Did Pirates Actually Have Hooks?

Whenever we imagine pirates, they always have a metal hook instead of a hand. But how accurate is our depiction of pirates? And where do those images come from?

Pirates used hooks as their hand prostheses, though only rarely. Even though historical records rarely mention hooks as prostheses or if pirates wore them at all, there are some possible indications that not just pirates but also regular people used hooks.

This article will discuss the possible origins of the connection between pirates and hook prostheses and a brief history of prosthetics that culminated in pirates wearing hooks. Read on to learn more about where this myth came from.

The Origin of Pirates Using Hook Prosthesis

Although the popular image of pirates having hooks or a pegleg is deeply embedded in our imagination, the truth lies somewhere between reality and fiction.

The movie industry presented almost all pirates as having hooks, which would make sense given all the dangerous situations at sea. Even though being a pirate was a dangerous endeavor, the frequency of hook prostheses was nowhere near the Hollywood depictions tried to present.

This is evident in the fact that even the golden age of piracy in the 18th century doesn’t contain a single record of a pirate having a hook. [1]

So what are the origins of the depiction of pirates in this fashion? 

Some suggest that a Turkish captain, Hizir Reis (Barbarossa), from the mid-16th century, was the first seaman who used a hook as a prosthesis after he’d lost an arm in a battle. [2]

There is no record if captain Hizir used a hook to replace his lost hand, but stories about a captain with a hook for a hand started circulating around Europe.

Another possible origin of the popular depiction of pirates dates back to the 16th century again. This time it’s an English privateer by the name of Christopher Newport. Newport was one of the first settlers in America, and it was near Cuba that he lost his arm in a battle. [3] 

Once again, there’s no record that Newport used a hook as his prosthesis, but popular depictions and stories even of his own time created this image which gave rise to the pirates known today.

Last but not least on this list of origins for hook prostheses and pirates is J. M. Barrie’s Captain James Hook from his 1904 play Peter Pan. Captain Hook’s a fictional representation that could’ve even been inspired by Newport, according to some. [4] 

Nonetheless, this fictional representation of a pirate with a hook (who’s also named “Hook”) leaves the strongest impression on the modern mind. 

Apart from Barrie’s Captain Hook, what’s today known about pirates originates primarily from the 18th century, when pirates earned the reputation they are known by even today. Some of the most famous pirates roamed the seas in this century, but it should be noted that none of them had hooks or peg legs. 

Did People Actually Use Hooks for Hands? 

People nowadays tend to think that hooks were just another prop used by Hollywood directors in their movies. While there’s certainly an element of truth to that, the usage of hooks for hands bears some historical roots.

People actually used hooks for hands in the past. Apart from pirates, who are often exclusively connected with hooks for hands, poorer classes in the past would use wooden prostheses or hooks, though they weren’t as common as wooden ones. 

Hook prostheses aren’t some medical aids two or three centuries old. They were used as hand prostheses until the mid-20th century when they slowly started to be improved after the Artificial Limb Program. [5]

Why Did Pirates Put Hooks on Their Hands? 

Pirates put hooks on their hands primarily because they lost their hands in a battle or an accident. Hooks could’ve been practical to pirates who used them as a secondary weapon. However, the usage of hook prostheses wasn’t as common.

According to Colin Woodard, an author who wrote a book about pirates, apart from the practical aspect of hooks for pirates as a secondary weapon, hooks could also be used as part of the “image” of pirates as dangerous and terrifying seamen. [6]

In that sense, pirates themselves were keen to use hooks as something that wasn’t commonly used by everybody else.

The History of Hook Prostheses

Believe it or not, hooks as prostheses go back a long time. In fact, one of the earliest prostheses, a wooden toe (suitably dubbed “the Cairo Toe”), dates back to Ancient Egypt. Romans continued the traditions, according to some prostheses that were found, dating back to 300 B. C. [7]

Romans are famous for their ingenuity; in every respect, they seemed ahead of their time. Here’s an interesting article discussing whether or not the Romans invented steam engines

So, some of the oldest civilizations used prosthetic limbs not only to replace the missing limb but, in some cases, like this one, they actually helped them walk.

During the 16th century, Ambroise Paré started designing and making really intricate prostheses made of metal. Paré’s prostheses, however, were quite heavy and expensive, so not everyone could afford or wear them. [8] 

Because poorer people couldn’t afford metal prostheses, many of them used simple and cheap materials like wood or anything they could find. This is most probably how hooks became one type of prostheses, especially on ships where materials like wood and hooks could be found everywhere.

The use of hook prostheses started to become standard among pooper people during the 18th century. So, instead of the image modern people have about pirates with hooks, thousands of ordinary people had wooden prostheses or hooks during this time.

Amputation throughout history wasn’t the most sanitary, especially on pirate ships, where there weren’t any surgeons even. Therefore, the rate of those pirates who survived to have their prostheses wasn’t that great. 

Additionally, some pirates could actually “retire” in case they lost a limb. That’s because they were a burden to the remaining crew, and they couldn’t take care of themselves entirely. In those cases, those pirates would get their share of the spoils to keep them going for a period of time.

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