Black Sails Season 4, Episode 3: XXXI Crime and Punishment


I always wanted to see a keelhauling–at least, ever since reading about it after a plunge into pirate research fifteen years ago sparked by reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

There was a period in my early teens when I sifted through everything pirate-related I could get my hands on, from copies of the Articles used to govern pirates aboard their ships to lyrics of sea shanties that were sung during the Golden Age of Piracy. Of course, one of the most fascinating aspects of high seas piracy was the torture methods devised by pirates and their enemies for use against each other. From “marrying the gunner’s daughter” (holding tight to a cannon while receiving lashes) to being fired from one a la Bootstrap Bill, real pirates had many more inventive ways of causing pain and punishment than walking the plank. When I first read about keelhauling, I could hardly believe that human beings had contrived such an exquisitely brutal method of torture. Symbolically, it is almost beautiful in its simplicity: using the ship itself and the barnacles of the sea to kill a seaman is poetic justice at its finest. However, I didn’t realize how horrific a death it truly would have been until last night.

The writers, producers, and make-up artists of Black Sails managed to portray this device perfectly in XXXI. Finally caught and cornered by Woodes Rogers, Blackbeard must face retribution for his acts of piracy on the high seas. His head covered, his hands and feet bound, he is dropped like dead weight into the sea via a pulley. Rogers instinctively knows when Edward Teach has reached the proper depth. He signals to his men, and they pull on the rope, dragging the fearsome pirate along the bottom of the ship where his flesh is torn from his bones. But he isn’t underwater long enough to drown, and the ship doesn’t pierce any vital organs or arteries. Ultimately, Blackbeard must be hauled along the keel of the ship three times before Woodes Rogers finally puts an end to it by shooting him in the head.

The hours upon hours of prosthesis application and special effects make-up are admirable because they give viewers a death worthy of Blackbeard, and a death worthy of being avenged. I never much liked the new governor, but after this week’s episode I am hoping he faces a dark defeat–if not by losing Nassau, perhaps a symbolic defeat through the betrayal of his new wife, Ms. Guthrie, whom we all know very well is incapable of staying loyal to anyone but herself for very long. Since it would be historically inaccurate for him to lose the island, perhaps he will lose heart instead.

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