The Real Pirates That Inspired Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard in “Our Flag Means Death”

Warner Bros. / Aaron Epstein

Yo ho ho! The pirate comedy “Our Flag Means Death” is back for a second season, and we couldn’t be more excited to catch up with Stede, Ed, and the rest of our favorite criminal misfits. The quirky show actually has more in common with real history than you might expect, with several characters loosely inspired (emphasis on the “loosely”) by real-life pirates and miscreants. Sure, the real Stede and Ed probably didn’t have a romance that was both devastating and adorable – but there’s at least a kernel of truth to their portrayals on the show.

Is Stede Bonnet Based on a Real Person?

Yes! While Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) might not be a name most people know, he was, in fact, a real person. Born in 1688, he was a young landowner in Barbados who inherited his family’s holdings at the age of six after his father died. He married his wife, Mary (played by Claudia O’Doherty) in 1709, and they had three sons and a daughter. In 1716 or 1717, Bonnet decided to become a “gentleman pirate” – despite having absolutely no knowledge of sailing, piracy, or anything to do with life at sea. His early career was somewhat chaotic and decidedly unconventional, and he mostly failed to gain the respect of his hired crew.

He’s best known for the part of his life where he crossed paths with one of the most famous pirates in history: Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard (played by Taiki Waititi). The two men met in Nassau in 1717, and Bonnet, who had been wounded in a recent skirmish, offered Blackbeard temporary control of his ship. They collaborated for a few months before parting ways, then eventually reunited after Bonnet’s crew deserted him to join Blackbeard. Both men initially received pardons, but they also both returned to piracy soon after. After a handful more battles, Bonnet was captured, sentenced, and executed by the end of 1718.

Is Ed “Blackbeard” Teach Based on a Real Person?

As anyone who ever went through a “pirate phase” knows, Blackbeard is also a real person – although he definitely wasn’t quite like the version we see on “Our Flag Means Death.” He was born in or around 1680, and not much is known for certain about his early life before he took up piracy, although some stories about him suggest he was first an English privateer before heading into less-legal activities. Most likely, in 1716, he joined the crew of pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold and began to make a name for himself.

His most famous ship was the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” associated with many of the legends about him. Although a highly successful pirate, conquering ships and bringing in plenty of loot, he was noted for having a less brutal approach and relying more on fear and intimidation to build his reputation. Some descriptions claim that he would place lit fuses under his hat to scare people; other, more whimsical descriptions claim he braided his namesake beard with colored ribbons. In 1717, he met and joined forces with Stede Bonnet, before separating some months later.

Towards the end of his career, he anchored in Ocracoke Island, where he crossed paths with other notorious pirates such as “Calico Jack” Rackham, Charles Vane, and several others. After a series of betrayals and being targeted by the authorities, Blackbeard fought his last battle in November 1718 and was killed on board his ship. Since his death, his legend has become the basis for a lot of pirate lore in the popular imagination.

Which Other “Our Flag Means Death” Characters Are Based on Real People?

While Ed and Stede get the most time in the spotlight, they’re definitely not the only characters drawn (however loosely) from history! Blackbeard’s first mate Izzy (played by Con O’Neill) is a fictionalized version of Israel Hands, the second-in-command to the real Blackbeard. After the historical Blackbeard’s death, Hands was captured by authorities and got a pardon by testifying about corruption in the ranks of colonial officials. He is assumed to have died in the 1720s in London, although he disappears from the historical record after his 1719 testimony.

The second season also introduces us to a couple of new supporting characters based on historical figures. Minnie Driver appears as Anne Bonny, a famed Irish pirate who was a fearsome leader in her own right, as well as the wife of Calico Jack. We also get to see a version of pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao (played by Ruibo Qian). Also called Ching Shih, she was a Chinese pirate leader who took over – and expanded – her husband’s pirate command after his death. She actually operate about a century later, in the early 1800s, but in a show like “Our Flag Means Death,” who’s counting?

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