The Bonnet Problem: Television’s Trouble with Historical Innocence, Explained

Stede Bonnet: 18th century pirate captain, slaver, and HBO's latest comic hero

CW: Discussions of slavery

Stede Bonnet, the hapless, hopeless protagonist of HBO's Our Flag Means Death, is a good guy. Blithely inept in his new life as an 18th century buccaneer, he stumbles through the narrative with a winning innocence, charming everyone he meets. Everybody likes Stede. The audience warms to his effete, effervescent outlook just as his crew does, and even the most hardened pirates buckle in the face of his pure likeability. 

This likeability serves as both the premise of the character and the promise of the series. No matter what happens, Stede is somebody we can trust—not just a “Gentleman Pirate”, but a gentle man. In a world of grizzled antiheroes and bitter femme fatales, a little gentleness makes waves. 

Fans flocked to Our Flag, relishing its quirky Kiwi charm and refreshingly queer-friendly storylines. When, in January of 2024, the series was cancelled, they struck back; vehement viewers posted rallying cries and fan art across social media, and a petition entitled ‘Save “Our Flag Means Death has received more than 85,000 signatures. In his final Instagram post for the series, showrunner David Jenkins thanked his fanbase “for their tremendous love and care”. To those devoted viewers, the moral imperative was clear: Stede and his vibrant, caring world were too important to just let die.

They don’t know, and I suspect that the rest of the show's fanbase is similarly innocent, about the flaw, a single crack in Our Flag’s edifice threatening its entire bonhomous promise: that in 1717, the real Stede Bonnet was a slaver, and all the glory of his piratical endeavour was funded with the forfeit of other people's freedom.

It would be nice to say that this is an isolated phenomenon. Unfortunately, as the rise of streaming TV spurs a renaissance in historical television series, such sanitised narratives have become the default, not the exception. This bowdlerisation is understandable: our world is complex, and cruel, and often entirely nonsensical. When we look to the past, we want to believe in innocence, in a time when good people fought bad people and won. 

Simplicity is what we come to historical fiction for — but there is a danger to its sanded edges. More and more often, our series flatten where they should be expanding. Narrative worlds are drawn from stencils, excising all nuance and depth from the historical eras they claim to represent. 

Typically, these revisions are nonspecific and relatively harmless—BBC Sherlock's absurd illustration of the suffrage movement as a “League of Furies” comes to mind—but when television brings real historical figures and their real legacies onto the screen, this ethical expurgation becomes altogether more sinister.

We live in a world of revised historical narratives. Whether for egalitarian or aesthetic reasons, serving political agendas conservative or liberal, our past has become a malleable commodity, and the truths it represents are similarly up for debate. 

James Baldwin, perhaps the greatest American prophet of the twentieth century, described this elasticity as a kind of studied innocence. He writes of the American mainstream as a deliberate illusion, preserving only the most palatable form of ‘the past’ and refusing to acknowledge the existence of any other. Under this definition of history, Baldwin argues, our country "ha[s] destroyed and [is] destroying hundreds of thousands of lives". What's worse, we don't even know that we're doing it.

Baldwin was writing in the 1960's, when television still languished under the stigma of the 'boob tube' and its immense power for ideological dissemination was as yet undiscovered. Today, the cultivated revisionism of historical television series has elevated that innocence to an art form.

Shows like Our Flag and the Emmy-winning Bridgerton, both endearingly and anachronistically diverse, rewrite history as pageantry, papering over any moral ambiguities with colour-blind casting and quips. These series are intent on keeping us innocent, on showing us the perfect world in which we so desperately want to believe; on screen, at least, we are absolved of our past.

We aren't. Of course we aren't. Like it or not, we are all hostages to our shared history, and the true danger of historical revisionism lies in its ability to make us forget. Stede Bonnet, slaver, is dead, but the echoes of slavery linger, reverberating through the contemporary Black experience. To forget this truth is to undermine that experience, and to deny our society any chance of actual reparation.

Remembrance and reparation are vital implements in the ethical consumer's toolkit, redressing the problems of the past instead of expunging them. These tools are more necessary than ever in today's political landscape, as the very process of historical bowdlerisation has taken on a partisan bent. Increasingly, revisions of the past have become politicised text, appealing not to empathy but to blind patriotic fervour. 

Governor Ron DeSantis, one of the rising stars of the Republican Party, first brought himself national attention through a series of elaborate book bans, remoulding America's history to suit his own blinkered image. Two years ago, DeSantis was unknown outside of his native Florida, eclipsed by the farcical posturing of President Trump; today, he’s a faction leader in the GOP. 

In this troubling atmosphere, where Baldwin's studied innocence has stepped out of the shadows, remembrance is more important than it's ever been. Our Flag Means Death, with its charming half-truths and elisions, died a coward’s death, obfuscating to the end; its inheritors cannot fall into the same trap. Instead, the next generation of historical series must learn to embrace the truth behind their stories—warts and all.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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