Rum, Piracy, and the famous shanty that no pirate sang

Originally posted 29 December 2012

One has to have a sneaking admiration for the people who invent tourist attractions, for their great creativity if for no other reason. Tourists who visit the British West Indies are told exciting lies about a barren, inhospitable islet named Dead Chest that lies off the coast of Peter Island. Here, they are told, is where Blackbeard cruelly marooned several members of his crew, leaving them with a cutlass and a bottle of rum each. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either the pirates killed each other until only one man was left alive, or they were picked up days later with the rum gone but all of the men alive. The tale goes on that a famous author visited the area later gathering material for a book and worked the story into a song.

The truth is a bit more prosaic. In 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who never visited the Caribbean, wrote Treasure Island and burnished the stereotype of the rum-crazed, profligate pirate : “[W]hen a cruise is done, why, it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.” Stevenson also gave the world the most famous sea chantey that no real pirate ever sang:

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil be done with the rest, Yo ho ho and a bottle or rum!

Dead Chest does have a connection to Treasure Island, though – Stevenson saw the name on a map and thought it sounded interesting, so he used it for his song. As to whether Blackbeard was ever there, it’s unlikely – the man did do a lot of traveling around the Caribbean, but an island with no trees, water, or anything else worth plundering would not be a likely stop for him.