By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A chest of gold and gems worth millions, hidden for fun, has been found, NPR reported. Millionaire art dealer Forrest Fenn stowed the chest 10 years ago and published clues to its location, causing treasure seekers to hunt for it. The event harks back to old pirate legends.
According to NPR, the search for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure chest has been both popular and deadly. “The search for Fenn’s hidden treasure became a sensation, luring tens of thousands of people to try to decipher the clues and embark on what they hoped would be a life-altering hike in the wilderness,” the article said. “For some, it became a dangerous obsession: In the process of looking for the trove that was said to be worth as much as $2 million, at least four people have died.”
The article said that the treasure’s only clues “included a map and a poem,” which first appeared in a self-published book by Fenn called The Thrill of the Chase. It’s reminiscent of legends of old buried pirate treasure, leading many to ask how realistically does Hollywood portray pirates.
Skull and Crossbones of the “Jolly Roger“
Two of the most popular images in modern pirate culture are the skull-and-crossbones black flag of pirate ships, often referred to as the “Jolly Roger.” Where do they come from?
“Pirates in the late Golden Age [of piracy] did sometimes refer to their flag as the ‘Jolly Roger,’ and they did sometimes use black flags to terrify their enemies,” said Professor Nush Powell, Associate Professor of English and University Faculty Scholar of Purdue University. “But it wasn’t as codified as the black background with a skull-and-crossbones that has become so instantly recognizable to modern fans of pirate tales.”
According to Professor Powell, pirates actually used both red flags and black flags. The black flag meant that the pirates would give quarter to their prey—if the enemy surrendered, they’d survive. The red flag was a traditional nautical symbol for a declaration that everyone on board the other ship would be killed.
However, from a distance, pirate ships usually flew national flags to trick other ships into believing the pirates were law-abiding citizens and thus it was safe to pass nearby. By the time the other ships uncovered the disguise, it was too late.
“Probably the first pirate to try out [the black flag’s] effect was Emanuel Wynn, who, in 1700, unfurled a sable ensign with cross bones, a death’s head, and an hour glass,” Professor Powell said. “The ‘death’s head’ is what we could call a skull. These black flags caught on quickly in the Caribbean, and many pirate ships personalized them with symbols such as skeletons, skulls, daggers, hearts, initials, and flaming cannonballs, and also flaming hearts.”
Finally, Professor Powell pointed out that nobody actually knows where the term “jolly roger” came from, though possibilities include a mispronunciation of “jolie rouge”—French for “pretty red”—and a conflation of “Old Roger,” an old slang term for the devil.
Debunk the Plank
While pirate flags are relatively true to history, despite the fact that red flags seldom caught on in movies and comic books, walking the plank is less factual.
“It is only in the 1790s, well after the Golden Age of Piracy, that we can find ‘walk the plank’ entering the British lexicon,” Professor Powell said. “However, its original context was not piracy at all, but the trade in enslaved African people. Thomas Clarkson’s 1789 The Substance of the Evidence of Sundry Persons on the Slave-Trade records a chilling description of European slavers murdering their African prisoners.”
Clarkson tells of a man asking slavers what they intend to do with their slaves, to which someone informs him, “‘to make them walk the plank,’ (i.e.) to jump overboard.” Professor Powell said that Clarkson’s need to explain the term to his English audience is good evidence that it wasn’t already common language, and that pirates likely learned plank-walking from slavers—not the other way around. There’s even evidence to support this.
“Indeed, the earliest documented instance of a real pirate forcing someone to walk the plank in history comes from the 1766 pirate ship The Black Prince. The Black Prince was a slaver that sailed out of Bristol until its sailors mutinied and became pirates, ironically renaming their ship the Liberty.”
As for buried treasure, it seems for now that the public would have more luck finding it from eccentric art dealers.
Professor Nush Powell contributed to this article. Professor Powell is an Associate Professor of English and a University Faculty Scholar, as well as the Director of Graduate Studies in English, at Purdue University. She earned her PhD and MA in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her BA in English from Yale University.