Pirates of Penzance puzzle – what year is it?

The setting of today's blog post is The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan's musical about making sure you read the fine print.

The scene opens with a birthday celebration for Frederic, who has just turned 21 and completed his pirate apprenticeship.

SAM.    For today our pirate 'prentice
        Rises from indenture freed;
    Strong his arm, and keen his scent is
        He's a pirate now indeed!

ALL.    Here's good luck to Frederic's ventures!
        Frederic's out of his indentures.

SAM.    Two and twenty, now he's rising,
        And alone he's fit to fly,
    Which we're bent on signalizing
        With unusual revelry.


KING.  Yes, Frederic, from to-day you rank as a full-blown member of our band.

Frederic, however, is a fine upstanding young man with no taste for piracy; he served this long only because he was contractually obligated.

FRED.  To-day I am out of my indentures, and to-day I leave you for ever.
SAM.  We don't seem to make piracy pay.  I'm sure I don't know why, but we don't.
FRED.  I know why, but, alas! I mustn't tell you; it wouldn't be right.
KING.  Why not, my boy?  It's only half-past eleven, and you are one of us until the clock strikes twelve.

Reinforcement of the fact that (as of today) Fred is now twenty-one:

FRED.  Ruth, I will be quite candid with you.  You are very dear to me, as you know, but I must be circumspect. You see, you are considerably older than I. A lad of twenty-one usually looks for a wife of seventeen.

Fred is well on his way to wiping out his former employers when they track him down and point out a technicality in the contract:


For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don't know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February, twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence -- I shouldn't be surprised if it were owing to the agency of an ill-natured fairy --
You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year, on the twenty-ninth of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you'll easily discover,
That though you've lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays, you're only five and a little bit over!


FRED.  (more amused than any)  How quaint the ways of Paradox!
    At common sense she gaily mocks!
    Though counting in the usual way,
        Years twenty-one I've been alive,
    Yet, reckoning by my natal day,
        I am a little boy of five!

RUTH and KING.    He is a little boy of five! Ha! ha! ha!


FRED.  Upon my word, this is most curious -- most absurdly whimsical. Five-and-a-quarter!  No one would think it to look at me!
RUTH.  You are glad now, I'll be bound, that you spared us. You would never have forgiven yourself when you discovered that you had killed two of your comrades.
FRED.  My comrades?
KING.  (rises)  I'm afraid you don't appreciate the delicacy of your position:   You were apprenticed to us --
FRED.  Until I reached my twenty-first year.
KING.  No, until you reached your twenty-first birthday (producing document), and, going by birthdays, you are as yet only five-and-a-quarter.

Shocked, Fred goes to confess to his sweetheart Mabel, portrayed in this picture by Marion Hood:


FRED.    No, Mabel, no.  A terrible disclosure
    Has just been made. Mabel, my dearly-loved one,
    I bound myself to serve the pirate captain
    Until I reached my one-and-twentieth birthday --
MABEL.    But you are twenty-one?
FRED.        I've just discovered
    That I was born in leap-year, and that birthday
    Will not be reached by me till nineteen forty!

MABEL.    Oh, horrible!  Catastrophe appalling!

This brings us to the point.  Calculate the following:

  1. In what year was Frederic born?
  2. With as much accuracy as possible, specify the date and time of the opening scene.
Comments (3)

  1. GregM says:

    1. 1852

    2. 11:30 PM, February 28th, 1873

  2. Ed Fell says:

    1873 is not possible – the Major General can whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore, which opened in 1878.

    1. Nacho says:

      GregM’s answers are correct (if 1940 is accurate) and the Pinafore reference is merely an anachronistic mention for the setting of the play.

      If Frederic would have his 21st birthday in 1940, that means it would be the year he turned 88. Why 88 and not 84 (which would be 21×4)? Because there wasn’t a February 29th in 1900.

      Even *if* the fact that 1900 wouldn’t have a leap day had been forgotten, 1877 would be the setting of the play and would still be too early for Pinafore.

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