Did Pirates Actually Have Peg Legs?

Exposure to pirate portrayals in books and movies makes it hard to imagine pirates as anything other than fearsome seafarers with peg legs, eyepatches, and hooks for hands. Interestingly, real pirates weren’t exactly like these media depictions, though the inspiration behind them is likely based on some truth.

Some pirates actually had peg legs, though it wasn’t as common as Hollywood would have people believe. Injuries aboard ships happened regularly, and amputations were the chosen method to prevent infection. Although peg-legged pirates aren’t a complete myth, the reality is that they were quite rare.

This article examines the media characterization of pirates and dives into real-life injuries sustained by these fearsome swashbucklers. Additionally, it looks at one famous pirate and briefly explores his legacy as a peg-legged privateer. Read on to learn more.

Modern Depictions of Pirates with Peg Legs

Novels written long after the Golden Age of Piracy depicted fictional pirate characters with eyepatches, parrots, hooks, and peg legs. [1] Disney popularized these portrayals with film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” These characterizations made pirates far more intimidating and memorable to the viewers.

Pirates Did Actually Suffer Limb Injuries

Although the swashbuckling characters in books and movies are overembellished, it’s true that prosthetics were occasionally seen among sailors. After all, the life of a pirate was not an easy one; it was rife with threatening sea voyages and vicious battles. [2]

The majority of injuries sustained by privateers were likely caused by reasons other than savage fighting, however. Crewmen performed all the work aboard a ship, including repairs. They worked with blocks (e.g., pulleys), tackle to load and unload cargo, massive ropes and cables wrapped with mechanical capstans, and windlasses to move hefty loads. [3]

Pirates also had to untie and stow the sails, which required dangerous climbing. During the Golden Age of Piracy, ships didn’t have safety harnesses or platforms. Crewmates typically accessed the sails by climbing the rigging or using a rope ladder.

It’s safe to assume that these dangerous jobs regularly led to injury. [4]

Sea Battle Injuries

When plundering ships, many opposing vessels didn’t go down without a fight. Pirates were regularly exposed to cannons fired at very close range. These massive iron balls hammered the ship, crushing the limbs of any pirate unfortunate enough to be in their path.

Since ships were primarily made of wood, these cannonballs could easily take down wooden masts, causing additional crushing injuries should a pirate be in the way. Not only that, but any smashed or splintered wood quickly became unpredictable projectiles.

Pirates could suffer grave injuries even while operating a cannon. The design of cannons often caused gunpowder to shoot out the front, with some remaining powder exiting the back. The pirate in charge of lighting the cannon could be met with flaming gunpowder, easily causing severe injury.

If pirates boarded an enemy ship (or vice versa), short-range melee attacks were inevitable. The cutlass was the weapon of choice, thanks to its ease of use in confined spaces. This weapon led to severe stabbings, vertical lacerations, and other wounds.

Pirates and Limb Amputations

Crushing injuries, deep lacerations, and broken bones weren’t uncommon — and they often led to secondary issues. Infection was the most common complication; even the most minor wounds could become contaminated with germs due to the unsanitary conditions on the ship.

To make matters worse, pirates had a terrible diet that lacked essential vitamins and minerals. [5] This could easily prevent proper healing. Combine this with a pirate’s dangerous lifestyle, high-risk of injury during sea raids, and the likelihood of infection, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that pirates regularly lost limbs, eyes, and hands while at sea.

Antibiotics weren’t discovered until 1928, hundreds of years after the Golden Age of Piracy.[6] Therefore, at the time, amputations were the preferred way of preventing or eliminating infection in a limb. Frighteningly, since pirates rarely had doctors on board, they had to rely on a crewmate skilled with a knife; this was usually a carpenter or cook.

The impromptu “surgeon” used a homemade anesthetic, usually rum or laudanum. [7] After removing the limb, they’d cauterize the wound using boiling oil. [8]

Interestingly, according to Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ “Pirate Code of Conduct,” privateers subjected to lost limbs received additional booty. [9] Whether or not it was payment enough for their suffering is hard to say.

Pirates who survived this shoddy surgical intervention likely went on to require a prosthetic device to maintain mobility. So, yes, some pirates did have peg legs.

Were Peg Legs Common Among Pirates?

Though peg legs weren’t a complete fabrication, it’s unlikely that they were as common as most people think. Historians would surely have more records of these one-legged buccaneers. Additionally, if a crewmate required an amputation, he likely wasn’t of much use as a pirate anymore. His chances of remaining on board were slim to none unless he took on a less mobile job, such as a cook.

Of course, there was at least one documented pirate who continued working as a privateer, even after losing his leg and using a prosthetic.

What Famous Pirate Had a Peg Leg?

The famous pirate with a peg leg was François (or Francis) Le Clerc. Le Clerc was a privateer in the 16th century known by the French as “Jambe de Bois” and “Pata de Palo” by the Spanish, both of which translate to “Peg Leg.” He is the first documented modern pirate to have a prosthetic leg.

Le Clerc had a reputation for being fearless and brazen, often boarding merchant ships before any other crewmates. His bold fighting prowess is precisely why he lost his leg in the first place. As usual, Le Clerc daringly boarded an English ship first and sustained injuries during the raid that eventually led to a severed limb.[10]

It’s quite possible that Le Clerc’s disability provided him with an advantage, striking additional fear into unsuspecting victims of his surprise attacks. After all, a bearded, one-legged man leading an incursion is a sure sign of determination at all costs.

Despite his injuries, Le Clerc dismissed those who encouraged him to retire from the pirate life. Instead, he continued on, never slowing down or losing his valiant spirit. He led major raids against the Spanish, attacking, plundering, and burning hundreds of ports.

Le Clerc and his crew were responsible for the savage attack on the capital of the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1553. His attack completely annihilated the town of Santiago de Cuba, causing it to eventually be overshadowed by Havana’s prosperity. Santiago de Cuba never fully recovered from the brutal attack.

The famed pirate continued his pirating ways until a decade later when he was murdered during a mission to plunder Spanish ships in 1563.

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