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