Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Pirates have troubled sea travelers for many centuries, but there was one brief time in history—the Golden Age of Piracy—when pirates actually controlled them. From 1650 to 1730, fleets of pirate ships wreaked havoc around the Mediterranean Sea, across the Atlantic, in the China Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and throughout the Caribbean. Legend and lore grew from this period and, today, tales of walking the plank and buried treasure still remain.
They are just that. Tales. Tall tales.
“X” Marks the Spot
Buccaneers burying their treasure was rare. In fact, history regales only a couple of accounts of pirates doing so. Most notable: Captain William Kidd.
In 1699, privateer-turned-pirate Kidd dropped anchor near Long Island, New York, to bury his wealth of gold and jewels—the modern equivalent of millions of dollars—quickly before setting sail for New York City. A wanted man for plundering in the Indian Ocean, he was soon arrested. His buried treasure was tracked down and confiscated by authorities. Kidd, meanwhile, was transported to London for execution.
This idea of buried treasure and maps marked with an “X” seems to have come from Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, Treasure Island, published in 1883.
Walk the Plank
Blindfolded victims forced to walk a narrow beam to their death is also the stuff of fairy tales. There is no proof that pirates ever made captives walk the plank.
Pointing a finger back at literature, Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe was the first to make his characters walk the plank in his 1724 book, A General History of the Pyrates. Later writers, including Stevenson, elaborated on Defoe’s depiction and cemented the plank in pirate “history.”
Much more unpleasant than dropping to doom, pirates had a nasty array of punishments they used against traitors, unpopular captains and any poor prisoners they captured.
- Keel Hauling – The unfortunate victim was tied to a rope and dragged the length of the boat along the keel, from front to back. Apart from the high chance of drowning, his body would be ripped to shreds by the many rough shells attached to the keel.
- Marooning – Prisoners and pirates were sometimes simply left on a deserted island, perhaps with a bottle of rum for company.
- Cat–O’–Nine–Tails – This was a whip with nine leather strips that were knotted with pieces of metal at the end. A severe whipping with one of these instruments of torture could be enough to kill a person.
More Lost Riches
Although planks are poppycock and buried treasure was a rarity, legends live on about long lost riches hidden away, just waiting for treasure hunters to track them down! From D.B. Cooper to the Amber Room, these historical heists have little chance of ever being found.