Pirates Rarely Made People Walk the Plank

John asks: Did pirates really make people walk the plank?

shipFor thousands of years, pirates of various sorts have preyed on innocent ships at sea. Their exploits have been documented by the likes of Cicero and Homer in ancient Rome and Greece, and Vikings were once the scourge of the sea, plaguing seaside towns throughout the middle ages. However, the bloodthirsty pirates most commonly portrayed in movies and books today are those from the Golden Age of Piracy—that is, the 16th and 17th centuries.

During this time, pirates were not only common, but many of them—the “privateers”—were actually hired by various governments to steal from other states. Spain dominated the new world and had ships carting riches back to the motherland constantly. The lure of gold, silver, and expensive spices was too much for many other countries who wanted to end Spain’s dominance and take a bite for themselves. So they hired privateers to do the dirty work of stealing some of the ships’ cargo.

In the “Hollywood” representation of this Golden Age of Piracy, the standard way to kill anyone aboard a pirate ship is to simply make the individual “walk the plank”. But before Captain Hook, Captain Flint, and Captain Jack Sparrow, there was Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Captain Kidd. In the midst of a naval robbery, did these real pirates actually take the time to make people walk the plank? At risk of disappointing pirate fans, the answer is mostly “no.”

Pirates did make people walk the plank every now and then, but historical records seem to indicate the practice was extremely rare. In fact, pirates preferred not to kill their victims. If they gained a reputation for killing everyone on board of every ship they took, crew members would simply fight to the death every time a group of pirates hopped on deck. That would be an awful lot of work for the pirates, who usually just wanted to take the gold and run. If they did need to get rid of someone, it was much faster to simply push them overboard rather than set up a plank and have them do it themselves.

That being said, there are known instances of pirates having people walk the plank, with the generally accepted reason behind this practice simply being that the pirates did it to amuses themselves on those rare occasions there actually was time for it. Another theory as to the reason for making people walk the plank was that people were forced to do this so that the pirates couldn’t be tried for murder—after all, the people walked off the plank themselves. This latter reason is considered somewhat unlikely, however, because pillaging and piracy were generally hanging offenses anyway; if they were caught, a murder charge on top of everything else wasn’t going to make much of a difference.

But the more bloodthirsty pirates loved the psychological torture inflicted on their victims before making them walk the plank, right? Not exactly. Black Bart—also known as Bartholomew Roberts—was a pirate captain known for his somewhat psychotic tendencies. He was an incredibly successful pirate who is reported to have taken over 400 ships and accumulated some £50 million in stolen goods. He also had a reputation for being violent and torturing his victims; yet Black Bart is only known to have made one person walk the plank in all his years of pirating.

As to some specific other examples of pirates having people walk the plank, one of the more well-known cases was on board the Dutch ship Vhan Fredericka. In 1829, pirates boarded the ship near the Virgin Islands and murdered almost every crew member by tying cannonballs to their feet and having them walk overboard. However, all in all, there are only about five cases of “walking the plank” that can be definitively proven by historical records. It’s possible that other instances occurred that were not recorded or whose records have been lost to time, but most likely the practice wasn’t nearly as commonplace as fiction would lead you to believe.

The phrase itself, “walking the plank”, dates back to 1769, with the first documented reference being when a seaman named George Wood confessed to a chaplain that he had made several men “walk the plank.” However, while the confession certainly took place, whether or not Wood actually made people walk the plank is still open to debate, owing to the lack of direct evidence.

The phrase became more popular in the 1800s when authors began to use it in literature. In 1837, Charles Ellms wrote a boys’ story book called The Pirates Own Book which made the claim that an amateur American pirate, Stede Bonnet, made people walk the plank. In 1881, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was published. Walking the plank is mentioned at least three times in the book and the book’s popularity is undoubtedly the reason walking the plank became such a popular theme in fictional pirate stories.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Pirates likely never said “arr” either. “Arr” popped up in pirate canon sometime in 1950, when Robert Newton played Silver in Treasure Island and on TV. A rolling “r” sound was part of his accent, and likely made “arr” popular in pirate fiction.
  • As for parrots, it’s likely that pirates had them on ships every now and then, as they were a popular souvenir and you could get rich selling them in London—their bright colours and ability to repeat speech made them fun, exotic pets. However, due to parrots tending to empty their bowels wherever they please, it’s unlikely that pirate captains actually walked around with parrots attached to their shoulders.
  • Pirate flags with the skull and crossbones were actually used. The first instance was in 1718 by Captain Richard Worley. Pirate ships were often faster than their larger victims laden down with goods, and would catch their prey eventually. The pirate flag scared and intimidated their victims into surrendering without much of a struggle. Again, pirates didn’t want to kill people if they could help it.
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  • I’m not surprised that the practice was used more in fiction than in reality. It’s quite common to use plot devices such as this, for the sake of drama, whether or not they were actually very common. That’s why it’s entertainment, not history.

  • So pirates did not really make people walk the plank. Surprise! Surprise! There was no point in killing people. It was bad for business. If a captured crew will die anyway then the men will fight to the death. They would have nothing to gain by surrendering. And if there were women on board it was far better fun for the pirate crew to keep them for rape and other relaxation than to just toss them overboard. The pirates of those days were far better business men and far more cruel and ruthless than modern day historians fuelled by Captain Blood fantasies would have us believe.

  • I’ve been told pirates would set a man’s pubes on fire and make the SOB jump overboard with his privates in fire.

  • Anneke Bielstein

    What did pirates use planks for anyway if making people walk across them wasn’t very common?
    Did they board other ships by stopping next to them, putting the plank across and just walking across it?