Two cool things I learned from reading David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag (which I did not expect to get any blogging material from, but there you go):
1.) The only account of real pirates ever forcing someone to walk the plank was in 1829. “The Times of July 23, 1829, contains a report of a pirate attack in the Caribbean. The Dutch brig Vhan Fredericka … sailed from Jamaica on April 12 bound for Haarlem in the Netherlands. She was in the Leeward Passage, two days from Cuba, when she was intercepted by a schooner. She endeavored to escape but was overtaken by the schooner …. Thirty pirates boarded the Vhan Fredericka and proceeded to loot her.
“The Dutchmen protested, ‘but were laughed at by the ruffians, who proceeded deliberately to compel the wretched men to what is termed “walk the plank.”‘ The men were pinioned and blindfolded and had shot fastened to their feet before being forced into the sea. One passenger escaped because he revealed the whereabouts of the gold, and was later put ashore at Cuba by the pirates. It is possible that other examples of walking the plank may be found, but the fact remains that it was never the common pirate punishment suggested by so many books, films, and comic strips” (130-31).
2.) A young woman in 1825 was caught in the midst of an horrific pirate attack and was almost their next victim, but escaped and ended up being the key witness to their conviction and subsequent hanging.
This is an interesting story, because you don’t really associate vicious pirate attacks with the nineteenth century. We’re taught to think it’s a late sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century affair and that the nineteenth century is far too civilized and settled to have people like Blackbeard running around. It’s hardly surprising, since piracy was mostly rooted out by the mid-eighteenth century (especially in the Caribbean) due to Great Britain’s enormous naval force. But there is the odd straggling pirate story that crops up:
“One of the most poignant accounts of a pirate attack was written by Miss Lucretia Parker, a young woman captured by Cuban pirates in 1825. She was traveling from St. Johns to Antigua in the sloop Eliza-Ann under the command of an Englishman, Captain Charles Smith. On the eleventh day of the voyage they were intercepted by a small schooner whose decks were crowded with heavily armed pirates. After a brief fight the pirates captured the Eliza-Ann, looted her, and sailed both vessels to a small island off the coast of Cuba. All the victims were rowed ashore. Miss Parker later described their fate in a letter to her brother George who lived in New York:
“‘Having first divested them [the captured crew] of every article of clothing but their shirts and trousers, with swords, knives, axes, &c, they [the pirates] fell on the unfortunate crew of the Eliza-Ann with the ferocity of cannibals! In vain did they beg for mercy and intreat of their murderers to spare their lives! In vain did poor Capt. S. attempt to touch their feelings and to move them to pity by representing to them the situation of his innocent family — that he had a wife and three small children at home wholly dependent on him for support! but, alas, the poor man entreated in vain! his appeal was to monsters possessing hearts callous to the feelings of humanity!
‘[H]aving received a heavy blow from one with an axe, he snapped the cords with which he was bound, and attempted an escape by flight, but was met by another of the ruffians, who plunged a knife or dirk to his heart! I stood near him at this moment and was covered with his blood — on receiving the fatal wound he gave a single groan and fell lifeless at my feet …. Dear brother, need I attempt to paint to your imagination my feelings at this awful moment?’
“Miss Parker expected to become the next victim, but it soon became clear that the pirate captain was keeping her for himself. Her virtue was saved by the appearance of a British warship on the horizon. The pirates abandoned the Eliza-Ann and fled. They were later captured and taken to Jamaica, where Miss Parker identified them. They were all hanged” (xiv-xv).
Okay, 1.) She probably dined off that story for the rest of her life. Like, that is the ultimate story-topper. “Oh, you met the Queen? Well, when I was almost killed by pirates and then ensured that they were all hanged . . .”
2.) The only time I will give you a free pass for using that many exclamation points is if you have been almost hacked to death by pirates. That is, like, the one exception listed in every house style guide.
3.) I would love to have attended that court case. Pirates were almost always tried in an admiralty court. Don’t get me wrong, the cards were stacked against them in terms of a ‘fair trial’, but the execution of pirates by governments was usually above board and was highly publicized to discourage others from a life of piracy.
I just hope that during the trial Miss Parker wore a heavy veil and revealed herself as a surprise witness, to the gasps and swoonings of the pirates in the dock.