The British Virgin Islands have long been associated with pirates and pirate lore. The channel that runs the length of the island chain is named for Sir Francis Drake, whose exploits, daring and courage in the 1500s almost certainly saved Britain from Spanish domination. Drake sailed through the BVI in 1595 on a mission to attack a Spanish treasure ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He mustered 24 ships in what was later named Drake's Bay, south of Road Town. Whether he was prince or pirate depended on whose side you were on. The British called him a hero, whilst the Spaniards gave him the sobriquet El Draco (The Dragon).
In the early 1700s, the BVI saw many scoundrels and opportunists pass through its waters. Cap'n William Kidd is known to have sailed through the Virgin Islands with a vast treasure on his way back from an expedition in the Indian Ocean. He was later hanged at execution dock in London after failing to produce papers, legal "letters of marque," that may have exonerated him.
"Black Sam" Bellamy led many a foray against innocent ships in the sea lanes around the Virgin Islands, and in Trellis Bay, Bellamy Cay is said to be named after him. His ship, the Whydah, finally met its end on a Cape Cod leeward shore in 1717, the richest pirate ship ever. Only identified in the 1980s, it's still being salvaged today.
Many notorious pirates are said to have plied BVI waters, including the quintessential pirate of all time, Blackbeard. It is a coincidence indeed that he met his end after a bloody hand-to-hand battle on board the deck of his vessel at Ocracoke inlet off North Carolina - the very place where a Spanish galleon ran ashore some 30 years later. Pirates absconded with the huge treasure, which eventually found its way to the BVI's Norman Island.
Dead Man's Chest
The second of the hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, Dead Man's Chest, opened in 2006 to record-breaking attendance and rave reviews. What a lot of people are unaware of is that there is a real Dead Chest Cay, Dead Man's Bay and a hidden treasure chest full of Pieces of Eight. The story unfolds in the British Virgin Islands.
On the south side of the Sir Francis Drake Channel and just to the east of Peter Island is the cay named Dead Chest. In the days of yore, a "dead man's chest" was a coffin. If you look at the outline of the island from the northwest, it indeed resembles a coffin, perhaps containing a shrouded body with raised head. As long ago as the late 1700s, the cay was named Dead Chest and clearly marked on Jeffrey's 18th-century chart of the Virgin Islands. Folklore has it that Blackbeard marooned 15 men on the cay with nothing but a bottle of rum. Some apparently tried to swim the half mile to Peter Island's eastern cove but didn't make it. It's a beautiful palm-lined bay with an ominous name, Dead Man's Bay.
At a much later date, the immortal Robert Louis Stevenson undoubtedly researched events in the area, studying nautical charts - which were his passion - as well as historical events and Caribbean lore. The well-documented piracy of a huge treasure, much of which ended up being buried on Norman Island, most likely provided him with valuable information that culminated in Treasure Island. Dead Chest Cay became immortalized in the book with the famous refrain:
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest -
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest -
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film Dead Man's Chest, and the true story of the piracy, is that both involve treasure chests. In the BVI, a daring piracy led to a cache of treasure being buried on Norman Island in the year 1750. Some 160 years after the event, a treasure chest of Pieces of Eight was discovered in the southernmost cave on the leeward side of the peninsula that culminates at Treasure Point. Mention of it is made in no less than three publications.
It's interesting to note that the second film of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the 2006 Dead Man's Chest - as well as Robert Louis Stevenson's book from 1883, Treasure Island (which inspired more than 50 films) - were phenomenal successes of their time.
It's also amazing that a tiny cay in the British Virgin Islands, Dead Chest Cay, should be featured in such a popular movie. "Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"