Pirates have played a big role in both fact and fiction throughout history. While there are plenty of reasons to take a deep dive into the information pool about these swashbuckling raiders—today, we are going to focus solely on their looks—specifically, their famous eye patches. Indeed, portrayals of pirates almost always include at least one who proudly wears an eye patch—but why is that? Did these adventurous sea rats really suffer that many eye injuries in the 1600s? Well, there are a few theories out there, so let’s plunge into them, shall we?
A Badge of Honor
The typical assumption as to why pirates are often portrayed with eye patches is that they historically used them to cover up an injured eye—one that was either lost or maimed in a fight. The cause of such an injury isn’t difficult to imagine: One pirate overtakes a rival’s ship or another disrespects someone’s mother, and the pointy swords go flying. In fact, one early example of an eye patch-wearing pirate is a man named Rahmah ibn Jabir Al Jalahimah, who—after losing an eye—sported an eye patch for most of his exciting career raiding and pillaging on the open seas.
A Different Take
A different theory that has cropped up posits that pirates used eye patches in order to acclimate their eyes to darkness—for example, if they suddenly had to enter a dark area of the ship. Just maybe, the theory goes, a pirate is roaming the deck in bright sunlight and unexpectedly needs to engage in a battle below deck (or perhaps he just needs to decompress in the crew’s quarters). But is there any merit to this idea or is it just fool’s gold, so to speak?
First, here’s a quick and dirty explanation Scientific American Magazine offers. The human eye has two different kinds of photoreceptors—cones and rods—that detect light. Cones handle bright light during the day, while rods operate best at night in dim light. Now, when your eyes suddenly go from dealing with bright light to virtually none at all, it takes a lot longer for the rods to adjust. And until your eyes adjust, you have to rely on the less helpful cones in order to see in the dark. In fact, full adjustment can take up to 20 or 30 minutes if you’re coming from a very bright setting. And if someone is trying to stick a sword in your belly, that’s time you don’t have.
So, would an eye patch actually help to speed up this adjustment process? Well, an eye patch blocks out light so that the eye it covers is consistently acclimated to the dark, thereby improving the eye’s brightness adjustment response time and making the gloomy area below deck far less daunting. This is also a method that pilots have used when flying in order to combat poor night vision.
This theory was given even more weight after the popular TV show Mythbusters decided to test its validity. The show’s hosts had to complete a series of tasks in various settings that ranged from brightly lit to utterly dark. In one trial, their eyes were totally unacclimated. In the other, they used an eye patch while in the light. Interestingly, their working speed nearly doubled when they had the assistance of the eye patch to acclimate their eye. In the end, they ruled the myth “plausible.”
However, just because something is plausible or even logical doesn’t mean that it’s true. While the explanation of light acclimation has been floating around for a decent stretch of time, there is no concrete evidence to back this theory up, as no recorded instance of a pirate using an eye patch for this purpose exists.
It’s possible that pirates didn’t wear eye patches as often as popular culture depicts. Beyond Rahmah ibn Jabir Al Jalahimah, not many other pirates are recorded as having worn them. The idea that this was a regular part of the pirate outfit probably became prominent because of novel and movie depictions. These early visuals of the modern era influenced how we came to see pirates in a cycle that has become self-perpetuating.
No Copyright Here
Of course, pirates did not have a monopoly on wearing eye patches within their time period, making it even more curious that they are so tied to this particular look. Indeed, patches seemed to have been a fairly common device used to cover up lost or injured eyes, even making their way into royal circles. Ana de Mendoza was a Spanish aristocrat who is presented in many portraits with an eye patch, which she wore to cover her supposed blindness in one eye. Sir Francis Bryan, also known as the Vicar of Hell and a favorite of King Henry VIII, sported an eye patch that is depicted in TV shows and novels about the Tudors. Yes, quite a few non-pirate characters donned the famous piece of fabric.
If the eye patch was not particular to pirates, it’s difficult to explain why it has since become so synonymous with them. However, it may have been adopted in popular culture as an intentional style choice to make them appear more menacing on screen. (Think Darryl Hannah from Kill Bill with her nurse-themed eyepatch.) To quote fashion designer Rachel Zoe, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” And the eye patch says, “I got poked with the business end of a sword and won.” Indeed, that’s a worthy biography for someone who spends their life in the ship-robbing business.
So, where does this leave us? Well, unless we discover some old piece of writing from Captain Scalawag laying out his scientific method for combatting mutinous crewmen in the ship’s underbelly, we will probably never get a definitive answer. It’s fair—though perhaps dissatisfying—to say that pirates have certainly been depicted this way for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say that it’s a classic combination of eye injuries and old Hollywood. Anyway, let’s cuddle up on the couch to watch Pirates of the Caribbean and be thankful we are outside the screen and away from all those swords.