Friday, April 4, 2008

The Eyepatch Myth (again)

Mythbusters showed their original pirate episode this week. This included the myth that pirates with normal vision wore an eyepatch so that they could go into a dark room without having to wait for their vision to adjust. The Mythbusters proved that this works but didn't comment on whether pirates actually did this.

I've written about this before but I had a slightly new insight. First I will cover the reasons why I think that this is a myth:

A pirate would want both eyes in a fight. Covering one gives you a literal blind spot and affects depth perception. This will get you killed in a fight.

There are few places on a ship where you need to go into a dark place quickly. The hold is one such place but this overlooks how pirates actually operated. Pirates normally forced the crew of a ship to surrender then spent hours or days ransacking a ship. Someone hiding in the hold might have a long wait and would be fairly ineffective. Someone hiding in the hold, waiting to attack pirates individually as they entered would be quickly discovered and put to a painful death. This would also be one fewer person trying to save the ship in the first place. Any fighters hiding in the hold would be expected to emerge and join in the fight before the crew surrendered. This is how Maynard captured Blackbeard.

I have been collecting books on pirates since the 1980s but I never ran across this myth until Mythbusters ran it. I've been looking through books on piracy since then and I only find it in the newer ones. That makes me think that this is not only a myth, it is a recent on. I'm guessing that it was invented after 2000.

The one place I had run across the idea of using an eyepatch to preserve night vision was in a novel - Not Quite Scaramouche by Joel Rosenburg. In this book, three soldiers are accumulating funds for their retirement by robbing thieves. One of them flashes some money in a tavern while wearing an eyepatch. As soon as he leaves he moves the patch to the other eye and leads the inevitable cutthroats following him into a trap. This book was published in 2001 which is exactly right for my theory.

So my guess is that a fan of Rosenburg speculated that lots of people wore eyepatches to preserve night vision historically. From there it is an easy jump to assume that the group of people associated with eyepatches must have worn them for some reason besides the obvious.


As for eyepatches in general, I have yet to see a contemporary description of a pirate wearing one for any reason. A pirate who lost an eye would be given a lump sum payment and would probably either retire or take a non-combat job. Treasure Island was on the money with Long John Silver becoming a cook after losing a leg.

I might as well mention my theory that image of the pirate with a pegleg is a combination of Long John Silver (on crutches) and Captain Ahab (pegleg but not a pirate).

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