History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Did any real pirates wear eyepatches or have peg legs?

Were one-legged pirates a common site on the high seas, or are they a myth of pop culture?

A 17th century sketch of a peg-legged pirate walking with the aid of crutches
Published: January 17, 2022 at 11:20 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Some pirates did sport eyepatches, but not for the reason most people think. The popular misconception is that pirates wore eyepatches so they could already have one eye adjusted to the dark when they went below deck during battle. Indeed, there have been several experiments to see whether the practice works, including those carried out by the US Navy during WW2, and by the TV series MythBusters in 2007, although these were inconclusive.

Advertisement

Regardless, there is no historical evidence to suggest that eyepatches were ever worn for this purpose, and instead, the reality is actually far simpler: patches were used to cover an empty eye socket if the eye was lost to injury. Furthermore, most areas below deck already had natural light courtesy of portholes and lanterns, so it is unlikely there was ever total darkness anyway.


On the podcast: Dr Rebecca Simon responds to your questions on the 17th-century golden age of piracy. Plus, how accurate are pop culture portrayals of pirates?


What about peg legs?

So-called ‘peg legs’ may have been a reality on pirate ships due to the high risk of injuries, but again, there are no eyewitness accounts to suggest anyone wore them. Just like the pirate trope of buried treasure, the popular use of eyepatches and peg legs stems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, , in which Long John Silver has both.

As well as his friend, poet William Henley (who had his left leg amputated due to tuberculosis of the bone), the author was also likely inspired by veterans of the American Civil War, whom he met while travelling around the US. Many of the soldiers were disfigured and therefore had to use the items in their daily lives. Thus, the connection between pirates, eyepatches and peg legs was born.

Advertisement

This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Dr Rebecca SimonHistorian, author and piracy expert

Dr Rebecca Simon is a historian of early modern piracy. She is the author of Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Press, 2020)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content