Skip to main content Skip to footer

Walking the Plank and other Torturous Deads

The sea: vast, unpredictable, and the ultimate arbitrator of disputes on a pirate ship. Because when it came to meting out punishment, these pirates didn't just have a flair for the dramatic, they had an entire theater company of terrifying tactics. And while the plank has become the poster child for pirate penalties, the array of consequences dealt by these captains of calamity went far beyond a shaky board.

A Plank by Any Other Name...

Walking the plank, a phrase forever etched into the lore of piracy, conjures images of blindfolded captives teetering towards their watery doom, as a crew of rough pirates jeer and shout. Yet, as ominous as it sounds, it's less a historical reality and more a sensationalized fragment of popular culture.

Contrary to many swashbuckling tales, walking the plank wasn't the favored method of pirate punishment. It was, in fact, quite rare. Pirates, after all, were practical souls. If they wished to dispose of someone, they had quicker means at their disposal. But for the few who did employ the plank, it was a method rife with theatrical cruelty. The slow, deliberate march, the eerie creaking of wood, the vastness of the surrounding ocean – all combined to create a tormenting prelude to the final plunge.

The psychological torture was paramount. As the doomed individual stepped closer to the edge, time seemed to stretch. Each footfall echoed not just on the wood, but in the captive’s racing heart. Beneath, the waters waited - dark, inscrutable, and hungry. Sometimes, circling sharks added to the terror, their fins cutting through the waves, a reminder of the fate that awaited.

Yet, it wasn’t just the impending fall or the predatory threats below that terrified. It was the isolation, the sensation of being utterly alone despite being surrounded by a cacophony of taunts and jeers. The plank became a bridge between the world of the living and the abyss of the unknown.

Ironically, the popularity of this trope can be credited more to literature and cinema than to authentic pirate logs. Tales spun by writers and filmmakers found an eager audience in those hungry for dramatic sea legends, and so, the plank became synonymous with piracy.

In truth, the real world of pirates was no less brutal or fascinating than the tales suggest, but it was different in its details. While walking the plank remains an iconic image, it serves as a reminder of how myth and reality can intertwine over time, creating legends that captivate, even as they drift from historical fact.

Marooning: The Pirate Timeout

Marooning was perhaps one of the cruelest forms of punishment a pirate could mete out. Imagine the silent treatment magnified a hundredfold, extended over days or even months, and sprinkled with the tantalizing possibility of salvation or, more likely, madness. In this stark form of exile, offenders weren't simply banished to their cabins or given a stern talking-to; they were abandoned on desolate stretches of sand, left to the whims of nature and their own spiraling thoughts.

A desolate island, miles from civilization, became a lonely prison. Often, the marooned sailor would be gifted a single pistol, not for hunting or self-defense against the wild, but as a dark mercy. One shot was provided, not to fend off would-be predators, but as a potential escape from the torment of isolation. If the weight of loneliness became too much to bear, a way out, albeit a grim one, lay in the pirate's hands.

While many pirates used this method to settle scores, Captain Edward England was a notable practitioner. His reputation was paradoxical—a marauder known for his peculiar gentleness in a world of ruthless plundering. Yet, even he didn't hesitate to employ marooning as a way to deal with crew members who dared to challenge his authority. Those who plotted mutiny or rebelled found themselves staring at the unending horizon of their isolated island, pondering the gravity of their transgressions.

In a world where the vastness of the ocean was both a pirate's playground and battleground, marooning turned that vastness into an oppressive void. It was a reminder that in the pirate code, betrayal was met not just with violence, but with a psychological torture that might haunt the marooned long after rescue, if rescue ever came at all.


Keelhauling, a word that might seem exotic and unfamiliar to many, carries with it a weight of historical cruelty when mentioned among nautical circles. This was not a mere punishment, but a visceral, calculated display of power meant to strike terror into the hearts of sailors.

Originating from Dutch maritime practices, keelhauling was a brutal disciplinary method adopted by some pirates and naval forces alike. The punished sailor would be bound by ropes, hands and feet tied, leaving them at the mercy of their crewmates. Then, with grim resolve, they would be cast overboard, dragged beneath the ship from one side to the other. As they were pulled, they would come in agonizing contact with the ship's keel, the central structure running from bow to stern, often encrusted with sharp barnacles. These barnacles would tear into the sailor’s flesh, inflicting wounds that were not just painful, but also at high risk of infection in the salty sea environment.

The act of keelhauling wasn't just physically torturous. The psychological torment was equally harrowing. Imagine, if you will, being dragged underwater, where the pressure builds in your ears and your lungs scream for air, all while your body is lacerated by the rough underbelly of the ship. The disorienting darkness, interspersed with fleeting moments of blurred light, would only heighten the terror. Those who survived such an ordeal would often be marked not only by their physical scars but by the deep-seated trauma of the experience.

Beyond the pain it inflicted upon the individual, keelhauling was also a spectacle—a clear message to the rest of the crew. It served as a visceral reminder of the consequences of disobedience or perceived betrayal. The sight of a sailor emerging bloodied and broken, gasping for breath, would no doubt quell any simmering mutinous thoughts among the onlookers.

In the annals of maritime discipline, keelhauling stands out as a particularly cruel blend of physical and psychological torment. It's a chilling testament to the lengths those in power would go to maintain order and dominance upon the unpredictable and often lawless expanse of the open seas.

Dancing the Hempen Jig

"Dancing the Hempen Jig," a phrase that dances off the tongue with an eerie elegance, is far from the jolly jig you might imagine. It's a grim euphemism from the golden age of piracy, referring to the last spasmodic movements of a man being hanged. This was a fate that awaited many a pirate, and the term encapsulates the dark humor these seafaring rebels often employed to describe their own grim realities.

Hanging was a favored method of execution in the age of piracy, not only for its effectiveness but for its spectacle. In a world where news spread via word of mouth, the sight of a pirate swinging from the gallows served as a potent deterrent to any would-be buccaneer contemplating a life of crime on the high seas. This public display of justice, often held at ports or popular harbors, drew large crowds, eager to witness the end of notorious outlaws.

The rope used for such hangings was made of hemp, hence the term 'hempen'. As the condemned was dropped from the gallows, the sudden jolt wouldn't always break the neck as intended. Instead, the poor soul would writhe and twitch, their feet seemingly dancing in the air, as they slowly suffocated. It was this macabre performance that earned the name "Dancing the Hempen Jig."

For pirates and those living in these turbulent times, humor was a means of coping with the constant proximity of death. Their world was one of contradictions: camaraderie juxtaposed with treachery, and the thrill of plunder shadowed by the ever-present specter of the noose. By naming this grim fate with a term that evoked music and dance, pirates displayed a defiant spirit, mocking death even as it loomed over them.

In the annals of seafaring lexicon, "Dancing the Hempen Jig" stands as a testament to the resilience and dark wit of pirates. It's a phrase that captures the essence of their world - a dance of danger, where life and death waltzed hand in hand.

Duel on the Deck

Duels among pirates, while not exclusive to these seafaring brigands, carry with them a unique flavor of drama, desperation, and defiance. These confrontations weren't just about personal grievances; they were reflections of the pirate code, a rough semblance of order in a world characterized by chaos.

The code of the pirates, often formalized as the "articles of agreement," sometimes included provisions for settling disputes. Instead of allowing festering conflicts to disrupt the crew, disagreements were taken outside, away from the ship, and settled with cold steel. In this world, your reputation was your currency, and sometimes, defending that reputation meant crossing swords with a fellow pirate.

The choice of weapons in pirate duels varied, though the cutlass, a short, broad saber, was favored for its lethality in close quarters. Pistols were also common, their loud reports echoing the finality of many a dispute. The setting, usually a deserted beach or a quiet spot on the ship, would be chosen for its privacy, ensuring that the duel remained a matter between the aggrieved parties and not a spectacle for the entire crew.

These duels were often quick and brutal. Unlike the choreographed fencing matches of European nobility, pirate duels were desperate, dirty affairs. There was no room for honor or ceremony here; the aim was survival. Feints, tricks, and even the occasional sand toss were all fair game.

Yet, paradoxically, there was a certain code to these encounters. It wasn't about bloodlust. Duels served as a pressure valve, a way to release tension and maintain a semblance of order among a group of men living on the knife's edge. Once the duel was over, and assuming both parties survived, it was expected that the matter was settled, and the pirates would return to their shared mission without harboring grudges.

But not all duels ended in death or reconciliation. Some resulted in lifelong vendettas, while others birthed legends. Tales of epic encounters, where two formidable pirates clashed for hours, their skills evenly matched, became the stuff of seafaring legend, whispered in taverns and sung in shanties.

In the larger tapestry of pirate life, duels serve as a vivid thread, highlighting the complexities of pirate relationships. They were not just outlaws or brigands; they were men bound by a code, however skewed it might appear. In their world, where life could be as fleeting as a tropical sunset, standing one's ground, blade in hand, was often the only way to ensure respect and survival.

The Good Ol' Cat-O'-Nine-Tails

The cat o' nine tails, often simply referred to as "the cat," is an instrument that invokes a shiver down the spine, synonymous with discipline and punishment during the age of sail. It was a whip, but not just any whip; it was designed for maximum pain, a manifestation of authority's stark hand on the high seas and in naval and military installations.

This fearsome tool consisted of a short wooden handle from which sprouted nine knotted thongs of cord or leather, hence its name. Each of the nine tails was often knotted with pieces of metal or bone, ensuring that every lash wasn't just painful but potentially scarring. Its design was meant not only to punish but also to intimidate: a physical embodiment of the severe discipline of maritime life.

Usage of the cat o' nine tails was a ceremony in cruelty. When a sailor or soldier was sentenced to be flogged, the ship's company would often be summoned to bear witness. This public spectacle served a dual purpose: it meted out punishment to the wrongdoer and sent a clear message to the onlookers about the consequences of insubordination or misconduct.

But it wasn't just the physical pain that made the cat o' nine tails dreaded. The psychological impact of awaiting one's turn with the cat, hearing its tails whistle through the air, and then feeling the sharp sting and burn of its lashes, created an atmosphere of fear and submission. The anticipation of its use was often as effective a deterrent as the act itself.

While pirates are often imagined as wild, lawless men, they too recognized the value of discipline aboard their ships. However, many pirate codes actually limited or forbade the use of such extreme measures. They preferred other forms of punishment or restitution, given that many of them had previously been navy or merchant sailors and had felt the sting of the cat themselves.

In time, as societal views on punishment evolved and the brutality of the cat o' nine tails became less acceptable, its use waned. By the 19th century, its use was being increasingly criticized, leading to its eventual abolition in many naval and military forces.

Yet, the legacy of the cat o' nine tails endures. It remains emblematic of a time when discipline was maintained through raw physical pain, a symbol of the harshness of life at sea during the age of sail. Even today, its very mention evokes images of wooden ships, iron men, and the ruthless code that governed them.

The Sweat

No, not an archaic form of pirate aerobics. ‘The Sweat’ was a twisted game where the offending pirate was made to run the gauntlet, chased around the ship or up and down the deck while being pelted, pricked, or slapped by the crew. It was more than a cardio challenge; it was a cruel circus where one's endurance was put to the test.


Simple but devilishly effective. This was a torture device that applied pressure to the offender’s thumbs or fingers. A few turns and the pirate would spill more beans than a clumsy cook in the galley.

The Restrictive Reign of Bilboes

In the vast expanse of maritime history, with its stormy seas and rogue pirates, certain nuances of shipboard life are often overshadowed by the grand tales of treasure and mutiny. One such overlooked detail is the bilboes, an iron contraption that once quietly ruled the waves, enforcing discipline and ensuring order on ships with an unyielding grip.

Bilboes, at first glance, might seem like a rudimentary set of shackles. Comprising a long iron bar, it had sliding shackles or clamps that could be adjusted to fit around the ankles of sailors or prisoners. The captives would then be forced to sit or lie in a fixed position, rendering them immobile and vulnerable.

Historically, bilboes were employed as a primary means of restraint on ships, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries. The vastness of the ocean, combined with the close quarters aboard a ship, meant that maintaining discipline was crucial. The slightest sign of mutiny or disobedience could not only risk the captain's command but also the very survival of the vessel and its crew. In such a setting, the bilboes were a captain's steadfast ally.

Their application was not limited to maritime punishments. On land, bilboes found their place in jails and guardhouses. Their design was particularly insidious. Unlike many other restraints that merely bound a person, bilboes added an element of public humiliation. The confined individuals were often left exposed, becoming spectacles for their shipmates or the public, amplifying their punishment through social shame.

Yet, as brutal as they were, bilboes also had an oddly pragmatic side. Their design allowed for the restrained individual's feet to remain slightly elevated, reducing the chances of swelling—a touch of twisted mercy in an otherwise pitiless device.

The tales of notorious pirates, like Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, often overshadow the more mundane aspects of pirate life. But for every sailor who found himself on the wrong side of the ship's code, bilboes were a very real and immediate reminder of the consequences.

Over time, as naval technology evolved and ships became larger and more sophisticated, the use of bilboes declined. Newer methods of discipline and restraint emerged, leaving the iron embrace of the bilboes as a relic of the past.

Today, bilboes serve as a poignant reminder in maritime museums and historical reenactments. They bear witness to an era when the line between discipline and cruelty was thinly drawn, and when the vastness of the ocean demanded order, no matter the cost.


Much before it became a jovial fairground game, dunking was a preferred pirate punishment. The poor sailor was repeatedly plunged into the sea on a rope. A harrowing experience, especially if the sailor wasn’t particularly adept at the art of holding one’s breath.

The Torturous Tale of Tar and Feathering

Tar and feathering, a vivid and visceral form of public humiliation, was a spectacle that left more than just physical scars. This method of punishment, popularized during times of political upheaval and popular dissent, stood as a stark reminder of the public's power to shame and punish those they deemed enemies or transgressors.

Imagine the scene: an angry mob, a pot of boiling tar, and a sack of feathers. The victim, often tied or held down, would first be stripped, exposing vulnerable skin. The hot tar, thick and scalding, would be liberally poured or smeared over the person. The immediate sensation was agonizing, as the tar burned and adhered to the skin. Then, as if to add mockery to injury, the feathers would be thrown onto the tar, sticking instantly, covering the victim in a grotesque, feathery coat.

The intent was not merely physical pain, though that was undoubtedly intense. The ritual was designed for maximum public disgrace. Once tarred and feathered, the victim would often be paraded around the town or village, subjected to the jeers, taunts, and derision of onlookers. Every step, every glance from the community, served to reinforce the shame.

This form of punishment saw notable use in the American colonies, particularly in the tumultuous years leading up to the Revolutionary War. It was a method favored by mobs as a means of dealing with unpopular figures, be they tax collectors for the British Crown, informers, or those perceived as enemies of the budding revolutionary spirit.

While pirates and sailors weren't the primary practitioners of tar and feathering, the maritime world wasn't entirely free from it. Ships carried tar for maintenance purposes, and a mutinous sailor or a particularly disliked officer might find himself at the mercy of this humiliating ordeal if the crew's anger reached a boiling point.

Interestingly, despite the pain and shame it inflicted, tar and feathering was rarely fatal. It was the psychological torment, the ostracism, and the lasting scars - both physical and emotional - that left the deepest mark.

As the centuries rolled on, such overt and public forms of punishment became less acceptable. Today, the act is largely seen as a barbaric relic of a less enlightened time. But the echoes of tar and feathering persist, a testament to the ways in which societies have sought to control, shame, and punish those who step out of line.

The Grisly Tale of Ear Cropping

In a world where body modifications are seen as expressions of personal style, it's challenging to envision a time when altering one's body was a form of punishment rather than a statement of individuality. Ear cropping, a particularly grisly act, stands as a testament to this bygone era, underscoring the lengths societies would go to ensure discipline and order.

Ear cropping was exactly what it sounds like – the deliberate and forceful removal of a portion, or sometimes the entirety, of an individual's ear. The intent was twofold: to inflict immediate physical pain and to leave a lasting mark, a permanent reminder of the individual's transgressions.

Used primarily during the late medieval and early modern periods in various parts of the world, ear cropping was often reserved for those who committed specific crimes, especially those of a repetitive nature. Offenses such as theft, perjury, or even certain acts of rebellion could earn one a date with the executioner's knife, not for the neck, but for the ears.

The procedure was brutal. The individual would be restrained, often in a public square to amplify the humiliation, and a knife or blade would slice through the cartilage, leaving a bloody and painful wound. Depending on the severity of the crime or the mood of the executioner, the amount of the ear removed could vary.

While the immediate physical pain was excruciating, the long-term social implications were equally distressing. Those who had been subjected to ear cropping were visibly marked, easily identifiable in a crowd. This marking made it difficult for them to reintegrate into society or find honest work, as the cropped ears were a blatant advertisement of their misdeeds.

In maritime lore, particularly in tales of piracy, ear cropping found a niche. Pirates, while romanticized today, were often on the wrong side of the law and their own moral codes. Those who betrayed their brethren or violated the ship's articles might find themselves subjected to this form of punishment, a stark reminder that even in the lawless world of piracy, there were still consequences.

As centuries passed, societies began to view such forms of corporal punishment as barbaric and inhumane. The rise of enlightenment thinking and a focus on rehabilitation over retribution led to the decline and eventual abandonment of practices like ear cropping.

Today, the act is reviled and condemned, a dark chapter in the annals of justice. Yet, it serves as a poignant reminder of our ever-evolving sense of justice and humanity, urging us to question and challenge punitive practices that may, in the future, be viewed with equal horror.

The Spanish Tickler's Lethal Legacy

The name 'Spanish Tickler' might, at first glance, sound almost playful, perhaps even benign. But delve deeper into the annals of history, and a far more macabre picture emerges. The Spanish Tickler, also known as the 'Cat's Paw', stands as one of the more brutal instruments in the gruesome gallery of medieval torture devices.

Made from iron, this nefarious tool resembled a large claw or hand with long, sharp, curved spikes extending from it. The design was simple yet insidiously effective. Once in the hands of a torturer, the Spanish Tickler was used to tear apart the flesh of its victims, often without breaking the skin first. With enough force, it could rip through muscle and even reach down to the bone.

Victims would be tied down, rendering them helpless, and the Spanish Tickler would be methodically dragged across various parts of their body, from limbs to torso. The agony experienced by the victims was unimaginable, as their flesh was literally shredded before their eyes. Blood loss, shock, and infection were common aftermaths of an encounter with this heinous device, and many succumbed to their injuries.

While its name suggests origins in Spain, similar devices were found throughout Europe, reflecting the grim reality of torture's widespread use during the medieval period. In a time where the confession was prized — whether true or extracted under duress — the Spanish Tickler played its role in dungeons, castles, and inquisition chambers, bringing dark clouds of fear and pain.

The psychology behind such a device wasn't just about the physical pain it inflicted. The very sight of the Spanish Tickler, with its gleaming spikes, was enough to instill terror. The anticipation of its use, the fear of what was to come, often broke the spirit of prisoners even before the actual torture commenced.

In the context of piracy and maritime tales, while the Spanish Tickler wasn’t a mainstay aboard ships, the stories of such torturous devices traveled far and wide. Whispers of its use might have deterred mutiny or kept unruly sailors in line through sheer fear of enduring a similar fate in some distant port or upon capture by adversaries.

As the world transitioned to more modern times, with evolving humanitarian values and legal protections, such overt instruments of torture fell out of favor and were condemned. Today, the Spanish Tickler is remembered as a grim relic, a reminder of humanity's capacity for cruelty and the depths to which justice systems could sink in their quest for power, control, and confessions.

Marked by Fire: The Brutal Tradition of Branding

Branding, a practice as old as human civilization itself, was not just about marking livestock. This searing application of hot iron to flesh was used across the world, from ancient tribes to more recent colonial powers, as a means of marking, punishing, or identifying individuals. It was a ritual that bore both physical and psychological implications, leaving an indelible mark on the soul as much as on the skin.

In the realm of pirates and seafarers, branding held a unique and cruel significance. It was a means to permanently mark deserters or criminals, ensuring that their transgressions were remembered by all who saw them. A branded sailor bore his shame on his skin, a constant reminder of his past mistakes and a warning to others about the consequences of similar missteps.

The actual process of branding was straightforward but agonizing. A piece of metal, often crafted into a specific shape or letter, was heated until it was white-hot. It was then pressed onto the skin, causing instant and severe pain as it burned through flesh, leaving a scar that would remain for life. The smell of singed flesh, the sizzle of the iron, and the victim's screams were all part of the macabre theater of the act.

Branding was not exclusive to pirates or naval forces. Slaves, too, were branded by their owners as a sign of ownership, reducing them to the status of property. In many cultures and societies, branding was employed as a form of judicial punishment. Criminals, particularly repeat offenders, were branded to both punish and to make their criminal status known to the public.

Yet, for all its cruelty, branding was also sometimes adopted voluntarily. Some warriors, both ancient and more contemporary, chose to brand themselves as a rite of passage or as a symbol of belonging to a particular group or brotherhood. This self-imposed branding was seen as a testament to one's courage and commitment.

Over time, as societal norms evolved and the brutal nature of branding became less palatable, the practice began to wane. Modern sensibilities have largely consigned branding to the annals of history, but its legacy lingers. Today, it serves as a powerful reminder of humanity's capacity for cruelty and the lengths societies have gone to in order to mark, control, and punish their members.

Concluding our Cruise Through Pirate Punishments

The world of pirate punishments was as vast and varied as the seven seas they roamed. From the plank's trembling walk to the gruesome grip of the keelhaul, pirates showed an impressive, albeit morbid, creativity in maintaining order. While Hollywood's tales of plank-walking are entertaining, the real stories, like the treasures they sought, often lay far beneath the surface.