Black Sails History: The Real Israel Hands

We take a look at the "two for one pirate" on Black Sails, Israel Hands and his history in real life and fiction.

For those of you who might not have started watching Black Sails in the beginning or did not read up on the origins of the show, Black Sails was inspired by the idea of taking the most famous pirates in literature, namely Long John Silver and Captain Flint, from the paged of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and dropping them into the real world of pirates in the Caribbean during piracy’s Golden Age.

Much of the background on the island of Nassau is true to history, and many of the piratical characters, from Charles Vane to the Guthrie family to the Maroons are strongly inspired by real people, and the show has included nearly all of the characters from Stevenson’s classic book.

But one pirate has a unique place in both worlds. I’m talking about Israel Hands. He was a real person, but he was also a fictional character in the novel.

How could he be both?

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My theory is simply that Stevenson knew a little about Hand’s history and stole the name because it reeked of historical adventure. The historic Hands could be plundered by the writer for atmosphere because he was not nearly as famous as the captain he sailed under. Then again, many stories pale beside the legend of Blackbeard.

Israel Hands was believed to be Blackbeard’s first mate. He first appears in history when Blackbeard gave him command of a captured sloop, the Adventure. This was witnessed by the sloop’s original captain, David Herriot.

Herriot gave testimony about Hands’ appointment as captain of the Adventure, and also about how Hands followed Blackbeard and the Queen Anne’s Revenge as they made their way up the coast of North America towards Charlestown.

It’s the writer Captain Johnson, author of The Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (published in 1724) that tells the most famous tale of Hands. While Blackbeard was playing cards late one night, he became annoyed with the way the cards were running and attempted to shoot one of the other players. He missed—rum was undoubtedly involved—and hit his friend Israel in the knee. When Hands stated his outrage, Blackbeard spoke the famous line, “I’ve got to kill someone now and again, or you will forget who I am.”

Hands survived the shot. In fact, it saved his life. When Blackbeard was later attacked and killed by the Royal Navy, Hands was still recovering, and could not take part in the fight. He, along with everyone else in close proximity to Blackbeard, was hauled into court and accused of piracy, but since Hands had not participated in the battle, all evidence against him was circumstantial. This, and the fact that he was willing to turn State’s Evidence against the rich merchants who had been fencing Blackbeard’s stolen goods, got him off. Israel Hands then disappeared back into obscurity.

This wasn’t a well-known story when Stevenson was writing, but it apparently inspired the author. He cast the fictional Israel Hands as a skilled pirate officer—the right hand man to Long John Silver. He was “Flint’s gunner.” He was “Brandy faced.” He was “a careful, wily, old, experienced seaman who could be trusted at a pinch with almost anything.”

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(One More Step, Mr. Hands by N.C. Wyeth, 1911, for Treasure Island)

This Israel Hands has a failing—rum. All of the pirates in Treasure Island suffer the depredations of rum. Stevenson set his book some 20 years after the events on Nassau, and his characters have suffered from hard work and hard times. Hands is weather-worn, leather-brown, nursing his temper over wrongs real and imagined. He argues with Silver over who will have the privilege of murdering Captain Smollett, and wins that right for himself.

This Israel has some of the best scenes in the book. After the pirates have mutinied on Treasure Island, young Jim Hawkins paddles a small boat out to the ship Hispaniola, which the pirates hold. He cuts the anchor cable, aiming to stop the pirates from using the ship’s guns against his friends on shore.

Onboard, there are only two pirates, Israel Hands and a man named O’Brian. Both are madly drunk on brandy, playing cards, and arguing. Hands kills his fellow pirate, then passes out. When he awakens, Jim has a brace of pistols, and persuaded Hands to use his skills as a helmsman to steer the drifting ship to a sandy shore on the opposite side of the island where it can be safely beached.

Though wounded in the fight, Hands is sly, trying to maneuver Jim into making a fatal mistake, all the time frightening the boy by his lack of remorse over murdering his friend. Treasure Island is a book that does not take death lightly. Young readers can easily imagine the horror of being in Jim’s situation, facing down a killer with a pair of pistols he had never fired, while listening to the man’s lack of remorse over killing a so-called friend. “Here’s my old shipmate, O’Brien; s’pose you was to heave him overboard. I ain’t partic’lar as a rule, and I don’t take no blame for settling his hash,” says Hands, as the corpse of his former friend rolls back and forth on the deck.

Jim chooses to keep the corpse, rather than risk putting it over the side. But Hands comes for him with a knife, and Jim is forced to retreat into the rigging. This is Jim’s moment of truth. As the bitter, wounded, murderous Hands climbs up after him, Jim loads his pistol, cocks it, and fires.

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Hands falls, dead. And Jim Hawkins, his courage tested, is no longer a boy.

The character of Israel Hands in Black Sails is as powerful and ruthless as Stevens’s character. But, like the real sailor, he is more of a planner, less in the grip of drink, and associated with Blackbeard, not Long John.

As a powerful, deadly man, still in his prime, he looks to be an important element of this last season of Black Sails.