Pirates have long captured our imaginations with their tales of swashbuckling adventures, hidden treasures, and dramatic ship battles on the high seas. Among the many myths and legends associated with these notorious figures, one image stands out prominently—the act of forcing someone to “walk the plank.” This dramatic and often cinematic portrayal of pirates making their victims walk off a plank into shark-infested waters has been a staple in pirate lore for centuries. But how much of this is fact, and how much is fiction?
In this in-depth exploration of pirate history, we’ll separate reality from Hollywood fantasy and delve into the fascinating world of pirates, their methods, and the origins of the “walk the plank” myth. Prepare to set sail on a voyage through history as we uncover the truths and misconceptions surrounding these notorious seafarers.
When most people think of pirates, they conjure up images from movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or classic novels like “Treasure Island.” In these tales, pirates are often depicted as ruthless villains who revel in tormenting their captives. The most infamous and frequently depicted method of putting an end to the life of a person aboard a pirate ship is to simply force them to cross the plank—an extended piece of wood protruding from the ship’s deck and leading into the treacherous waters below.
These Hollywood portrayals paint a vivid picture of pirates as sadistic executioners, but how closely do these fictional accounts align with the historical reality of piracy? To uncover the truth, we must journey back in time to the Golden Age of Piracy.
The Golden Age of Piracy
The Golden Age of Piracy, spanning the 16th and 17th centuries, was a period when pirates roamed the seas in search of wealth, adventure, and glory. It was an era when the allure of gold, silver, and valuable spices proved irresistible to many nations seeking to challenge the dominance of the Spanish Empire in the New World. Privateering, a practice where individuals or ships were authorized by governments to engage in piracy against enemy nations, was a common strategy during this time.
Spain, with its vast wealth and powerful navy, was the primary target of these privateers. Many countries enlisted the services of these pirates to plunder Spanish ships and disrupt their trade routes. While the Hollywood image of pirates primarily involves the likes of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Captain Kidd, many pirates of this era were more accurately described as privateers, sanctioned by various nations to wage economic warfare on the high seas.
The Reality of Pirates and Planks
Contrary to the cinematic portrayals of pirates forcing hapless victims to walk the plank, historical evidence suggests that this practice was exceedingly rare. Pirates, although often viewed as ruthless outlaws, preferred practicality over theatrics when it came to their criminal activities.
The core objective of most pirates was simple: steal the valuable cargo of a ship and make a swift getaway. A ship’s crew, laden with gold and riches, was not their primary target. Killing everyone on board would be counterproductive to achieving this goal, as it would lead to fierce resistance and make their piracy endeavors far more challenging.
Pirates aimed to strike swiftly and efficiently. Their priority was to intimidate and overpower their victims, not engage in elaborate executions. When it came to getting rid of unwanted witnesses, pirates typically chose more straightforward methods, such as tossing them overboard. It was a quick and efficient way to dispose of individuals without the need for a plank or dramatic confrontations.
The Rare Instances of “Walking the Plank”
While documented cases of pirates ordering individuals to walk the plank do exist, they are significant outliers. These instances were typically carried out for reasons other than cold-blooded execution. It appears that pirates occasionally used this method for amusement during the rare times when they found themselves in such a situation.
Another suggested reason for compelling victims to walk the plank was to avoid being charged with murder. This explanation, however, is considered improbable, as piracy and pillaging already carried the threat of a hanging sentence if pirates were captured. Adding murder to their list of crimes would have made little difference in their legal outcomes.
Black Bart and the Rare Exception
One of the few documented instances of a pirate forcing someone to walk the plank involved the notorious pirate captain Black Bart, also known as Bartholomew Roberts. Black Bart was infamous for his daring exploits and was responsible for the theft of more than 400 ships, accumulating a staggering fortune of almost fifty million pounds worth of stolen goods during his career.
While Black Bart had a reputation for being harsh and sometimes torturous to his victims, historical records indicate that he forced only one person to walk the plank throughout his years of piracy. This rarity underscores the infrequency of such occurrences during the Golden Age of Piracy.
The phrase “walking the plank” has become synonymous with pirate lore, but its origin is not as ancient as one might think. The term dates back to 1769 when a marine named George Wood confessed to a chaplain about making numerous men “walk the plank.” However, there is no concrete evidence to support this claim, leaving historians to question whether Wood genuinely engaged in this practice.
The popularity of the term grew in the 1800s when authors began using it in their writings, solidifying its place in pirate legend. Charles Ellms’ boys’ narrative book titled “The Pirates Own Book,” published in 1837, claimed that amateur American pirate Stede Bonnet made individuals walk the plank. Additionally, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel “Treasure Island,” published in 1881, made multiple references to “walking the plank,” further cementing its presence in fictional pirate tales.
Separating Pirate Legends from Realities
Pirate legends have left an indelible mark on our culture, and separating fact from fiction can be challenging. While the image of pirates making people walk the plank has been perpetuated in literature and film, historical records suggest that such incidents were exceedingly rare. The real stories of pirates, their motives, and their methods are far more nuanced and complex than the caricatures often depicted in popular media.
In the world of piracy, where adventure, danger, and the pursuit of treasure collided, the truth behind these enigmatic figures remains a captivating and endlessly fascinating tale. As we continue to explore the mysteries of the high seas and the lives of these infamous marauders, we uncover a rich tapestry of history, daring exploits, and the enduring allure of pirate lore.
In a curious historical footnote, pirates once kidnapped none other than Julius Caesar himself. The audacious pirates demanded twenty talents of silver for his release, but Caesar insisted that they ask for fifty. Discover the fascinating story of how one of the most renowned figures in history faced capture by pirates.
Our journey through pirate history doesn’t end here. Explore other exciting pirate tales, including the rise of a female pirate captain and the mysterious origins of the Jolly Roger flag. The world of piracy is filled with intriguing stories waiting to be uncovered.