Were Pirates More Prone to being on the Wrong Side of Mayhem?

Popular culture and cliche often illustrate the traditional seafaring pirate as possessing an eye-patch, a hook, and/or a pegleg.

Neither contemporary naval officers nor landlubbing brigands are as typically depicted as so physically savaged by misadventure.

Is there any statistical correlation between real pirates and missing anatomies to lend credibility to such misshapen characters?

Or is this an example of a hollywood screenwriter’s shortcut, to more quickly create a character?

Both the hook and the peg leg cliche’s are from fiction: Peter Pan and Treasure Island respectively. The eye patch I don’t know, although losing an eye would have been an occasional consequence of living a violent life, and is fictionally a feature of rogues in general, not just pirates. In an era when amputation was about the only treatment for a badly mangled limb, peg legs and hooks were to be found among former soldiers and sailors fairly frequently. But any pirate maimed badly enough to lose a limb would almost certainly have to retire from an active career of freebooting.

I read about one pirate who was so fucked up that he had two peg legs, two hooks for hands, and two eye patches. He also carried a parrot on each shoulder. When he died, the other pirates used him for spare parts.

Basically, it’s a cliche. However, by the nature of their trade pirates would be at more risk of injury than most other mariners, since they would be more frequently in conflict, whether with their victims, the authorities, or other pirates.

But as Lumpy says, once a pirate was maimed his buccaneering days would have been over. I can’t think of any authentic historical pirates who were known for missing appendages or eyes.

The eyepatch was a feature common to navigators, even civilian ones. Navigation in the age of sail required sighting celestial objects, often the Sun, through some sort of astrolabe (sextant, octant, etc.). The eye used for this eventually became good for nothing but sighting the Sun.

Workers on sailing ships in general were quite susceptible to injuries that would result in loss of limbs. Fingers or limbs caught in ropes, struck by heavy anchor cables or the massive wooden tiller, etc. A cannonball striking a wooden ship would send large splinters of wood flying across the ship, with great damage to eyes. And the only medical treatment offered by of most ‘ships surgeons’ was amputation.

Also, the general state of hygene (lack of water for washing, constantly damp clothes, shoes, hammocks) tended to result in a lot of infections in minor cuts & wounds, and ulcers/bed sores. With the lack of an effective treatment for such, they often progressed to serious enough cases that the surgeon was called in to operate (‘amputate’). And stupid regulations led to sailors postponing any treatment for minor injuries until they became serious (and often too late to be effectively treated). For example, regulations that sailors on sick call were reduced in pay, and (most important) were denied the daily grog/rum ration given to sailors.

So sailors in general had more missing legs, hands, & fingers than other people. And on pirate ships, the state of medical care was probably even worse than on other shops. (What legitimate doctor would choose to set up practice on a pirate ship?) Thus pirates were even more likely than sailors in general to have hooks, peglegs, & missing eyes.

t-bonham has already vividly described the hazards of the typical ordinary sailor’s life. Landlubbing brigands and naval officers were spared these, the former because they were landlubbers, the latter because they were officers (and gentlemen) and didn’t do the hands-on work the sailors did.

And don’t forget the power of literary convention. Linking deformity and evil is an old convention; think of Shakespeare’s Richard III (the historical Richard was not a hunchback). Think of all the witches in fiction; how many are not old and ugly?

If only I wasn’t moving I’d be able to access my books and give you more reliable cites. Pop culture isn’t all that far from the truth in this case. In Captain Charles Vane’s book “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates” first published in 1724 he describes one sailor aboard a pirate ship who does indeed have a wooden leg. Also, the Royal Navy employed disabled sailors as sea cooks (Long John Silver was employed as a sea cook for the Hispaniola in the book). In addition to the dangerous work that would cost a finger or a hand they had to contend with scurvy and would likely be missing several teeth. Johnny Depp they were not. The ships that had articles, an article being the rules they would all abide by, they often included a workmans compensation plan paying crewmembers a specific amount of money should they lose an eye, leg, arm, or hand, with right limbs being worth more than left limbs.

I don’t recall ever coming across any pirate with a hook in place of a hand. Thus far I have to credit J.M. Barrie for that image. To answer your question, I think it’s both a shortcut to create a character as well as having a core of truth to it.


Britain’s most famous naval officer, Admiral Nelson, was notably undersupplied in the arm and eye department for much of his career … it’s by no means just the pirates who suffered.

Captain Ahab’s peg-leg predates Long John Silver’s by a good thirty years, and it’s unlikely that Stevenson was familiar with Melville’s poorly selling, critically ignored novel when he penned his pirate adventure.

Well, it can be explained by the fact that, as a person ages their physical attributes become weaker, but their mental faculties become stronger, enhancing their spellcasting ability. Hence, young, strong warriors and old, decrepit spellcasters.
[sub]Well, according to the D&D rules, anyway …[/sub]

Hey. I was about to say that.

And I was in Oxford last week.


A couple of cites. I realize that neither of those attributes it to any primary source, so that might not be the best answer, but most of the other Google hits seem to be quoting the Wiki article.

I concede that the sites that you cite support what you say about eyesight damage from taking sights. And I have no expertise in the area.

But I still doubt that this was a significant problem, for a couple reasons:

  1. As understand it, the user of a sextant is not looking directly at the sun. Instead, he is looking at an image of the sun reflected (once or more) in tiny mirrors. (I suppose that doesn’t rule out damage completely, but:)

  2. If it were common problem, there’d be more out there, via google. (Naval officers repeatedly took sun sights, sometimes many times a day. They started doing so as 12-year old midshipmen. If sextant use could cause eye damage, they’d all be in eyepatches.)

Inadvertent smilie. Sorry.

Long John Silver was missing a leg, but he didn’t have a peg leg - he used a crutch.

. . . I thought the thread title was a whoosh until I realized it was equating “wrong side” with “losing side.”