Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dispelling Myths: The Pirate Eye Patch

[Johnathan Clayborn]
So, Halloween has ended. On the heels of this holiday I can't help but wonder about some of our social quirks and perceptions. This Halloween, as last year, I dressed up as a pirate, mostly because I was tight on cash and I had the costume handy from before. If I were to ask you to imagine a pirate chances are that most of you would imagine a scraggly, rough-around-the-edges man with eccentric clothes, several belts and bandoleers, large boots, a fancy hat, a sword, a pistol, a good tooth or two and an eye patch. Throughout the day I was asked several times "where's your eye-patch?"  That got me thinking; did pirates really wear eye patches? Or is this just a myth?

I compiled and researched a listing of 281 real life pirates from the ancient Grecian-Roman times until the 21st century. Granted, some of the information is spotty, but what I found interesting was that only one of those pirates had been reported as wearing an eye patch. None of the more prominent ones, including the names that everyone knows; Calico Jack, Black Bart, Blackbeard, Red Beard, Captain Morgan, etc.

The only pirate being recorded as having worn an eye patch is Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, an Arab pirate who sailed in the 1800's. He mostly sailed in the Persian Gulf and was described by an English author as "the most successful and the most generally tolerated pirate, perhaps, that ever infest any sea."

Arguably, he was a very successful and famous pirate, especially in the Arabian lands, however, it seems unlikely that he is the reason that eye patches were associated with pirates. After all, the European countries had many equally notable and successful pirates to choose from. In reality, with 1 of 281 real life pirates wearing an eye patch the frequency of this happening is only 0.36%.

Next I examined a list of 194 fictional pirates from TV shows, movies, novels and cartoons. In this listing there are 8 such pirates who were eye patches or have one eye. while this is an increase of more than 11 times the number of actual pirates with eye patches, it's still only a low 4.12%. But, this has not included a close examination of the most successful pirate franchises yet; Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was no major character who sported an eye patch. In fact, a cursory glance at the extras and supporting actors did not reveal any pirates sporting eye patches, although one pirate does have a wooden eye. The second film, Dead Man's Chest, also does not reveal any pirates with an eye patch (although one of Davy Jones' crews does have an eye covered by a seaweed patch over his left eye. It seems as though this may have been intentional, but it's difficult to tell.) In fact, I did not notice any notable characters sporting an eye-patch in any of the four films. (although, admittedly there may have been the one crewman aboard the Dutchman, I haven't re-watched his transformation scene.)

So, why do we have this notion that pirates should wear eye patches? And with such a low percentage of pirates both real and fictional actually wearing eye patches, where did this association stem from? One common myth is that pirates frequently sustained "battle damage" that necessitated the wearing of an eye patch. Most versions of this theory cite flying splinters as the main cause of ocular trauma.

There is reported evidence of eye injuries occurring while at sea, however, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Most seafaring injuries were broken bones & fractures from falling, crushing injuries from loose cargo, and lacerations and amputations from broken sail lines. Disease and sickness was also a very common ailment.

Thinking about this pragmatically, if ocular injuries did exist they would likely be a hazard of the job. The life of pirates in the so-called Golden Age of Sail is not very well documented. However, they were not the only professional sailors who frequently engaged in battle aboard wooden ships. As such, any injuries sustained by pirates "in the line of looting" should also closely parallel the injuries sustained by the professional military sailors of the Old World whose accounts are more well documented. In examining the lives of over 400 notable naval officers of America, England, France & Spain I could not find any evidence that supports the notion that injuries to the eye were commonplace. And yes, there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that splinters were indeed very lethal aboard ships during combat, but usually the most common splinter injuries were to the torso, legs and arms. Most people use their hands and arms to shield their face in the case of flying debris, so injuries to the eye would have been somewhat mitigated by that action. (And for the record, those splinter injuries that weren't immediately fatal had a tendency to become gangrenous and infected resulting in fever, delirium and eventually death some days or weeks later).

Another common theory about the eye patches is that it is actually a tool utilized by sailors. The theory goes that some crewmen had to go above and below decks quite often. The ambient light levels of the decks was different. The story goes that sailors who went from the brightly-lit above decks down into the dimly-lit below decks would need a few moments for their eyes to adjust. The story goes that pirates could switch the eye-patch from one eye to the other and instantly have better vision. There are a couple of flaws with this story however.

First, consider this photograph: (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_gs2vs7BmTXQ/TBQ0Uh5oloI/AAAAAAAAD-8/p9DbJrSLM5w/s1600/USS+Richmond+Gundeck.jpg). What you are looking at is the gun deck of the American Sloop-of-War, USS Richmond. This photo was taken about the year 1900, before widespread electricity was used in the ships and things were still very much as they did then "in the old days". This particular ship was already forty years old when the photo was taken. Notice that even without electricity the below deck compartments were still lit with an acceptable level of light.

Second, consider the paradox that whatever weapons you attempt to employ in battle to give you an upper hand, your enemy will also try to use against you. It stands to reason that if this were the real reason that pirates wore eye patches, then certainly the enemies of pirates would wear them for the same reason. However, widespread accounts of their use in the Royal Navies of the world at the time are all but absent, suggesting that no tactical advantage was gained from their employment. If anything it would have been more of hindrance. Our brains interpret the signals from both eyes simultaneously as humans are hard-wired with stereoscopic vision. As such, the loss of eyesight in one eye will reduce your ability to accurately judge distance and location (depth perception) making extremely delicate tasks (like shooting or fighting) much more difficult.

Third, the concept of switching eye patches like that is a physiological impossibility. Nerves in your body either transmit or they do not. There is no "step" progression in intensity. If you touch something hot your nerves will fire. If you touch something hotter, the nerves will fire faster (but not more intensely). When one is covered by an eye patch the eye receives no stimuli and as such does not fire at all, this allows the brain to digest the information from the "active" eye. If you immediately transition from intense light to very dim and you try changing eyes your eyes will not function as you think they will. If you don't believe me, try this experiment: go into a dimly lit room. Cover up one eye. Shine a bright light in the uncovered eye. Then, quickly turn off the light and uncover your eye. You will still see a residual "imprint" of the light in the eye that was exposed to the light (even if you cover it up) and the other eye will be momentarily blurry. Why does this happen? As we just discussed more intense sensations have nerves that fire extremely rapidly (as in the case with the eye that had the light in it). When you uncover the other eye the nerves do not fire very rapidly due to the low-light situation. As such the brain becomes confused about which nervous system signal to process and the "weaker eye" won't take over until the brain can sort it out.

So, the association with pirates and eye patches did not come from actual pirates, common battle injuries or a tactical tool, where did this association come from? The answer must be in the fictional pirates. Examining the 8 fictional pirates we find a plausible answer. In 1997 Captain Ishmael Squint appeared in the Jumanji cartoon series. The debut of the Star Fox video game in 1993 featured two different one-eyed pirates. 1991 also featured a one-eyed pirate in the James Bond, Jr. cartoon series. One fictional pirate that I'm readily familiar with is the infamous "One-Eyed Willie" from the 1985 cult classic movie, the Goonies. There was an Italian comic book called Zagor that featured a one-eyed pirate in 1961. Two of the pirates I was not able to find a year for; the "Buccaneer Beer" trademark of the Van Steenberge Brewery in Belgium, and "One-Eyed Jane" from a story called "the Wicked Travels of One-Eyed Jane." I've personally never heard of either of these two. However, there is still one pirate who remains...

1883 was the first year that the book Treasure Island was published. (before that it was a series of mini-stories published in a magazine between 1881-1882). It's been cited as one of the most frequently dramatized novels. Not only was it an extremely popular book in it's own right, it's also been made into movies or TV movies more than 50 times. As if that wasn't enough it's been adapted into a play or a radio play more than 24 times as well.

Based on all of this information it seems obvious that the all of the modern pirate stereotypes come not from actual pirates, but rather from one specific fictional story that managed to capture the hearts and minds of the people. It kind of makes me wonder what else I think I know...

Ellis, N., Bloor, M., & Sampson, H. (2010). Patterns of seafarer injuries. Maritime Policy & Management, 37(2), 121-128. doi:10.1080/03088830903533742
Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A., Reisburg, D. (2004) Psychology (6th ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN-13: 0-393-97767-6
Israels II, J. (1944). They Couldn't Call the Doctor. Saturday Evening Post, 216(50), 72.


  1. Here's one thing to consider. All of the real life well known pirates that you list are (quite obviously) the ship captains, and your theorizing does not take the remainder of their crew into account. I would think that splinters and shrapnel from enemy cannon fire would affect the crew much more than the captain...presumably the captain would be at the helm in order to oversee the battle.

    Since the full crew would have boarded enemy vessels, it is entirely possible that survivors would have seen several with eye patches and went on to tell the tale that most pirates wore them, even if the captains did not.

    In regard to your paragraph regarding switching the eye patch from one eye to the other in low light situations, the mythbusters actually performed this exact test a couple of years ago and found it to be plausible.

    In the control, Adam stood outside in the sun for awhile, and then tried to navigate a maze in near darkness, breaking several of the glasses (iirc) that were setup as obstacles.

    Next, Adam donned an eye patch over one eye as he stood outside for several minutes. When he entered the maze, he switched the eye patch over and performed many times better. He couldn't believe how much of a difference it actually made in how quickly he was able to adjust to a low light scenario.

  2. In an unexpected companion to the above comment, a bright photo can be taken of a room with very little light by increasing the amount of time the film or sensor is exposed to the light.

    If you have access to a DSLR, a quick experiment where you take a photo of a darkened room (there must be some light of course) at 7 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 30 seconds should show the technique well enough.

    Having said that, the photo below deck used in your example may appear well lit, but could in reality be quite dark. The only way to know in this case would be to visit, or perhaps to get an actual account from someone who has.

  3. @Bryan: I admit that I missed that episode of Mythbusters. I do really enjoy watching them, even they don't always perform their experiments in a completely scientific fashion.

    I do know from my physiology classes in my psychology program that the brain does handle electrical impulses in the fashion described. However, I also know that the brain is able to sort out the disparity in the signals relatively quickly, so I can see how it would be plausible.

    And yes, I fully agree with you that of all of the pirates aboard a ship the captain was the least likely to be injured by flying shrapnel and splinters, and those crews who manned the guns would be the most likely to be injured. I did consider that factor in my research, however, I still maintain the argument that it's not likely. The primary reasons that I'll cite are fact that: a) most splinter injuries aboard a ship were fatal, b) most people who see things (like cannonballs) flying at them will attempt to cover the eyes from the blast, and c)if pirates sustained these injuries, then the sailors of regular navies would have sustained them in combat as well, and I didn't find any examples of that. But, you do bring up valid points. At some point I'll do a secondary article and see what specific details I can find about historical accounts, etc and see if there are any period pieces of documentation that support the claim that pirates wore eye patches.

  4. @w/o Sin: You, sir, are quite correct. Even without a DSLR it's very easy to use a program like Photoshop to lighten a room that is otherwise very dark. I do that for travel pictures and old family photos all of the time.

    I have no doubt that the ballast decks, cargo holds and other parts of the ship below the gun decks were probably quite dark. However, pirates (or sailors in general) would not have needed to go below decks on a regular basis, especially during battle.

    I did serve in the Navy for a few months before receiving a medical discharge. While I was there we learned about naval history and combat. I never got to aboard an old-time ship while I was in the Navy, however, I have been to California several times over the last few years. There are a couple of tall ships that frequent the harbors periodically, including one that's permanently moored at Dana Point harbor. If you ever get a chance to go aboard and you have an interest in old ships, I strongly recommend it as it's an awesome experience in and of itself. When you go the gun deck and the gun ports are closed, it can be quite dark. But once they open up the gun ports, there's actually a decent amount of light.

    I also would this question in return; if there was a tactical advantage to be gained by covering one eye when going from one deck to another, why was this technique not employed by the Royal Navies of England, Spain or France? These fleets engage in far more battles than pirates. It seems to me that they would want every tactical advantage that they could gain. They certainly tried some interesting techniques (like Sir Francis Drake's fire ships). If you could offer a plausible explanation as to why the pirates wore them, but the other professional sailors did not, I would certainly consider that and see what evidence exists in relation to that theory.

  5. Please tell me where you found a pirate who wears an eyepatch in the novel of Treasure Island. It certainly isn't Long John Silver.
    --Lee Gold


These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.