For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers.
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–and understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017.
“[B]y which Means we were in hopes to have out-sailed the Privateers, but one them still came up with us; which we were preparing to engage, when the Seamen came to me in a Body, and told me they would not fight, by Reason they said they did not understand there was any Provision made for them, in case they were wounded; that if they lost a Leg or an Arm, they must be Beggars all their Life after.”
So wrote Capt. Nathaniel Uring, commanding the “Packet-Boat” Prince George (a swift frigate used for mail, passengers, and light cargo), of his crew’s response when called upon to prepare to defend against two French privateers near Scilly in December 1707. Without disability compensation, the great danger of losing a limb in battle was not worth the risk to them, even though while in the Caribbean they had fought against a single, smaller privateer at long range. From A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring, 2nd ed. (London: John Clarke, 1727).
And indeed, between round shot, large splinters (size-wise, think various lengths of 2x4s, see damage images below), and small shot, it was not uncommon for more than one crewman to lose a leg, arm, or digits after a protracted combat, either immediately due to bone and tissue damage, or later due to gangrene:
“When [wee] came to see what damage [wee] had sustained found our Cheife Mate, Mr Smith, wounded in the legg, close by the knee, with a splinter or piece of chaine, which cannot well be told, our Barber had two of his fingers shott off as was spunging one of our gunns, the Gunner’s boy had his legg shott off in the waste[,] John Amos, Quartermaster, had his leg shott off at the helme[,] the Boatswaine’s boy (a lad of 13 years old) was shott in the thigh, which went through and splintered his bone, the Armorer Jos Osbourne in the round house wounded by a splinter just in the temple[,] the Captain’s boy on the Quarter Deck a small shott raised his scull through his cap and was the first person wounded and att the first onsett. Wm Reynold’s boy had the brim of his hatt 1/2 shott off and his forefinger splintered very sorely. John Blake turner, the flesh of his legg and calfe a great part shott away.” From the letter by eyewitnesses Solomon Lloyd and William Reynolds to Sir John Gayer describing the battle between the ship Dorrill and the pirate ship Mocha in 1697.
Much of the origin of the idea that wooden legs were common among pirates may be due to buccaneer articles of the second half of the seventeenth century:
“Lastly, they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces-of-eight, or 6 slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the right leg 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the left leg 400 pieces-of-eight, or 4 slaves; for an eye 100 pieces-of-eight, or one slave; for a finger of hand the same reward as for the eye.” (Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.)
A copy of flibustier articles dating to 1688–“Copie de la charte-partie faite entre M. Charpin, commandant la Sainte-Rose“–includes the following article: “Item. Tout homme estropié au service du bâtiment aura 600 pièces de 8 ou 6 nègres a choix s’il s’en prend.” The injured, whether he lost an arm or leg, had the choice of six hundred pieces-of-eight or six slaves.
Similarly, writing of the year 1694, Caribbean chronicler Father Jean-Baptiste Labat noted that among French flibustiers, “Ceux qui sont estropiez du’un bras ou d’une jambe emporteé, ou rendu inútiles, ont six cens écus pour chaque membre…” That is, six hundred pieces-of-eight for the physical loss of an arm or leg, or of the use of it. The original buccaneer and flibustier articles were still in use even though true English buccaneering had disappeared and French buccaneering–la flibuste–would not last much longer. (Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyage aux Isles. Vol. 1:223 1722.)
Charles Johnson (a pseudonym), famous chronicler of pirates in the early eighteenth century, describes one of the pirates of Captain Edward England: “a Fellow with a terrible pair of Whiskers, and a wooden Leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck, and asks, in a damning Manner, which was Captain Mackra…” From A General History of the Pyrates (London: T. Warner, 1724).
So here is at least one “Golden Age” pirate with a wooden leg. Doubtless there were at least a few common seamen and mates, perhaps some of them pirates as well, who remained at sea in spite of disability. Naturally, such service was easier for officers, the most famous one being Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol, aka “Pie de Palo.” A privateer captain, later admiral, in the service of the Dutch West India Company in the first half of the seventeenth century, one of his subordinate captains was the famous Diego the Mulatto.
The reality, though, is that the loss of a leg ended the career of most common seamen, including sea rovers. In most cases a common seaman who had lost a lower limb or was otherwise lamed could no longer climb aloft, and if he could it was only with great difficulty. A seaman needed to be able to move quickly on deck and aloft aboard a platform that was constantly pitching, sending, rolling, and yawing. Boarding actions would be precluded, as would a number of other combat actions, although certainly there were some that a wooden leg would not entirely restrict.
The naval, or more generally, maritime profession most suited to disabled seaman was doubtless the ship’s cook, and there are a number of period illustrations showing sea cooks with one legs, although “greasy” is probably the most commonly applied adjective.
However, the most famous of these one-legged sea cooks never existed. Created by Robert Louis Stevenson for Treasure Island, Long John Silver, also known as Barbecue, epitomizes the modern idea of the iconic one-legged–but not wooden-legged–pirate, although he was probably inspired by Captain England’s wooden-legged pirate crewman described above. In fact, Stevenson’s original title was “The Sea Cook”–a subtly accurate title but one entirely lacking in romance and adventure.
Early in the book Billy Bones, the old rum-soaked pirate inspired, obviously as well as according to Stevenson himself, by old buccaneer in “Tales from a Traveller” by Washington Irving, asks Jim Hawkins to keep his “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.”
Stevenson imagines accurately how he might move about at sea. “Aboard ship he carried his crutch by a lanyard round his neck, to have both hands as free as possible. It was something to see him wedge the foot of the crutch against a bulkhead, and propped against it, yielding to every movement of the ship, get on with his cooking like someone safe ashore. Still more strange was it to see him in the heaviest of weather cross the deck. He had a line or two rigged up to help him across the widest spaces—Long John’s earrings, they were called; and he would hand himself from one place to another, now using the crutch, now trailing it alongside by the lanyard, as quickly as another man could walk. Yet some of the men who had sailed with him before expressed their pity to see him so reduced.”
But Long John Silver is not the only iconic fictional seafarer. There’s an unfortunate natural inclination to believe that anything maritime must therefore be pirate, and worse, must be predominately pirate. Ahab’s “wooden” leg–actually whale bone–at least subconsciously reinforces the notion that pirates often had wooden legs. Ahab, of course, was the ship’s captain, and therefore special arrangements could be made for his disability, unlike in the case of common seamen.
And what did prosthetics and crutches look like in this era? The following images show the variety, based on the extent of permanent injury. The fact that the majority of wooden legs in period images begin just below the knee is due to surgical practice at the time. As “Serjeant-Chirurgeon” Richard Wiseman explains it in Several Chirurgicall Treatises (London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, 1676):
[Speaking of bullet wounds here], “If the Ancle be thus maimed, you shall then cut off the Leg within three or four Fingers Breadth under the Knee, in regard so long a Stump would be troublesome. But if the Leg be shattered off by the Calf, do not put your Patient to the Pain of new Amputation, for the shortening it a Hand’s Breadth, or a little more. Save what you can of a fluttered Hand. And if the Toes, with Part of the Foot, were shot off, cut off the lacerated Parts smooth, but with Care to save as much of the Foot, with the Heel, as you can; it being much better than a Wooden Leg. But if the Arm or Leg be not so shattered, tho’ the Wound be large on one side, and hang gaping down with great Fracture of Bones, yet be not discouraged, the Largeness of the Wound will make for your better pulling out those extraneous Bodies, Shivers, Splinters, Rags, or ought else, and for the easier Discharge of Matter. Dress it as a Wound by a Splinter.”
Similarly, Dr. Benjamin Bell in A System of Surgery, 5th ed., vol. 4 (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1791), writes that “In amputating the thigh we observed, that as much of the limb should be saved as can be done with propriety; for the longer the stump the more utility is derived from it: But in the amputation of the leg, it has hitherto been almost a general rule to take it off a little below the knee, even where the disease for . which it is advised is seated on or near the ancle, and where accordingly the operation might be performed much lower. The reason given for this is, that a few inches of the leg being saved, answers as a sufficient rest to the body in walking when the limb is inserted into the box of a wooden leg; and when much more of it is left, that it proves troublesome both in walking and fitting, without being attended with any particular advantage.”
However, times were changing and with them surgical and prosthetic practice. Bell goes on to note that, “Were we to conclude, that the common practice of bending the joint of the knee and resting upon the anterior part of the leg was necessary, this method of operating a little below the knee would be admitted as the best: But as we have now had many instances of patients walking equally well with machines so contrived as to admit of the use of the knee-joint; as these machines, by resembling the human leg, are much more pleasing to the eye than the wooden ones in common use; and as the operation may be done with much more ease and safety to the patient a little above the ancle, I am of opinion that it should always be advised to be done here whenever it is practicable, instead of the ordinary place a little below the knee.”
Below are a few images of what leg prostheses looked like in the era. Not that many of the men in these images are depicted as beggars, for, as Capt. Uring’s men noted, without some sort of pension they would likely become so if they lost a limb.
I’ll close with a few images of Hollywood wooden-leg or one-leg pirates, thanks (Thanks, Antón!) to a suggestion by Antón Viejo.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Created 4 December 2017. Last updated December 5, 2017.
“The tame Parrots we found here were the largest and fairest Birds of their Kind that I ever saw in the West-Indies. Their colour was yellow and red, very coarsely mixt; and they would prate very prettily; and there was scarce a Man but what sent aboard one or two of them. So that with Provision, Chests, Hen-Coops, and Parrot Cages, our Ships were full of Lumber…”
–William Dampier, Voyages and Discoveries, 1729
The opening quotation is in reference to a small buccaneering raid on Alvarado on the Mexican coast in 1676. So, clearly at least some pirates did have parrots, although most of these birds were probably intended as plunder to be sold in Port Royal, Jamaica.
The ultimate origin, though, of pirates and parrots is the common one: the lure of exotic animals, the seaman’s access to them during his travels, and the market for them in Europe and the American colonies. It was therefore not at all unusual to find exotic birds and primates (other than humans, of course) aboard ships headed back to Europe, nor was it unusual for people in the American colonies to keep them as pets, as did many Native Americans. Seamen were the best-placed Europeans to acquire them.
The description below is but one of many typical merchant voyages, in this case described by the Italian Capuchin monk Denis de Carli during his 1667 voyage from Bahia de Todos os Santo, Brazil, to Lisbon, Portugal.
“The ship was like Noah’s ark, for there were aboard it so many several sorts of beasts, that what with the noise, and the talk of so many people as were aboard, we could not hear one another speak. The loading was a thousand chests of sugar, three thousand rolls of tobacco, abundance of rich wood for dying, and making of cabinets, elephants teeth; besides the provision of wood, coals, water, wine, brandy, sheep, hogs, and turkeys: besides all this, abundance of monkeys of several sorts, apes, baboons, parrots, and some of those birds of Brasil, which they call arracas [the urraca, or plush-crested jay].
Exotic birds, parrots in particular, along with monkeys have long been associated with the tropical Americas and are often depicted in representative or allegorical images of the peoples, fruits, and animals from this part of the world.
Parrots as Pets in the Old World
In Shakespeare we see just how common parrots had become in England, and for that matter, in Europe in general: “That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman!” exclaims Henry, Prince of Wales, in The First Part of Henry the Fourth. Below are a few images from the late seventeenth century of people posing with parrots, a quite common practice–at least for those who could afford portraits.
But it’s pirates and parrots we’re really concerned with for the moment, and the modern association of parrot with pirate, as opposed to parrot with common seaman, is almost entirely due to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, specifically to Long John Silver and his parrot Cap’n Flint, who would often scream, “Pieces of eight! pieces of eight! pieces of eight!”
But because of the modern cliché of the pirate and parrot, no matter how accurate, some pirate television dramas, reenactor groups, and video games may choose to avoid it altogether. Black Sails did, for example (full disclosure, I was the historical consultant for the show for all four seasons). That said, this can be a bit confusing: Black Sails was set as a prequel to Treasure Island, the book that did much to create the pirate and parrot image. It comes down to a question of balance between accuracy and audience perception. I remain convinced that it is possible to quash cliché with historical accuracy without losing the audience.
So, how prevalent was the pirate with parrot in reality? Probably as common as that of the seaman his parrot, as least among pirates who visited regions where parrots were native, or captured ships with them aboard.
(And Monkeys, Too?)
So back to the beginning with another version of the image at the top of the page. But it’s the monkey we’re interested in now, and clearly monkeys were associated with seamen for the same reason parrots were.
So, did pirates have pet monkeys? Probably some did, given the mariner’s access and the popularity of monkeys. Certainly, at least one sea rover is confirmed as having a monkey aboard: a young Barbary macaque was aboard the French privateer Dauphine when it wrecked in Saint-Malo in 1704, as marine archaeology has demonstrated.
Pet Monkeys in the Old World
Monkeys were popular pets in Europe, thus the maritime trade in them. They were often fitted with a belt around the waist in order to keep them on a tether or leash as necessary. This may have been done shipboard as well–it would save waiting until the monkey to get hungry before it came down from aloft, as it doubtless would sooner or later.
Monkeys in Pirate Films and Other Media
Monkeys, being active, cute in an impish way, and generally in trouble, not to mention with a historical basis at sea, not to mention part of the crew, so to speak, of at least one privateer crew and probably of a fair number, are perfect for Hollywood piratical swashbucklers. That said, they haven’t been much used in them, but then it doesn’t take much for an association to get started and soon enough a cliché to develop. The most noted, of course, are King Charles in Cutthroat Island (if nothing else, Geena Davis looked swashbucklingly effective in the role of Captain Morgan Adams, and the soundtrack is excellent), and, far more well-known, Jack in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Pirate monkey memes are common, the Monkey Island games riff on pirate monkeys although without much emphasizing them, and even Firelock Games has, purely for fun and originally introduced as an April Fool’s joke, added a “Blunder Monkey” figure as a stretch goal for the Blood & Plunder’s “No Peace Beyond the Line” Kickstarter, albeit an historically accurate one. (Again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m the historical consultant for Firelock’s Blood & Plunder.)
A Scots Highlander, a Sword, and a Parrot…
I’ll end with a humorous anecdote, which may be apocryphal, regarding a Scotsman and a parrot in London. I can date it no earlier than 1749 and cannot say whence came the abusive bird originally, but it does illustrate the general prevalence of the birds everywhere:
“An honest Highlander, walking along Holborn, heard a voice cry, Rogue Scot, Rogue Scot; his northern blood fired at the insult, drew his broad sword, looking round him on every side to discover the object of his indignation; at last he found that it came from a parrot, perched in a balcony within his reach; but the generous Scot disdaining to stain his trusty blade with such ignoble blood, put up his sword again, with a sour smile, saying, “Gin ye were a man, as ye’re a green geuse, I would split your weem.”
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First posted September 10, 2017. Last edited September 25, 2017.
It’s a simple question: Did pirates have tattoos? And the answer is simple, too–and complex as well.
Evidence for the simple positive answer is easy: buccaneer-surgeon Lionel Wafer, writing probably of the 1680s, noted that “One of my Companions desired me once to get out of his Cheek one of these imprinted Pictures, which was made by the Negroes, his Name was Bullman; which I could not effectually do, after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of Skin.” (Lionel Wafer, in A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America. Oxford: Hackluyt Society, 1934, page 83.)
What Wafer was trying to do was surgically remove a “gunpowder spot,” as tattoos were then known in English. The term came into use via the process: prick holes in the skin and rub finely crushed gunpowder in to make a permanent mark. A simple enough process, not much different than that used by professionals today, and pretty close to those who use a homemade process (not recommended, of course).
So, without further analysis or discussion, we know that at least one late seventeenth century buccaneer was tattooed. What we do not know is whether such gunpowder spots were considered part of sea roving or maritime culture. In other words, did pirates or other seafarers view tattoos as identifying marks of their trade?
We also know that at least some other seamen of the era were well-inked: one “saylor” in 1720 Virginia had “on one hand S. P. in blew Letters and on the other hand blew Spots, and upon one arm our Savior upon the Cross, and on the other Adam and Eve, all Suppos’d to be done in Gun powder.” (The American Mercury, 17 March 1720, no. 13.)
Buccaneer, naval captain, privateer, world explorer, naturalist, and author William Dampier wrote of European tattooing while describing the manner of tattooing at Meangis, Indonesia during his circumnavigation of the world after a South Sea buccaneering voyage:
“By the Account he [Prince Jeoly] gave me of the manner of doing it, I understood that the Painting was done in the fame manner, as the Jerusalem-Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. But whereas [gun] Powder is used in making the Jerusalem-Cross, they at Meangis use the Gum of a Tree beaten to Powder…” (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, volume 1:514. London: James Knapton, 1699.)
Dampier’s description of the Jerusalem cross alludes to Christian pilgrims whose tattoos often served to ensure Christian burial in foreign lands, as well to create a permanent “souvenir” or proof of pilgrimage. Constantin-François Volney in the late eighteenth century described these pilgrims and their journeys to and from Jerusalem:
“Easter over, each returns to his own country, proud of being able to rival the Mahometan in the title of Pilgrim, nay, many of them, in order to distinguish themselves as such, imprint on their hands, wrists, or arms, figures of the cross, or spear, with the cypher of Jesus and Mary. This painful, and sometimes dangerous, operation is performed with needles, and the perforations filled with gunpowder, or powder of antimony, and is never to be effaced. The Mahometans have the fame practice, which is also to be found among the Indians, and other savages, as it was likewise among several ancient nations with whom it had a connection with religion which it still retains wherever it prevails.” (From Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785 by Constantin-François Volney. London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787, pages 311-312.)
This practice had apparently been around for centuries prior, and was probably picked up in the Middle East. It is quite likely that Christian seamen in the Mediterranean often had religious tattoos, if only to identify themselves as Christian in case of drowning or other death during their travels. More on this in a moment.
Pirates, mariners, and marooners who had lived among Native Americans were sometimes inked, and Native American and African mariners were probably often inked. Those who hailed from certain lands in the Mediterranean or in the East beyond were likewise probably often inked as well.
Lionel Wafer, while recovering among the Darien (Cuna) after burning himself severely when drying gunpowder, noted that “I went naked as the Salvages [sic], and was painted by their Women; but I would not suffer them to prick my Skin, to rub the Paint in, as they use to do, but only to lay it on in little Specks.” He described the process further: “But finer figures, especially by their greatest artists, are imprinted deeper, after this manner. They first with the Brush and Colour make a rough Draught of the Figure they design; then they prick all over with a sharp Thorn till the Blood gushes out; then they rub the place with their Hands, first dipp’d in the Colour they design; and the Picture so made is indelible. But scarce one in forty of them is painted this way.” (Wafer, op cit, pages 22 and 83.)
Two French seamen, one from Brittany, the other from La Rochelle, who had been members of the sieur de La Salle’s failed Texas colony, survived by living among a Native American tribe. In 1687 both men had “[T]heir Faces and Bodies with Figures wrought on them, like the rest [of the people they were living with].” In the same year a Spanish boy from Mexico, who had escaped on the Gulf Coast with other Spanish prisoners captured by buccaneers at Apalache, Florida, survived likewise by living with a Native American tribe. The boy, when found by Spanish Capitáns de Mar y Guerra Don Martín de Rivas and Don Pedro de Yriarte who were looking for La Salle’s colony, had tattoos like those of the people among whom he was living. (See Henri Joutel, The Last Voyage Perform’d by La Salle. London: A. Bell et al, 1714, page 173. And Enríquez Barroto, “The Enríquez Barroto Diary,” in Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 1987, page 180 &c.)
The evidence of Bullman above and other records as well indicate that at least some Africans were also tattooed, although most historians studying the subject note that scarification and similar processes were more common among Africans than tattooing. There were sea rovers of African origin in the Caribbean.
There is a general consensus among some researchers that the tattoo has long been a part of maritime culture, while others are hesitant to make this argument. Certainly it was a distinct part of maritime culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is today as well, although possibly to a somewhat lesser extent. In 1900, US Navy surgeon A. Farenholt discussed the number and variety of tattoos of seamen aboard the USS Independence, and made some observations on tattooing in the navy in general. He estimated that roughly sixty percent of enlisted sailors had tattoos, with roughly one quarter of seamen in their first enlistment having them, and roughly half in their second enlistment having them. He noted that the forearm was the most popular location for tattooing among the Independence sailors, and the penis the least, with only seven instances of the latter. For readers who thought that penis tattooing was a modern curiosity, please be advised that there is not much that is really new. (See A. Farenhold, “Tattooing in the Navy, as Shown by the Records of the U.S.S. Independence.” United States Medical Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 (January 1900): 37–39.)
In my most recent book, The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I wrote the following, based on current general understanding, at least among a number of authorities published in English: “But the tattoo as a definite part of maritime culture probably did not exist until seamen began visiting Polynesia in the late eighteenth century.”
However, the images by Louis Ducros at the top of the page and just below clearly belie this. It may be that in the English navy and merchant marine, and in the American as well, tattoos did not become popular, in particular as an identifying mark or rite of passage, until after voyages to Polynesia became more regular (and from here we have the word “tattoo”), but clearly this was not the case among seamen of other nationalities, at least of those from Taranto. And this may not have been the case among English and American seafarers either. Further, it is entirely possible, even probable, that the degree tattooing was purely cultural–and culture changes over time. For example a Ducros watercolor of several Maltese seamen shows no tattoos on their arms, although it’s possible he simply chose not to depict them.
In the image at the top of the page we see the tattooed arm of an Italian seaman from Taranto in 1778. Tattoos belonging to other seamen are also shown, and also immediately above, with some dating to the 1760s, clearly before the British voyages to Polynesia. As one might expect, the tattoos are a variety, with Roman Catholic religious imagery quite prevalent. There is also a small vessel, possibly a tartana or “tarteen” under oars, a couple of suns, a possible set of arms, a chain around the wrist, and a Jerusalem cross.
Adding to the difficulty in answering the question of tattoos among seafarers of the period is the fact that people other than seafarers had “gunpowder spots” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ranging from the lubberly working class to upper class ladies–yes, ladies–and gentlemen.
Among working class examples, David Willson, a deserter from the British army in 1715, was described as having his initials “D. W.” in gunpowder on his right hand. We don’t whether he came by his gunpowder spot while serving in the army, or prior to service, or afterward. (London Gazette, 10 September to 17 September 1715, no. 5363.)
Among “ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas Otway’s Beau in act 4 of The Soldiers Fortune (1681) catalogs the “Age, Shape, Proportion, colour of Hair and Eyes, degrees of Complexion, Gun-powder Spots and Moles” of the “choicest Beauties about Town.”
Aphra Behn, famous poet, playwright, and novelist, writes of “a Blew spot made in a Ladys neck, by Gunpowder…” The poem was published in Lycidus or the Lover in Fashion (London: Joseph Knight, Saunders Francis, 1688), and was attributed to “a Person of Quality.”
I note as an aside that one scholar has asserted that “gunpowder spots,” including the one described by Aphra Behn, were associated with seventeenth century English gun culture. I think this is a rather misplaced notion, except in that the origin of tattooing with gunpowder may have derived from the knowledge that un-burned corns of powder will occasionally embed themselves violently in the skin, leaving a permanent mark. (One pirate re-enactor, who has since passed away, I met on the set of True Caribbean Pirates had a tattooed palm–small blue-black dots everywhere–resulting from the premature ignition of a gun cartridge during loading.)
The other remote connection to gun culture is common poetic allusion or comparison–an obvious poetic convenience, in other words. The ultimate origin of “gunpowder spots” is not firearms, but body marking: gunpowder simply worked well to make a permanent stain and was readily available. Beauty marks on men and women of the era did not imply an association with firearms, and to argue this is to stretch beyond the facts, not at all uncommon today in both common popular discourse and academia. Even Aphra Behn in her poem acknowledges that the tattoo really has nothing to do with firearms except as a convenient poetic comparison:
Powder, which first was for destruction meant,
Was here converted into ornament;
But yet retains its wonted nature still,
And from your neck, as from a Port do’s kill.
Similarly, William Wycherley in his poem “Upon the Gun-powder Spot on a Lady’s Hand” published in 1704:
Thy Gun-Powder, on thy Hand, shot
Me dead, half-dead with Love before;
Kill’d me, both on, and by the Spot,
Thy cruel White Hand on it wore:
Seventeenth-century surgeon Richard Wiseman had experience with gunpowder spots of two sorts: “Only if they be burnt with Gun-powder or any other way, their Cure is much alike, they onely differing secundam magis and minus. Onely if they be burnt with Gun-powder, they must pick out the Powder first; else they will carry the same blew Mark, if it be in their Faces, which some people use to do in their Hands and Arms, which I have often been imployed to take out, when done wantonly in their Youth; but could never remove them otherwise then by taking off the Skin.” (Richard Wiseman in Several Chirurgicall Treatises. London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, for R. Royston, 1676, page 440.)
Clearly not everyone, ranging from a buccaneer to others, wanted to keep their tattoos forever.
We come again, and importantly, to playwright and poet William Wycherley who wrote The Plain-Dealer (for what it’s worth, my favorite play), first performed in 1674:
“[O]r was it the Gunpowder spot on his hand, or the Jewel in his ear, that purchas’d your heart?” sneers the manly Captain Manley (act. 2, sc. 1) to his former inamorata in regard to an obnoxious fop (they’re all obnoxious, aren’t they?) seeking her hand. At first glance it seems that Manley might be sarcastically referring to the lack of a gunpowder spot on the fop’s hand, and therefore that such spots were indicative of the seaman and therefore of the adventurer. Captain Manley, after all, was a fighting seaman. (Regarding the “Jewel in his ear” see Pirates & Earrings.)
John Dickson Carr, novelist and historian, would seem to have agreed with my initial assessment of the gun-powder spot on the hand being a sign of the seaman: he writes in his novel Devil in Velvet, “as much the mark of the seaman as the gunpowder spot on his hand…,” almost certainly inspired by Wycherley in The Plain-Dealer. The depth of Carr’s non-fiction research ability is attested to by his nonfiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. However, we were both assuredly in error: Professor Ted Cotton, retired Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Loyola University in New Orleans, not to mention old friend and fellow swordsman, in conversation with me some years ago suggested the lines refer merely to the earring and gunpowder spot as being fashions of idle foppish gentlemen. Add to this the evidence of ladies and gentlemen with gunpowder spots, and it is certain to me now that the lines in The Plain-Dealer refer to a gentleman, not a seaman.
Of course, none of this goes to prove or disprove whether late seventeenth to early eighteenth century seamen associated with the Golden Age of Piracy–English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Africans, Native Americans, various mixed races of various nationalities, and in smaller numbers Portuguese, Corsicans, Levanters, Italians, Danes, Germans, various other Europeans, even a few Asians–specifically associated tattoos with their maritime culture, much less did pirates and other sea rovers, a subset of the former, do so.
It remains possible that some Western European mariners, including sea rovers, considered “gunpowder spots” as part of their tradition, but there is no conclusive evidence for this for the period in question. Certainly it is true today: for example, Navy seamen and tall ship sailors often get tattoos and consider this to be traditional, even as do members of some other groups, military and non-military, as do some “downright individuals.” Permanent body decorating has been around for a very long time among the majority of cultures past and present.
So, best guess for the Golden Age of Piracy? Although some sea rovers of the era had tattoos, tattooing–and it would not be known by this name for roughly another century–was not yet a practice of group identity among them or of other mariners broadly associated with this era. Of course, I could be wrong: we need more evidence than what we have so far. But the evidence of Dampier, Wafer, and Wycherley strongly suggests that tattoos or gunpowder spots were not yet a distinct part of Western European maritime culture, except possibly among some of the regional maritime sub-cultures.
And before anyone asks or suggests this: no, I don’t think it likely that early eighteenth century pirates had skull and bones tattoos!
Post Script: This blog post is dedicated to my younger daughter, Bree, a tall ship sailor in her spare time and who will soon have a tattoo…
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated August 16, 2017.
“This subterfuge is termed a Night-Thrust; being a short method of deciding a skirmish in the dark.”
–Andrew Lonergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1777.
But Edward was no longer there, or at least not where Lynch expected. Completely covered by the inky darkness, Edward had lunged backward, his left hand dropping to the ground, his body bending inward, his blade shooting forward at Lynch’s belly: the Italians called this passata soto, but some of Edward’s English contemporaries called it the “night thrust” for its utility in the darkness.
Benerson Little, Fortune’s Whelp, 2015
The Classic Passata Soto or “Night Thrust”
A staple of many Western fencing texts since the Renaissance, the passata soto, or passata sotto, also known variously as the sbasso, sottobotta, cartoccio on occasion, the various dessous of the French masters of the smallsword and the passata di sotto of the modern, the passata soto is usually defined as a counter-attack made by lowering the body while simultaneously thrusting, extending the rear foot in a reverse lunge, and placing the unarmed hand on the ground for support. Occasionally the technique is recommended at an attack, with a true lunge, rather than a reverse, made. Andrew Lonergan provides an eighteenth century definition and exercise of the passata soto under the name of night thrust:
“On Guard in Quarte; and disengage a Quarte-over-the-arm [modern sixte]. I now batter [beat] with a Tierce; and begin to advance my left foot to form my Pass upon you in Tierce. Now when you see my left foot move, slip your left foot back, so as to pitch yourself on that knee; stoop your head so that your arm now turned into a Segonde may cover it, hold your left hand extended toward the ground, that it may sustain you, in case you should totter; thus my point will pass over your head, and I shall fall upon yours.”
And his reasoning why such “athletic” techniques should not be abandoned:
“Though these methods of Disarming, and Passing, Volting, and that of the Night Thrust, seem to be almost abolished by the refiners of these arts; I cannot conceive why a man, who is naturally strong and active, should not avail himself of such advantages, especially when improved by our athletic exercises, so engaging to an English subject, and forbidding to all others.”
In the old Italian schools, the body was usually bent at the waist. In some of the old French, the body was lowered by a very low reverse lunge. The adversary may be hit either with the extending arm or by impaling upon it, or both.
In terms of the modern French school, the “passata di sotto” is classified as an esquive, specifically une passe dessous with the back leg extended or both legs deeply bent.
With real weapons, the adversary is ideally impaled, usually in the belly which is, were the swords real, a good place to hit because are no ribs and cartilage to potentially prevent the point from entering or otherwise diminish its penetration. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in some cases belly wounds may be more quickly incapacitating.
A very long low lunge which made going forward might slip under the adversary’s guard, as in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Black Swan (1932), and which made in reverse might serve aid a counter-attack by lowering of the body. Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto.
The passata soto is not without significant drawbacks, which is probably why Lonergan recommended its use at night and nowhere else. Foremost, it must be well-timed. Too late, and the fencer attempting it may get hit in the face, neck, or upper torso. Too soon, and the fencer attempting it throws away the advantage of the surprise mandatory to its success. Used too often, and the adversary may learn how to trigger it with a feint, and then take advantage of the poor position the classical passata soto leaves the fencer in.
And it is this poor position that is the major drawback of the passata soto, in particular with real weapons. With the unarmed hand on the ground, the torso bent sideways, and the rear leg extended well behind, the fencer is in a bad position for defense after a failed attack or, even if the swords were real, after impaling the adversary. Few wounds are immediately incapacitating, including ultimately fatal wounds: many duelists and battlefield swordsmen were wounded or killed after giving an adversary a fatal wound. Even with a mortal wound to the heart, an adversary may live as long as ten seconds. Even assuming an average of four, that’s plenty of time to even things up.
In the case of dry (non-electric) weapons, the judges and director (referee) will determine whether a hit was made, whether it was in time, and whether a hit on the fencer who ducked is valid via rules regarding replacing of target. In the case of electrical weapons, the machine will make the determination in epee, and the machine and director in foil and saber.
For the fencer armed with a rapier on poniard, placing the poniard-armed hand on the ground is giving up half of one’s offense and defense, to be replaced by almost blind trust.
From the position of the passata soto, a prime or lifted sixte/septime beat or bind, or a St. George parry or opposition (modern saber quinte) accompanied by the use of the unarmed hand to help ward off the adversary’s blade, plus an urgent recovery forward or backward, all performed near-simultaneously, is the only viable option if the passata soto has failed to hit or otherwise halt the adversary.
Such recovery, however, is invariably slow, and a loss of balance may ensue if the unarmed hand is removed from the ground too soon to assist in parrying or opposing, for example. Further, the long low position leaves the fencer vulnerable if the arrest fails, whether by missing the adversary or failing to immediately incapacitate him. In particular, the head, neck, and subclavian area are exposed. Fatal thrusting wounds can be given in any of the three areas. It’s likely that execution at night might alleviate some of these weaknesses in the technique, but it would need to be a dark night with little ambient light.
Historical Techniques Similar to Passata Soto
There are better methods, past and present. In particular, these methods, while not reducing the target quite as much, leave the fencer in a much better position should the counter-attack fail, or, with real weapons, should the adversary be hit but not be immediately incapacitated. Some masters, Sir William Hope for example, believed also that a lowered position better-protected the torso.
In general they consist of a lowering of the body to a lesser degree, often with a parry or beat first, or with a thrust in opposition. Below are a series of images depicting this in various forms over time.
The Passata Soto in Film
The passata soto is seldom shown in film, unfortunately, but here are two of the very few associated examples:
The Passato Soto in Modern Fencing
In modern competitive fencing, the technique is still occasionally seen in its classical form, in particular against a flèche, but more often is modified.
In the sprint of 1978 I saw it well-used by a University of Southern California epeeist–I made up the weakest third of the USC epee team, having fenced for less than a year–at a large collegiate meet at the University of California San Diego. The score was la belle (4-4), with no time limit for the final touch as I recall.
Suddenly both fencers stopped and pulled off their masks, but for no reason other than that they had heard the bell on the adjacent strip and, their adrenalin up for the la belle touch, mistook it for theirs. The young director… Hold on for a moment. Today the director, from directeur de combat, the person who “directs” a duel, is called a “referee,” solely because the foolish powers that be thought it would make fencing more spectator friendly… Seriously.
But back to our anecdote. The young college-age director, rather than enforcing the halt and putting the fencers back on guard, said “I didn’t call halt!”
You know what surely happened next. Without putting masks back on, immediately the opposing team’s fencer flèched, ours dropped into a beautiful passata soto. We got the touch and the bout. Neither fencer, thankfully, was hit in the unprotected face. Or at least that’s how I recall it happened…
In modern usage, although infrequently seen, is a form known as the “turning” passata soto. The description is best left to R. A. Lidstone:
In competitive use, the modern form most often takes the form of ducking or squatting, shown below. Ducking has been used for at least seventy-five years in modern fencing.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated July 24, 2017.
So, “Did pirates wear eye patches?”
The short answer: Only if they had lost eyes to disease or injury, and this was no more prevalent among pirates than among fighting seamen and soldiers. In other words, the eye patch is in no way a sign or symbol of the pirate per se, nor even of the seaman in general.
Still, the question is a good one, if only to give us a reason to dig into related history.
The Mythbusters television show and other speculators have recently added to the myth by working backward from the proposition, that is, “If pirates wore eye patches, why would they have worn them?” rather than looking first at primary sources to see if there is any evidence that pirates wore them at all. There isn’t, other than as noted below.
The associated suggestions that pirates may have worn eye patches to improve night vision or daylight lookout observations or to enable them to fight below decks isn’t supported by any primary source material. In fact, the loss of sight in an eye, even by wearing an eye patch, causes significant loss in both depth perception and visual breadth, making movement aboard a vessel, aloft especially, very dangerous. It would also make visual observation by a lookout much more difficult.
As for fighting below decks, pirates didn’t really do much of it: it was much easier to flush crew below decks by tossing grenades and firepots into breaches chopped into decks and bulkheads with boarding axes. In other words, the mere idea that eye patches might have been used to aid in fighting below decks shows a clear lack of understanding of the subject.
In other words: There is no historical evidence at all for any of these purported reasons why a pirate might have worn eye patches! Mythbusters and other popular “documentaries” are entertainment, not serious history. Again, if a pirate wore an eye patch it was because he had lost an eye.
The origin of the modern myth that pirates wore eye patches is largely literary. However, its roots lay deep in reality, both in the fact that eyes were often lost to disease and battle trauma, and that a one-eyed person often looks fearsome or sinister. The latter sense goes back millennia, and probably farther. Homer’s Cyclops, Polyphemus, is an early instance.
Some versions of Bernal Diaz’s The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico describe the fierce old musketeer Heredia, sent to frighten Native Americans, as a one-eyed, one-legged (or game-legged) soldier. The same work describes how Cortez’s enemy, Narvaez, lost an eye in battle.
Among seafaring journals and other records of the Golden Age of Piracy, there is only occasional mention of one-eyed seamen, usually in lists of those wounded in battle. Exquemelin’s various editions of The Buccaneers of America famously list compensation for the wounded, including the loss of an eye, and it is here that the primary source of the myth of pirates and eye patches is probably to be found, in combination with other works such as Bernal Diaz’s. The loss of an eye in battle was fairly common, in fact: seafarer Edward Coxere describes the use of oakum and tallow to stuff an eye socket in order to heal the wound, for example. Notably, none of the several eyewitness images of buccaneers or flibustiers from the 1680s show any with any of the usual Hollywood characteristics: wooden legs, eye patches, parrots, hooks, &c. This is to be expected. The large number of images of seamen, usually naval, with eye patches dates to a century later.
As a friend, “Tweeds Blues,” pointed out recently, it seemingly would not be surprising to find a fair number of one-eyed naval, privateer, and pirate seamen, given the damage done by splinters in action. Here I feel the need to point out yet again that Mythbusters is entertainment: an episode suggested that splinters didn’t cause much damage in a naval action. In fact they did: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of the damage done, not to mention at least one accurate test that proves the horrible extent of damage splinters can do. The Mythbusters test parameters were simply incorrect, not to mention that overwhelming historical evidence was largely ignored. The images above show splinters resulting from round shot striking a correctly-built hull section. The test was conducted by the Maritime Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, home of the Flagship Niagara.
Of course, the most famous example of a naval mariner with an eye patch is that of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lost the sight in one eye capture of Calvi on Corsica in 1793–except that did not actually wear an eye patch. This has not stopped the popular assumption that he did from becoming prevalent, and, although out of our period, this has still influenced the idea of the one-eyed mariner, and therefore one-eyed pirate.
The fact is, patches were commonly used to cover any facial disfigurement. In the seventeenth century diarist and navy secretary Samuel Pepys wore a black patch, or possibly a large beauty patch, to cover a large cold sore. Similarly, King William III advised a soldier to remove the black patch covering the scar on his face because “It’s more honourable in a Soldier to wear a Scar than a Patch.” (For the latter reference, see Coke in the sources listed below.)
By the late eighteenth century the image of the eye-patched, peg-legged seaman was iconic, probably the result of the increased number of British naval actions brought on by the American Revolution and, especially, the Napoleonic Wars. Notably, in reality most such disabled seamen were pensioned from service, as shown above. These satirical images are probably the material origin of the popular identification of the naval seaman, and therefore the pirate, with eye patches.
Even with its legitimate historical roots in fact, this pirate myth, like many, didn’t come fully into being until the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred or more years after the Golden Age of Piracy. Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel describes “The noble Captain Colepepper, or Peppercull, for he was known by both these names, and some others besides, had a martial and a swashing exterior, which, on the present occasion, was rendered yet more peculiar, by a patch covering his left eye and a part of the cheek. The sleeves of his thickset velvet jerkin were polished and shone with grease, — his buff gloves had huge tops, which reached almost to the elbow; his sword-belt of the same materials extended its breadth from his haunchbone to his small ribs, and supported on the one side his large black-hilted back-sword, on the other a dagger of like proportions.” Here is the epitome of the swashbuckler, easily translated to the pirate.
Not long after, Charles Dickens described a pirate with “the one eye and the patch across the nose” and soon afterward similarly did many writers of popular fiction. However, many of our principle originators or propagators of pirate myths—Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, for example—do not appear to have bothered with this myth, although Barrie’s Captain Hook probably did encourage other images of pirates missing a vital part such as a limb or eye.
In 1926 Douglas Fairbanks propagated nineteenth century pirate myths, as well as a few he helped create, across the world with his film The Black Pirate. In it he established the modern pirate swashbuckler stereotype, based much on Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Peter Pan, and probably Captain Blood (one of whose characters, by the way, was one-eyed, although he lost the eye at Sedgemoor, not at sea). Around the same time, we begin to see pirate book cover art and other illustrations showing pirates with eye patches. But it would take later films, such as The Black Swan and The Crimson Pirate to make the eye patch an obvious, routine part of the stereotypical pirate costume.
Roger Coke. A Detection of the Court and State of England. 4th ed. London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1719. Vol. 2:472.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España. Reprint, Madrid: Don Benito Cano, 1795. See vol. 1:213.
Edward Coxere. Adventures by Sea of Edward Coxere. Edited by E. H. W. Meyerstein. London: Oxford University, 1946.
Charles Dickens. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners.” 1857. Reprinted in Charles Dickens’s Stories from the Christmas Numbers. New York: MacMillan, 1896. Page 144.
Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1987. Page 60.
Benerson Little. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Prologue.
——. “El Mito Pirata” in Desperta Ferro 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
Heidi Mitchell. “Does Reading in Dim Light Hurt Your Eyes?” Wall Street Journal online, April 8, 2013, http://www.wsj.com.
Mythbusters, Episode 71.
Samuel Pepys. Diary. September 26, 1664.
Walter Scott. The Fortunes of Nigel. Boston: Samuel H. Parker, 1822. Page 255.
The Telegraph. “Nelson didn’t wear eye-patch, says historian.” January 19, 2005.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2017. Last updated August 17, 2017.
Quite often today, reenactors, students of authentic pirate portrayals of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, aka the “Golden Age of Piracy,” and the makers of any television documentary or drama, or any film, about pirates who wants to be taken seriously will generally drop the pirate earrings and other pirate caricature, or at least minimize them. However, this practice, while avoiding “Hollywood” cliché, has one problem:
There were “Golden Age” seafarers who wore earrings.
The same goes for pirates of the “Golden Age” from circa 1655 to 1730.
As is the case with much of our perception of what is and is not correct and authentic about “pirates,” the myth or reality really applies much more broadly, to seafarers in general, and from there to the question of whether the myth or reality applies across the board to seafarers or only to a specific subset. For example, I was asked during a Reddit AMA a while back about the “crossing the line” ceremony originating from pirates. It doesn’t actually originate with sea thieves, but from mariners in general, unless all mariners were sea thieves. (Of course, some might argue that at least through the Middle Ages all seafarers were potential pirates…) Sea rovers may have practiced the various “crossing the line” ceremonies, just as seamen in general did, but it was foremost a maritime practice, not one specific to piracy. And I say various practices because there were different cultural practices, and different “lines” to cross as well.
So, put simply, were earrings a conventional part of pirate dress, or of maritime dress, in general during the period 1655 to 1730?
I’m going to keep the answer just as simple, for this is not the place to address the variety of seafarers, sea thieves, and their national and local customs and dress.
And the simple answer to both is…no.
Even so, many answers are really not so simple as they seem, and so it is with this one. There are three exceptions to the earring rule, and they apply not only to pirates and privateers, but to mariners in general.
First is the Dutch exception. Earrings were common in the mid to late seventeenth century and into the eighteenth on many Dutch seafarers, as is clear by the several images I’ve posted here. The seaman in the image above wears an earring in the left ear, and the seamen in the Dufart images below mirror each other, one in the left, the other in the right. From the images it’s impossible to tell if the Dutchmen are wearing an earring on the other ear as well.
So, if you want to be a sea rover and wear an earring and be historically accurate, be a Dutch pirate or privateer. That said, many serious pirate and privateer reenactors are opposed even to this out of concern that it gives the wrong impression: either in general, or because most of the early eighteenth century pirates were “Anglo-American,” or because there are only a “few” Dutch images of seafarers with earrings (although a “few” images would well suffice to support “facts” such reenactors are in favor of). For me, fact–truth–should outweigh this. First, given the large number of buccaneers or flibustiers of Dutch origin in the late seventeenth century, it would not be surprising to find earrings on some buccaneers. Second, not all of the early eighteenth century “Anglo-American” pirates were in fact British or Irish derived, and separate from them were French and Spanish pirates whose crews doubtless included some Dutch members.
Second is the fop exception. Through much of the seventeenth century, including the last quarter, and into the eighteenth century some French fops, and some English onesas well for they generally followed French fashion, were in the habit of wearing an earring, perhaps even one in each ear. The common assumption is that men’s earrings in England and Scotland went out of fashion after the death of Charles I, but this is not entirely the case. They became less popular, and were restricted largely to the foppish gentleman and would-be gentleman–a more restricted group of “gallants” than in the first half of the century.
References to earrings on men in the second half of the seventeenth century include a letter written by George Fox (of the Society of Friends, or Quakers) in 1654, but not published, I don’t believe, prior to the 1690s: “a company of them playing at bowls, or at tables, or at shuffle-board; or each taking his horse, that hath bunches of ribbons on his head, as the rider hath on his own (who, perhaps, hath a ring in his ear too)…” This isn’t too long after the execution of Charles I, when we might still see earrings (and which many secondary texts say is about the last time Englishmen wore earrings), and is at the beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy, assuming a start date of 1655 with the capture of Jamaica.
Similarly, note the illustration below. Published in 1653 as part of an appendix satirizing the English gallant and his ostentatious dress and body ornamentation, it does prove that even at this date some English gallants still wore not only one, but two earrings at times. The author, Dr. John Bulwer, compares earring-wearing and other ostentation to that of foreign savages and heathens, or even to pre-Christian Britons, and appears to approve only of plain sober dress, as one might expect during the Age of Cromwell–up with the cropped Roundheads, down with the long-haired Royalists! “Children of vanity” is Bulwer’s disparaging, if also accurate on occasion, term for those who excessively ornament themselves. He also mocks gallants for wearing patches, starched collars (yellowed in fact with starch), flowing locks, mustaches, and so on. He is no less sparing of women. Curiously, Dr. Bulwer’s portrait shows him with flowing locks, a mustache, and goatee.
Moving on to William Wycherly and The Plain-Dealer (one of my favorite plays), with a reference to the jewel in the ear and gunpowder spot on the hand, circa 1673, in the middle of the age of buccaneers. Originally I had considered the possibility that this might refer to the sea captain and not the fop, but other instances (George Fox above, for example), plus a re-reading, plus the opinion of a professor emeritus of seventeenth century English literature, have persuaded me that fops wore earrings more often than we think (the professor thought so, by the way)—enough to be an obvious reference for the audience. We’ll deal with gunpowder spots in another blog soon.
Head now to The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown: Amusements Serious and Comical, a comical and satirical group of works published in 1700, and we have the following: “I had honestly, deserved a better Reward than a Patch-box, a Toothpicker, and a small Ear-ring amounted to, and therefore need not disquiet my self upon that Score.. Thus you fee, Madam…” The gentleman has received several useful implements (but not what he was seeking) from his inamorata: an ear picker to clean his ears, a patch box for patches (fops wore them), and a single earring. The last might be simply a love token, but to what end if it can’t be displayed–worn, that is?
That French fops wore them is uncontested. By way of a nautical example, in 1704 the comte de Forbin, a famous, and arguably quite pompous at times, commerce-raiding French naval captain refused passage to a French monk who had been authorized travel from Livorno, Italy to France aboard the French warship by Cardinal de Janson. The monk wore a single gold earring with a large pearl, and Forbin specifically notes his foppish airs, that is, that he acted like a “petit-maître“–a fop or dandy. There were at the time a fair number of priests and monks as addicted to trappings of the flesh as to world beyond, if not more. In any case, it didn’t help that the monk was “haughty and arrogant.” In fact, it was probably this behavior that set Forbin off. But the captain’s reply to the monk was that the cardinal’s order said nothing about giving passage to a monk wearing an earring and giving the airs of a fop–so get off my ship.
In sum, if you want to be a sea rover with an earring but don’t want to be Dutch you might considering being a bit of a fop. This isn’t so very far-fetched, for their are examples of pirates wearing jewelry in a fashion that might be considered foppish. Quoting from The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, an overly fashionable pirate “might wear a ‘necklace of pearls of extraordinary size and inestimable price, with rubies of surpassing beauty’ as Captain Nicolas Van Horn did, or a gold chain with a ‘gold toothpicker hanging at it’ as Captain John James did (and many of his crew also wore gold chains), or a ‘gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it’ as Captain Bartholomew Roberts reportedly did.” (Citations to the quotations above can be found in the endnotes to The Golden Age of Piracy. The quotation is from the prologue.)
Even so, I do tend to agree a bit more with reenactors who object to this exception out of concern for the wrong impression. That said, I still would not be surprised to find a foppish pirate wearing an earring. Devotees of the early eighteenth century Anglo-American pirates will argue quite factually that most were seamen. This doesn’t alter the fact that there may have some foppish seamen–I’ve known some modern ones who’d fit this description, although they’re in the minority–and there were a few non-seamen as well who might fit the fop bill, including the dilettante pirate Stede Bonnet. In my experience, both in studying seamen of the past as well as having known and worked with many modern seamen–naval, commercial, tall ship–during my life, mariners as a group are not homogeneous even though they may express attributes common to their profession. In other words, they too have personalities and often express them through their clothing, hair, and other body ornamentation.
The third exception is that of Native Americans, Africans, and mixed races. This should be an obvious exception, but the fact that it is so often overlooked strongly suggests an ethnocentric–that is, a “white-centric” or “Euro-centric”–bias in the view of piracy and of the maritime in general. A fair number of English, French, and Dutch pirates and privateers, although not the majority, were non-white. The majority of Spanish pirates and privateers originating in the Caribbean were non-white. Many of these seafarers of color, particularly those of full African and Native American blood, probably wore earrings in one form or another.
Many period descriptions and images of Native American males mention or show earrings. Africans, and those of African descent, in European and American context in the seventeenth century are often shown wearing earrings, typically a single one. A large number of seventeenth century Dutch paintings show black servants and slaves wearing earrings, as does a painting of black Moor in North Africa and as does one of a possible West Indian slave trader.
One final note:
Earrings were a fashion statement!
Seamen of this era, including sea rovers, did not wear them to improve eyesight, pay for a funeral, or for any other nonsensical reason, no matter how reasonable such myths may seem when un-examined or otherwise taken at face value. Unfortunately, in spite of the wealth of accurate information readily available on the Internet, it has paradoxically fostered, or perhaps enhanced is more accurate, an intellectual laziness and willingness to believe anything in print.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First posted July 2017. Last updated September 25, 2017.