By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
For many Anglophone people, the mythological tropes of piracy, including plank walking, are an amalgamation of the famous names from the Golden Age, slave trade and black pirates, the marine culture of the early 19th century, and the fiction of the late 19th century. Pirates weren’t nice people, but many perceptions about them are just that, perceptions.
Black Pirates Aboard Pirate Ships
As we know, not all of the black and other non-white men onboard pirate ships were enslaved. Bart Roberts’s crew was as much as 20% black, for example, and at least some of them were free. A few black pirates, like Captain Kidd’s quartermaster, were pirate officers of considerable power.
But during the Golden Age, what evidence we have suggests that they were also not necessarily equals, and that there is little evidence of black pirate captains in the Caribbean at this point. Although, a few commanded anti-Spanish raids in the buccaneering age.
That changed in the early 19th century. Now, between the 1720s and the end of the 18th century, we don’t hear all that much from Atlantic pirates. There were always a few, but they were a small-time threat. Then came the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era that had ushered in.
Rise of Black Pirates
From the 1798 rise of Napoleon to the final end in 1815 of his wars, there was a huge scaling up in both naval and privateering forces. Once the war has ended, many of those men forced out of work, would be tempted to piracy; this is a common story.
But, this time, there was another important factor. In the territory that would become the sovereign state of Haiti, there was the first successful revolution against race chattel slavery. The first French Republic had declared all men to be free and equal. The black people living in Haiti tried to hold them to their word. White enslavers refused to comply. And on 21 August 1791, there was a massive revolt of bond people against their enslavers.
By 1804, Haiti was the first independent post-colonial nation in Latin America. And in the years that followed, Haiti hired privateers from South and Latin American nations: Ships whose black crews had rebelled against their white commanders to turn pirates, black pirates.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Walking the Plank and Its Origin
The years up to 1825 witnessed the second age of Caribbean piracy. Arguably characterized by behavior that was even more riotous and violent than in the previous age. At least these pirates, many of them black or Latino, were depicted that way in the European press.
Black pirates did not make their prisoners walk the plank; however, those pirates did torture and murder people. It was a handful of Cuban pirates who seemed to have been responsible for the innovation of plank-walking.
Many historians date the first instance of treating prisoners in this way, plank-walking, to the 1820s. Such as in 1822, when the Jamaican Royal Gazette detailed a captured European captive being executed via walking the plank. In all, however, there are fewer than half a dozen documented instances of that practice, even among the pirates of the 19th century. It was common only in pirate fiction, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s.
Who Used Walking the Plank in the Golden Age?
The phrase ‘Walk the plank’ has been found in a number of periodical accounts from as early as the 1790s. But they used to joke, it’s not a common phrase. The newspaper, The True Britain, for Saturday, 15 November 1794, says that some privateers off the coast of Carolina generally make those that fall into their hands walk the plank; that is walk overboard.
The explanation is there for the less jargon savvy reader, presumably, which would never happen today. Most often, though, it’s not prisoners who are made to walk the plank, but other pirates who have rebelled against their number. It’s a punishment enacted in cases in which Golden Age pirates might well have used marooning.
There was, however, another group of seamen who forced their prisoners to walk the plank: enslavers. In 1789, the abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, quoted enslavers planning to murder some of their captives, as saying that they would make them walk the plank, i.e. to jump overboard.
The historian, Douglas Botting, seems to have located the earliest use of the phrase by a pirate. It was used in the testimony of a prisoner named George Geery in 1769, and it, too, appeared in the context of the slave trade. In 1766, the Bristol slave ship Black Prince’s crew mutinied; Geery was among them.
In short, black pirates did not invent walking the plank as part of their outlaw mythos, but instead, they seem to have ported it over to piracy from their experience with the transatlantic slave trade. Most examples of anyone walking the plank have involved significant prior history with the practices of enslavement.
Common Questions about Black Pirates and Walking the Plank
No. The evidence shows that not all non-white men were enslaved on pirate ships. For example, 20% of Bart Roberts’ crew were black. However, these people were not necessarily equal to the white pirates, as there is little evidence of black pirate captains in the Caribbean at that period.
The first revolution against racial slavery began after the first French Republic declared all people free and equal, but white enslavers refused to comply. As the result, blacks staged mass revolts against their enslavers. Later, ships with black crews witnessed them revolting against their commanders to become black pirates.
No. Black pirates actually did not force their prisoners to walk the plank and they did not invent this method of execution. It seems that only a handful of Cuban pirates killed their prisoners or rebel crew via walking the plank. The first example of such behavior dates back to the 1820s, when a European prisoner was executed in this way.