Eye-Eye, Cap’n!

Perusing the most interesting Lifehacker blog yesterday, I came across mention of a suggestion that pirates’ eye-patches were used to preserve night vision when moving between the deck and interior of a ship. It’s one I’ve heard before, and Wikipedia refers to it in more general, nautical terms. The first listed source is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though I can’t find any entry entitled ‘Eye Eye Matey’. The redundant section immediately below references the Mythbusters episode where they tried it out, and found it to be plausible enough. As that last link shows though, there is no actual historical precedent for the idea.

This led me to consider where the pirate/eye-patch thing did in fact come from.

Here I will direct readers to the rather good Athenaeum Electronica blog, which has covered this very issue in some detail. I broadly agree with their concluson that our modern and specific association with pirates most likely originates with the classic 1950 movie version of ‘Treasure Island’, as depictions of patched-up pirates are few and far between prior to that.

However, I think there’s more to it than that, something that the great post linked above has missed by limiting his research to pirates specifically. The one-eyed, peg-legged sailor is actually an older trope, used to imply the rough and dangerous life of a naval seaman or officer; see the early C19th cartoon reproduced here, this 1851 fictional description of veterans at the Greenwich Hospital (complete with ‘iron hooks’!), or this 1828-dated fictional use of a ‘factitious leg and black eye patch’. Whilst these injuries may not have been as ubiquitous in reality as the stereotype implied, they would have been fairly common amongst veterans of all services, and sadly are again common today thanks to the Afghan and Iraq wars. And sailors could still find work with a missing eye, as Samuel Johnson’s diary shows. The skillset of a seaman was far more valuable to a ship’s captain than his depth perception. In any case, direct injury wasn’t the only threat to one’s eye; disease too was a serious problem.

I would also note that the line between historical pirates and other sailors was less clear in the past, what with the prize money system and letters of marque. Today’s sailors have nothing in common with their piratical counterparts.

This being so, consider this Punch illustration from 1896:

Perhaps it was intended to reference the fairly-recently (1883) published ‘Treasure Island’, but given the inclusion of a sailor’s hat, I have a feeling that it’s really a continuation of the ‘disabled seaman/old sea dog’ trope that’s still going today, independent of (or perhaps interdependent with) things piratical. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t just create the idea from whole cloth. He designed Long John Silver’s appearance to be familiar to the audience – not necessarily as a pirate, but as a grizzled sailor.

I realise International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a way off, but be sure to include an eye-patch in your Pirate Regalia…

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5 Responses to “Eye-Eye, Cap’n!”

  1. Johnathan Clayborn Says:

    Thanks for the nod to my blog and the kind remarks. I readily concur with your more thorough assessment. This was a topic that I had intended to research further, but my time was limited. I had intended to follow it up with another article at some point, one that had whatever manner of statistical data as could be found on sailors injuries from the Golden Age of Sail. I do think it extremely likely that the eye patch, when it was actually worn, was worn as a medical aparatus for sailors who lost an eye. I do not agree with the Mythbusters, as much as I like them, in the notion that it had any manner of tactical advantage. As a cursory study of the history of warfare shows, any technology that garnered a genuine tactical advantage would soon be adopted by the opposing side. With as low-tech as eyepatches are if they were a tactical tool then surely they would have proliferated the sailors of the Royal Navy and there would be some mention of their proper uses in maritime manuals of old. Great posting, and nice attention to detail.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi Johnathan,

      Many thanks, it’s much appreciated. I only recently realised that my comments haven’t been working, so I’m glad I was able to fix that before you attempted to comment.

      I enjoy Mythbusters a lot, but they do tend to look at things too much in isolation. I miss the folklorist they used to employ…

      Best,

      BSH

  2. Johnathan Clayborn Says:

    Also, just in case you’re not being sarcastic here, you won’t find anything in nautical lore labelled under “eye-eye”….at least nothing credible anyway. The sailors actually said “aye, aye” whose etymology can be traced back to the year 1200 with the Old English word “aye” meaning, “always ever”. Essentially it I was another way of saying “yes” or “I agree/I understand”. ..but I have a feeling you probably knew that already.😉

  3. Neil Howlett Says:

    I agree that the pirate eyepatch is part of the image of the pirate type. I suggest that stage representations may have played a part in that. It provides a quick and easy visual signal., that go with the wooden leg etc.
    I can’t trace this fully but would cite for example the representation of the Beggar King Clause in The Wits (1662) which clearly makes use of the traditional false leg trick. Indeed, add an eyepatch and a cutlass and King Clause becomes a pirate.
    In later incarnations Clause acquires the surname “Patch” though I think that has nothing to with eyes, but is merely another symbol of poverty.
    See http://www.beggarsbush.org.uk/francis-kirkman-the-lame-commonwealth-in-the-wits-1662-1673/
    Neil Howlett

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