Burning the Boats
A wilful action that makes retreat impossible, to enforce the commitment of the affected.

(permanent link) added: 2013-05-30 12:10:04 sponsor: LordGro (last reply: 2014-06-15 22:20:57)

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"When he reached the New World, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well-motivated."
Captain Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October

"Burning your boats/your ships" means doing something that makes it impossible for yourself to turn back, especially if it is done wilfully and without necessity.

The idiom derives from centuries-old legends about conquerors who, upon landing an army in enemy country, supposedly ordered the invasion fleet to be burnt. Most people today have heard this tale about Hernán Cortés (which incidentally is a case of something similar happening in reality), but the story is in fact centuries older than Cortez and has been attached to various historical military leaders, often without any basis in fact. Obviously there are other ways to wreck ships which are just as good, but burning is preferred because it's the most picturesque.

The reason behind such an act is the expectation that everyone affected-–an actual army intent on conquest, or any party pursuing a risky undertaking–-will show maximum commitment if everyone knows that retreat is impossible. There isn't any use in holding back or playing it safe when there is no exit option to fall back on. Desertion or mutiny is futile if there is no hope of escape. Dissenters are silenced when there are no choices left to argue over, and everyone's best hope of survival lies in cooperation for the common success. From now on, it's do or die for everyone–-accomplish the mission, or face death or captivity.

Depending on the situation and the kind of enterprise at hand, there are many other ways of achieving the same effect, such as:
  • Destroying a bridge after crossing it.
  • Throwing away vital supplies, like food or fuel, so the only way to avoid catastrophe is to get one's hands on the enemy's supplies.
  • Destroying irreplacable equipment needed for the return journey.
  • Not even the physical destruction of something is necessary: For example, a group of people who intend to commit treason of some sort may send a message confessing their defection to the betrayed faction, making it impossible for anyone who gets cold feet to turn back to their old master and evade punishment.

An act like this can be unilaterally ordered by a leader, or agreed on as a collective decision. It may be justified in various ways, but it always hints at internal conflicts within the party that is thus bound to a common objective: Usually it is done precisely because the initiatiors of a Boat Burning do not trust in the loyalty or the morale of the rest of the group in the face of heavy odds. Objecting to a Boat Burning is hard, as it may lead to being called a coward or even traitor. When it is done by one or a few characters without consulting the rest of the group first, it amounts to coercing the group into a course of action they might not have chosen from their own free will.

Characters who order or initiate a Boat Burning are often morally ambivalent: Shining heroes do not force people to fight or put the lives of their followers or companions at needless risks. On the other hand, even bad guys that Burn their Boats can earn some respect from the audience, because it proves they do not intend to save their own lives in the case of failure. Characters who Burn their Boats are therefore often Anti-Heroes, Anti-Villains, or Villain Protagonists.

Contrary to what many motivational trainers may tell you, this is only very rarely done by military commanders in real life. Strategists do not usually like to take needless risks or do things that decrease their options of action without necessity.

This trope often leads up to a Big Badass Battle Sequence, which will more than likely end in a Last Stand. Also contrary to what motivational trainers like to claim, it is not a guarantee for success. What is fairly certain is that one side will suffer utter defeat.

Compare and contrast Let The Past Burn, which is mostly a symbolic action which doesn't affect anyone except yourself. If an employee quits his/her job in a way that makes sure they can't ever go back again to their old workplace, that's Take This Job And Shove It. Throw the Sheath Away is a distant relative.


  • The Silmarillion: After the Noldorin Elves led by Fëanor have crossed over from Aman to Middle-earth on the ships they stole from the Telerin Elves, Fëanor orders them to burn all the ships. He does this to prevent any of his followers from saying Screw This, I'm Outta Here!, and especially to make sure they can't help rest of the Noldor get to Middle-earth.
  • In book three of the Codex Alera, Sarl, the Canim commander, burns the Canim fleet to order to prevent the warriors under his command who are there under duress from fleeing back home.

  • Manowar's "Heart of Steel" features a few lines about just this trope.
Burn the bridge behind you
Leave no retreat
There's only one way home
Those who laugh and crowd the path
And cut each other's throats
Will fall like melting snow

Mythology and Tradition
  • After crossing the Huang He into hostile Quin territory in 208 BC, Xiang Yu of Chu supposedly ordered his army to sink the boats, as well as to pack only supplies for three days and to destroy the rest, along with the cooking utensils. This meant that they could neither go back, nor avoid starvation except by conquering the supplies of the enemy. The traditional wording of the order, "Break the kettles and sink the boats!" (破釜沉舟), are a Chinese idiom.
  • A legend about Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber general who conquered the Visigothic kingdom of Spain, says that he had his fleet burned after landing his army at Gibraltar in 711. This version is first mentioned only in the 12th century by the geographer al-Idrisi.
  • In Nibelungenlied (adventure 25) Hagen ferries the entire Burgundian army across the Danube into the realm of the Huns, then hacks the boat to pieces and cast it into the river. Asked why he did that, he replies he wishes that any deserters who might turn back should drown in the river. A little later he reveals that three river-women have already predicted that they will all die in Hunland.
  • In the "Greenlandic Lay of Atli" of the Poetic Edda, the Niflungs do not fasten the boat in which they have rowed to Hunland, a hint that they already know that they will not return.
  • According to The Battle of Magh Tuireadh, the Tuatha Dé Danann burnt their ships upon landing in Ireland to challenge the Fir Bolg for one half of the island.
  • Styrbjorn in "The Tale of Styrbjorn" has his fleet burnt after sailing up the Fyris River to Uppsala to challenge his uncle Erik for the kingship.

Video Games
  • In Warcraft III Arthas Menethil led his troops to Northrend to capture Mal'Ganis. While Arthas was out of the basecamp, a messenger from Arthas' father King Terenas arrived with orders for the men to retreat. When Arthas returned to find his men preparing to leave, he had their boats burnt to force them to go on, then blamed it on the mercenaries he hired for the job.

Real Life
  • After sailing from Cuba to Mexico in 1519, Hernán Cortés had eight of his eleven ships beached and disassembled. Cortés, who acted in defiance of the orders of his superior, governor Diego Velázquez of Cuba, had just before put down a mutiny of soldiers loyal to Velázquez and feared that the same might happen again as long as the ships allowed a fast return to Cuba. The details of the decision are murky: While Cortés himself wrote to Emperor Charles V that he alone gave the orders under the pretense that the ships were no longer seaworthy, sparing only the ships the crews of which he considered reliable, the eyewitnesses Bernal Díaz and Andres de Tapia later claimed that the destruction of the ships was decided after a general discussion. Francisco de Montejo and Alonso Portocarrero, messengers of Cortés that were sent to Spain immediately after the event, claimed that the ships really had been unseaworthy. The misconception that Cortés burned (all of) his ships is old, being first mentioned in 1546.

Non-Military Examples:

  • At the end of The Bounty Fletcher Christian has the Bounty burned, to make sure that everyone understands the mutineers are committed to living on Pitcairn Island and to prevent anyone from trying to get back to Tahiti or England. (Real Life demonstrated how this tactic can backfire. When an American whaling ship stumbled on the island 19 years later and solved the mystery of the lost HMS Bounty, only one mutineer was left alive, along with several women and children. The other mutineers and the Tahitian men that went with them had all killed each other off.)
  • In the first Jaws, Quint destroys the radio when Brodie tries to call for help, and later appears to deliberately burn out his engine so they can't escape their final confrontation with the shark.
  • In the film of The Hunt for Red October, Marko Ramius, captain of a submarine carrying nuclear missiles, sends a letter to the CO of the Soviet Navy stating that he and his command staff are defecting. When his staff officers ask him why he did it, he cites the example of Cortes' destruction of his ships.

  • In Belgarath the Sorceror, Riva orders the ships that carried the settlers to the Isle of the Winds burned. He knows it will take a lot of hard work to build the fortress-city, and he doesn't want anyone deciding it's too much work and leaving.
  • The Hunt for Red October: Marko Ramius, captain of a submarine carrying nuclear missiles, sends a letter to the CO of the Soviet Navy stating that he and his command staff are defecting. When his staff officers ask him why he did it, he cites this trope.
  • In The Shining, Jack Torrance, who is slowly being possessed by the evil spirits in the Overlook Hotel, disables their ham radio (their only means of calling for help) and disables their snowmobile (their only means for escape).
  • In Honor Harrington, the original colonists to Grayson wrecked their starship's cryonics equipment, ensuring that it would be impossible to return to the "sinful" Earth. They didn't wreck the whole thing, though, which is fortunate because it turned out that the planet was basically one huge Superfund site and there's no way they would have survived without the ship's resources.

Live-Action TV
  • In an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Sisko and Bashir come across a group of space Luddites who crash-landed on a planet ten years ago, which destroyed their only means of escape, and have forsaken all modern technology. It turns out the leader of the group and her son had secretly sabotaged the ship so it would crash and are keeping a technology-blocking device going so that nobody on the planet can use any technology.
  • In The Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave For Home", Captain Benteen tries in vain to destroy the rescue ships from Earth because he wants to remain in control of the people on the asteroid.

Tabletop Games
  • In the history of the Tuala Morn setting of Fantasy Hero, the ancestors of the Tualans were refugees hunting for a new homeland. Once they decided to settle in Tuala Morn, their leader scuttled their ships as a sacrifice to the sea gods, thanking them for their aid.

Western Animation
  • In one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Mr. Krabs throws away the entire fridge on the boat he, Spongebob and Squidward are on trying to get Mr. Krabs' millionth dollar back from the clam that ate it, with the words: "Now understand each other. Nobody eats until we get my millionth dollar back."

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