The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates

By Peter T. Leeson | Go to book overview

5 WALK THE PLANK
THE ECONOMICS OF
PIRATE TORTURE

One of the most popular pirate images is the brute and bearded captain, perhaps with a hook for a hand and a parrot on one shoulder, barking at a prisoner with sadistic pleasure, “Walk the plank!” In the movies, the captain, standing at the edge of his ship, is surrounded by a mob oftencouraging pirates, while the poor captive stands on a wooden beam jutting from the vessel's side. Below him swirl the ominous and devouring waves of the sea, or perhaps even the fins of circling sharks. Movies and books depict this torture as a pirate pastime, a source of amusement and play. However entertaining, the basic “facts” of this oft-depicted pirate picture are purely fictional. There are, in fact, no recorded cases of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century pirates, hook-handed or otherwise, forcing captives to jump off wooden planks. Further, pirates weren't sadists who tortured everyone they encountered for fun. A few actually showed downright charity to their targets.

Despite this, it's easy to think of pirates as bloodthirsty fiends—as men, one of their prisoners reported, “to whom it was a sport to do Mischief.” Many pirate contemporaries described them as such. Charles Johnson, for example, described Bartholomew Roberts's crew's apparent violent madness as follows: “It is impossible to particularly recount the Destruction and Havock,” which these pirates committed “without Remorse or Compunction; for nothing is so deplorable as Power in mean

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