Set against the roiling backdrop of the early-1700s high seas, “The Lost Pirate Kingdom” is a limited documentary drama series that plunders its subject matter of true excitement and depth, leaving the Golden Age of Piracy a smoking wreck in Davy Jones’ Locker. Written by David McNab and Patrick Dickison, “The Lost Pirate Kingdom” premiered on Netflix on March 21, and made Netflix’s Top 10 Most Watched. However, despite popular success, the show leaves much to be desired—it struggles to balance information with watchability and is often inconsistent and scatterbrained. While strolling the deck of the show’s schooners, sloops, and frigates on the high seas, we find ourselves not so much faced with wild seas and fascinating glimpses into pirate life, but a becalmed vessel, superficial flash, and a gaudiness so tacky it makes us want to hurl over the gunwale.
A significant quarrel I have with “The Lost Pirate Kingdom” is that it plays into every story, stereotype, and misconception it tries to deconstruct. As a little bit of a maritime history and media aficionado, I’m often interested in pirate history and portrayals of Golden Age piracy in the media. I’m also especially grateful when a piece of media deconstructs long-held images or sheds new light on Golden Age piracy while not over-romanticizing it. “The Lost Pirate Kingdom,” unfortunately, did not measure up. Despite its trove of valuable historians, academics, and authors that lent their expertise to its commentary segments, the acted and narrated sections often felt flimsy and superficial. Garish fight scenes are blurred by choppy cuts, over-dramatic moments leave no room for nuance, and gratuitous sex scenes with almost non-sensical pairings (Anne Bonny and Blackbeard? Hello??) are generously peppered throughout. The commentary and acting often feel at odds, with genuinely interesting historical tidbits undercut by scenes that commandeer the history and take it on a joyride far beyond its scope and responsibilities as a documentary. There’s nothing new to be gained that we couldn’t have cobbled together from a Wikipedia page and the gift-shop imago of a pirate.
Another one of the docuseries’ issues was its mishandling of social issues and its dedication to quasi-political style over substance. For instance, Anne Bonny is portrayed as a ‘girlboss’-like figure, described as ‘fiery’ and ‘independent’ and saddled with periodical man-hating tirades. However, her trauma and status as a woman aren’t given room to be explored, pondered, or even connected to the social contexts of the era. She is also unnecessarily sexualized and given pointless flings with men she had no historical record of being involved with. The revelation of her sexual abuse at the hands of her father (which there is no easily-accessible record of) occurs in a post-coital scene with Benjamin Hornigold, a man she historically had no romantic or sexual involvement with. The revelation of significant amounts of Bonny’s character through sex scenes rather than her piracy (which she is most known for, and also the topic of the documentary) feels in poor taste, and does not allow for adequate exploration of her character as a historical figure, nor the historical context of women in the era. Another example of mishandled social issues was Blackbeard’s initial portrayal as a non-racist figure, with lines that feel jarringly modern. In one scene, he gives a short speech to a doctor reluctant to treat a Black crewmember, with lines such as “maybe God is a Black man. Or maybe He is a She,” and the series emphasizes his belief in racial equality. However, in a later episode, it is revealed that he strikes a deal with the governor of North Carolina to enslave and sell a number of his Black crewmembers. The commentary in this scene states that Blackbeard had never believed in racial equality, with one historian saying that “to [Blackbeard], they were slaves, and they always were slaves,” retroactively voiding the series’ portrayal of Blackbeard’s relatively progressive ideas on race. The inconsistencies and often bungled portrayal of social issues undermines its attempts at productive discussion of historical and social contexts during the Golden Age of Piracy.
In a year marked by various nautical happenings—from the sea shanty revival that originated on TikTok around January to the recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the Evergreen Group’s Ever Given—“The Lost Pirate Kingdom” could have been a welcomed addition to piratical media. Unfortunately, it played into used cliches, mucked up its discussion of historical social issues, and remained fairly superficial throughout. However, the docuseries had some redeeming qualities. Its superficiality could function as an introductory platform for viewers unfamiliar with piratical history, its flashiness could serve to shore up interest in pirate history, and all things considered, it does lay out a fair summary and run-down of major events in the rise and decline of Golden Age piracy. Despite these qualities, “The Lost Pirate Kingdom” is ultimately shallow, disorganized, and often too infatuated with the very romance it attempts to deconstruct to sustain a strong narrative. Perhaps this ship would have been better left berthed in its port, far removed from the site of the stories it raids and leaves wrecked in the depths.
This series receives a 2.5/5 for it’s informative—albeit shallow—over-romantic, and incohesive introduction to the Golden Age of Piracy.