Though it’s hard to trace the origin of April Fool’s Day, it’s a safe bet it’s not going to go away any time soon. I’d bet my last piece of eight it’s been around for as long as pirates, but I know I’d lose. Just look at the old Greek saying: “When God created the sea, he created pirates.” Now that’s longevity for you.
Did you ever wonder though what it would be like to play an April Fool’s Day prank on a pirate? I suspect it wouldn’t be a very bright idea. And that’s something I would bet my last piece of eight on.
Imagine the surprise pirates might have when they dig for a treasure chest under the hot Caribbean sun, and you finally shout as sweat drips from their faces and necks onto their broad shoulders, “April Fools!” Imagine how many pieces thirty angry pirates can cut you into.
Or imagine some polliwog bringing a jar of termites aboard ship and letting them run up and down a shipmate’s wooden leg as he awakens to you shouting “April Fool!” I bet that prankster would feel like a bigger fool after he’s stripped and tarred with molasses then marooned on a flea-infested island.
It’s not that pirates didn’t have a sense of humor. They often put on little skits to while away their time. Some of these referred to dancing the hempen jig. For the uninitiated, that’s pirate lingo for hanging at the end of a rope. They all chuckled at the prospect, knowing full well that if they stayed in the business long enough, that’s exactly how they were going to end their days.
And I pity the fool who would dare spike a shipmate’s rum with salt water. “April Fool!” he shouts as the victim spits out what was once a perfectly good dram of rum. I bet a day lashed to the main mast without a drop to drink might show the scalawag the error of his ways.
Pirates were rarely a sophisticated lot so they weren’t beyond crude jokes, but I just can’t imagine the saltiest of them laughing off a tack on their seat after a hard day of pillaging and plundering. “You think that’s funny?” the victim snorts? “No, this is funny!” he fumes as he pulls his cutlass from his scabbard and shows the prankster the true meaning of being half-assed.
Of course, most vendettas were actually settled off ship. Two pirates at odds with each other were given the chance to settle their score on an island with either pistols or swords. It’s not hard to imagine the two pacing off ten or twenty steps then turning to fire. And imagine the prankster firing his pistol, only to find nothing happens- – – because friends of the victim loaded it with wet powder. April Fool!
Henry Morgan, the notorious pirate and privateer, pulled off perhaps the biggest prank of all, saving not only his men and himself but his ship as well. After a raid on Maracaibo and Gibralter, he found his fleet trapped in the bay by the fort’s cannons. To make matters worse his escape was blocked by Admiral Alonso de Campos with three ships, 78 cannons, and 500 men.
All day his men rowed ashore, landing men from his ship, then rowed back for more men. And all day long his arch enemy watched as his men made repeated trips unloading more and more men. Realizing he was going to be attacked from the rear, the commander of the fort directed his men to turn the cannons around so they could easily fire on Morgan’s men as they made their assault. He was no one’s fool. Not even Henry Morgan’s.
April Fool! Though it wasn’t even April, Morgan pulled off one of the biggest ruses of his career. Setting fire to one of his own ships, he rammed one of Campos’ thus unblocking the entrance to the harbor. With the cannons of the fort facing the opposite direction, Morgan and his men sailed away with hardly a scratch.
As for the men he landed the previous day? He never landed any men at all. He simply had them lie low in the boats so they couldn’t be seen when the boats returned to his ship supposedly to pick up more men.
So if you’re thinking about playing an April Fool’s Day joke on someone, just make sure it’s not a pirate. They may be a fun loving group, but they do have their limitations.
When I awoke this morning, my first mate’s words were: “Happy April Fool’s Day!” She’s got the cunning and wit of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd combined so I guess I’ll have to wait till next year for any pranks. A pirate forewarned is a pirate forearmed. Happy April Fool’s Day!
The Uncommon Mariner