turncoat at the end as Vader did, and delivering his on-and-off friend to the governor in the end.
And, of course there’s Jack Rackham, the tragic Hero of the pirate timeline who can’t let go of his reputation as the pirate who stood against England. In a Black Sails spin-off, he could name his ship William (which was the name of the real Rackham’s ship) after Billy Bones. Maybe after a cameo where he comes to sympathize with the rebellious, isolated ex-comrade? After all, with Vane and Hornigold and Teach and Flint and Silver all gone…
Not pushing, not pushing. But, you have to admit, it works.
Anne Bonny herself, who often took the role of Jack’s Rough during Black Sails, could ease into the role of a Guru during the early timeline of Bonny, a role she would fully embody in the Revolution timeline. Mary Reed could take up the Rough energy, echoing the violent cynicism that drove Bonny in Black Sails.
And, if this were to be a Black Sails spin-off, we would need some characters tying Bonny to Treasure Island, if only in cameo appearances. Keep in mind that the novel would take place after the series’ pirate timeline, but before its Revolution timeline, providing the show plenty of opportunities to play on both sides of Stevenson’s tale.
The lost youth Ben Gunn could, in the pirate timeline, look to Anne as a surrogate parent, wanting her wisdom about how to survive in a brutal world. The brutal Israel Hands could serve as a constant reminder of the cruel politics of pirate life, from which Bonny wishes Jack and her Revolutionary allies to escape. Billy Bones himself could make a showing or two. Blind Pew, a key figure in Treasure Island, could lose his sight during the course of Jack’s adventures, and finally betray Jack and his crew as a bid to win Long John Silver’s favor.
And Silver himself?
And, now the characters of the Revolution. Most of them are in Massachusetts, but Allicocke and Franklin provide ties to New York and Philadelphia.
Charles Bonny, Anne’s grandson through her daughter Max—if it’s a spin-off! Charles could be a frustrating foil for Anne, enamored of the rebellious politics of the Revolution, too much like his grandfather. With a tragic backstory, too much like Flint: his mother died during childbirth, his father a famous anti-royalist preacher he was never allowed to know. (See below.)
If we have a mirroring to a Black Sails past, rebellious Charles would reverse-mirror Ben Gunn, who sought Anne out as a mother figure.
John Adams, a moderate lawyer with great potential, whom Bonny sees as embodying Jack’s better nature, willing to make compromises and stand up for what is right even when it’s not popular. He sees him struggle with the same temptations of wealth and reputation that Jack struggled with, rising above his humble station, but at what risk?
Abigail Adams, John’s wife and chief confidant, whom Bonny recognizes as a burgeoning Guru influence over John. Abigail becomes Anne’s readiest ear in the Revolution, a direct line to John.
Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregationalist minister who (in the series) provided Bonny a refuge in Boston during her middle age after she fled Philadelphia. He is (in real life) important because he wrote an anti-royalist sermon in the mid 1700s that went viral and inspired the revolutionaries. He (and Ben Franklin, see below) could provide a lot of mid-story flashbacks to explain how Bonny got from where she had started in the Caribbean to where she ends up in Boston.
Jonathan would be contemporary with Max, Bonny’s daughter by Jack. Charles is his illegitimate son, providing Anne’s grandson with the conflicts of his backstory.
I imagine a scene where Bonny is encouraging John Adams, telling him that he could be “the spark who ignites a revolution.” John defers, saying that this describes Mayhew’s famous sermon, a phrase the real John Adams would actually use to describe that sermon. This humility reassures and inspires Bonny.
Thomas Hutchinson and Thomas Gage, the governors of Massachusetts during the rebellion, their incompetent but imperialistic behavior echoing the brutality of Nicholas Lawes. The tense relationship between John Adams and Hutchinson could mirror the tense exchanges between Jack Rackham and both Lawes and his representative Barnet.
John Hancock, the smuggler who dreams of leading a successful rebellion against the English. Bonny sees Jack’s obsessive ambition in him, and worried it could lead to the end of the Revolution.
Sam Adams, a leader of the Sons of Liberty, and John’s cousin, but a recklessly poor planner who squanders money and is extremist in his rebel politics. In Sam, Bonny sees an echo of Mary Reed, who was always urging Jack to oppose the English at all costs. As Sam incites rioters to brutally tar-and-feather officers of the crown in the Revolution timeline, Mary convinces Jack to show no quarter to captured English sailors in the pirate timeline, a decision he later regrets.
Joseph Allicocke, an agitator for the rebels who eventually turned Loyalist, in whom Bonny sees King Jeremy II, a leader of the Miskito but always in bed with the British because he sees a better future with them, but also Max who eventually sided with English rule. Allicocke’s real-life story is filled with twists and turns. Born in Antigua as the son of an Irish captain and a woman of African descent, he eventually ended up a leader of the New York Liberty Boys. But, there was a controversy during the rebellion in which he was charged with supplying provisions to British military agents, after which he fled to Antigua for a while, only returning once the British had occupied the city. His eventual abandonment of the New World for England can mirror Judith Lawes’s similar abandonment of Jamaica in the pirate timeline.
Paul Revere, an effective propagandist whom Bonny sees as echoing the worst of the reckless story-telling manipulations that caused the pirate rebellion to spin out of control. She is particularly concerned at how well Paul Revere spins the so-called “Boston Massacre” and uses this tragedy to promote his own reputation. She fears that if the rebellion is led by men like him, rather than John, the alternative to English tyranny will simply be American tyranny.
Ben Franklin, the oldest revolutionary (only four years Anne’s junior), who knew Bonny from Philadelphia and who provides an occasional cameo so that two old gurus can trade wisdom and witticisms.