Why pirates never walk the plank: Truth is more horrifying than fiction in the golden age of piracy
- Rebecca Simon debunks the myths of 17th and 18th century piracy and reveals the truth is even more shocking
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The pirate code
by Rebecca Simon (Reaction £15.99, 304pp)
Do you know how pirates punished people by making them walk the plank? Well, the thing is, they didn’t. The practice appears to have been invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel Treasure Island.
The surprise is one of many in Rebecca Simon’s book about the “golden age of piracy” in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Another legend she spreads is that of buried treasure – it’s not just that pirates never buried it, it’s that they weren’t particularly interested in it in the first place.
Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 film Treasure Island based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. It turns out that the practice of pirates walking the plank was invented by Stevenson for his classic 1883 book
Another legend that Rebecca Simon does away with is that of buried treasure – it’s not just that pirates never buried it, it’s that they weren’t particularly interested in it in the first place
Much more important were supplies that they could actually use during long periods at sea: ropes, sails, tools – and, of course, food and water.
Equally unexpected is the democratic nature of life on board. The crew voted on everything from punishments to where the ship should go, and the captain couldn’t override them.
Crew members had the right to eat and drink with the captain, enter his cabin at any time and even scold him. If they didn’t like the way he treated them, they could vote him out.
All ‘plunder’ (the loot from raids) was divided equally (according to rank) and everyone paid into a fund to compensate the wounded. It seems less Pirates Of The Caribbean, more like a small town council in Sweden.
If you’re looking for the Johnny Depp thing, you need Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two female pirates who “fought harder and cursed more than all men.”
They also fought with their shirts open, exposing their breasts “to shock their enemies as a distraction tactic.”
As for the nickname for the pirate flag, “Jolly Roger,” some say it comes from the French le joli rouge (it was originally red), others that Old Roger was a pseudonym for the devil.
When it came to punishment, keelhauling was even worse than the mythical plank-walking would have been.
Unlike in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, starring Johnny Depp, all “plunder” (the loot from raids) was divided equally (according to rank) and everyone paid into a fund to compensate those who got hurt
The guilty man was tied to a rope and then dragged under the ship. If the fall into the water didn’t kill you, you’d probably die from an infection picked up as your body rubbed against the barnacle-covered bottom of the ship.
Plus, of course, you could just drown in the process. In fact, drowning, writes Simon, “was always a risk because few pirates could swim.”