"Walk the plank" redirects here. For other uses, see Walk the Plank.
Pirate walking the plank, as painted by Howard Pyle.

Walking the plank is a phrase that describes a form of murder or torture that was practiced by pirates, mutineers and other rogue seafarers. It involved the victim being forced to walk off the end of a wooden plank or beam extended over the side of a ship, thereby falling into the water to drown, sometimes with bound hands or weighed down, often into the vicinity of sharks (which would often follow ships). The earliest known use of the phrase dates back to the latter half of the 18th century. Some writers in the 20th century speculated that walking the plank may be a myth created by cinema; however, the phrase "walking the plank" is recorded in Francis Grose's "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue",[1] which was published in 1788 (first published in 1785).

Historical instances of plank walking

In 1769, mutineer George Wood confessed to his chaplain at Newgate Prison that he and his fellow mutineers had sent their officers to walk the plank.[2] In 1822, William Smith, captain of the sloop Blessing, was forced to walk the plank by the pirate crew of the schooner Emanuel. 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 was made to walk the plank.[3] And 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[citation needed].

Although walking the plank plays a large role in contemporary pirate lore, in reality walking the plank was a very rare phenomenon. Most pirates, mutineers, etc., would not bother with such an elaborate (and prone to mishap) means of doing away with their captives.[4]

Appearances in popular culture

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  1. ^ "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue", Francis Grose, 1788, Google Books (originally published 1785)
  2. ^ Douglas Botting, The Pirates, TimeLife Books, 1978, p. 58.
  3. ^ The Times, February 14, 1829, pg.3
  4. ^ A Pirate's Life: Punishment: Walking the plank

Further reading

Other meanings

See Walk the Plank.