Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eyepatches and dark places

Since I've been blogging about Mythbusters pirate specials, I thought I would take one last shot at the eyepatch myth.

According to the myth, pirates wore an eyepatch over a good eye so that they could go into darkness without having to wait for their eyes to adjust. The Mythbusters confirmed that this works but ignored the larger question - did pirates do this?

I've pointed out how insane it is to cover one eye when you are in a fight. I've also pointed out that eyepatches were not associated with pirates historically. The association came long after the golden age of pirates ended. Eyepatches aren't even associated with sailors in general.

For my final word (for now) on the issue I am going to question why they would need an eye that is dark-adjusted?

The myth is pretty sketchy about this. The implication is that pirates will be wandering around in dark places where someone might be waiting in ambush. I doubt that anyone who thinks this has ever been on a period ship.

Keep in mind that most pirates tended to attack ships that were weaker than their own and that most pirate ships were on the small side. Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge and the Wydah were unusually large for pirate ships and they weren't that big.

The Queen Anne's Revenge is described as a ship of over 200 tons. This was actually a measure of size. Large barrels were called tuns and, when filled with water or wine, weighed a ton. There were ships larger than that but this is on the large size so I will use it as the upper end of ships that a pirate would be likely to take*.

I am very familiar with three ships in the 100-180 ton range - the Santa Maria (Columbus), the Susan Constant (Jamestown), and the Mayflower (Pilgrims). I have been on these ships several times and I have been in areas closed to the general public.

The Santa Maria only has the main deck and a quarter deck. The Susan Constant and the Mayflower have an extra deck. All three ships have a large hatch that opens onto the hold for loading and unloading cargo. The Queen Anne's Revenge also has the lower deck. See here for a cross-section.

If you take a ship of this size then there will be plenty of light on the lower deck. This was a multi-function deck with one function being a cannon deck. If the ship was in a fight then the cannon ports would be open letting in the sunlight. It would be dimmer than on the main deck but not so dim that you couldn't see. In fact, if you had an eye covered and pulled off the patch then that eye would be blinded.

The same would be true for an cabins on the ship. Cabins were normally located at the stern of the ship and had windows for letting in light and a breeze. Even the Santa Maria's cabin which has solid shutters has plenty of light when the door is open and the shutters are closed.

That leaves the hold.

When a cargo ship is underway the main hatch is covered and battened (a canvas cover would be tied over the hatch cover). Access to the hold would be through smaller hatches which would not let in much light. "Ah Ha", you say. "Here's where they need dark adjusted eyes."

Not necessarily. If you are a pirate and you have just taken a ship which will you do:
  • Lower yourself into a dark hold through the smaller hatches.
  • Throw open the main hatch and see what you just captured.
No self-respecting pirate would feel his way around when he could let in the light. Especially since the captured cargo would be coming out through the main hatch.

What if you see some crew members slipping into the hold to make a final stand? Same thing. Let in the light first. It doesn't take long and you will see better than you could with one dark-adjusted eye.

Notice that when the Mythbusters tested this myth, they didn't use a real ship. They used a darkened warehouse. You could probably have stored the Queen Anne's revenge in that warehouse with room left for the Wydah.

Of course, the Mythbusters weren't trying to examine history. They were trying to fill a show with colorful myths. Too bad that in doing so they spread a new pirate myth.

* I am not including Spanish treasure ships taken by the English Sea Dogs in this. Some of them were much larger than 200 tons but there is no association between eyepatches and the Sea Dogs.

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