Walking the plank
Walking the plank was a form of murder thought to have been practised on special occasion by pirates, mutineers, and other rogue seafarers. For the amusement of the perpetrators (and the psychological torture of the victims), captives were forced to walk off a wooden plank or beam extended over the side of a ship. The victims were usually bound, blindfolded and/or weighed down, causing them to drown, freeze to death, or be killed by sharkscitation needed (which would often follow ships). The earliest known use of the phrase is the latter half of the 18th century. Some writers in the 20th century erroneously speculated that walking the plank may be a myth created by cinema; however, the phrase "walking the plank" is recorded in English writer Francis Grose's "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue",1 which was published in 1788 (first published in 1785).
The Times reported on February 14, 1829 that the packet Redpole (Bullock, master) was captured by the pirate schooner President and sunk. The commander was shot and the crew were made to walk the plank.3
In 1829, pirates intercepted the Dutch brig Vhan Fredericka in the Leeward Passage between the Virgin Islands, and murdered most of the crew by making them walk the plank with cannonballs tied to their feet.4
It was said that forcing loyal seamen to walk the plank was supposed, by the perpetrators, to "avoid the penalty for murder"5 (by not actually killing the victims), but this would hardly have worked. Not only would most legal authorities not have hesitated to prosecute any person who forced another to his death, but piracy and mutiny were also capital crimes. Given the occasions on which it was known to have been employed, it appears more likely to have been an elaborate and unusual form of sadistic entertainment rather than a regular method of murdering unwanted captives.
Although walking the plank plays a large role in contemporary pirate lore, in reality walking the plank was a very rare phenomenon, most pirates and mutineers having little reason to undertake elaborate psychological torture on their prisoners if they intended to kill them anyway.
The term has been used in modern times to describe the resignation of a public figure which occurs amidst controversy, or was demanded by the public, corporate shareholders and suchlike.
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- West Indies Squadron
- Golden Age of Piracy
- Burial at sea
- "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue", Francis Grose, 1788, Google Books (originally published 1785)
- Douglas Botting, The Pirates, TimeLife Books, 1978, p. 58.
- The Times, February 14, 1829, pg.3
- David Cordingly. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, Harvest Books, 1997, p. 130-31.
- Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1788, cited in Walk the plank.
- Don Carlos Seitz, Under The Black Flag, Dail Press, 1925 (republished by Dover Publications in 2002, ISBN 0-486-42131-7)
- Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, "Pirates: 2. Walking the Plank" [Answer], The Mariner's Mirror, vol. 80 (May,1994), p. 204