Wishing everyone Happy Holidays, however you celebrate them! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Happy New Year (Western and Chinese)–all and more as you wish and please. It’s a secular Christmas here: Santa Claus, reindeer and sleigh, Douglas fir tree (except this year due to the nation-wide shortage, we cut a Virginia pine locally instead), stockings hung by the chimney with care, homemade cookies, fire in the fireplace, books read to children (and to nearby listening adults), much gift giving, plus Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C. Scott, Mister Magoo (aka Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island fame), Reginald Owen, and Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, plus occasional swords and sword adventure with musketeers and pirates (and dark rum left for Santa as he makes his rounds), along with the usual excellent food, drink, family, and good cheer.
That said, this is a blog and therefore a suitable place to give praise to the four swashbucklers in the image above, from the 1952 RKO film, At Sword’s Point, also released as The Sons of the Musketeers. The movie is not considered to be the best of its genre, yet is still better than most and worth watching just to see Maureen O’Hara wield a sword–and there’s more to see than just O’Hara’s swordplay and independence, although as noted she alone makes the film worthwhile.
So, from left to right…
Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos Jr.
Alan Hale Jr., a solid more-than-character actor appeared in many films but is by far best known for his role as Jonas Grumby aka “the Skipper” in Gilligan’s Island.
Hale Jr. also starred as Porthos Sr. in a 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask entitled The Fifth Musketeer, a film that rounded up a variety of aging actors who had starred in swashbuckling and adventure stage, film, or television, and tossed them in with luminaries such as Rex Harrison and Olivia de Havilland, with up and comers such as Beau Bridges and Ian McShane, and with the addition of Ursula Andress and Sylvia Kristel, the latter best-known for the erotic Emmanuelle films. But not even this sterling cast could hold the film together, even coming as it did on the heels of the recent Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers films.
If Alan Hale Jr. looks familiar to fans of older films, he should, for as Porthos Jr. and Porthos Sr., Hale makes an homage to his father, Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in a fair number of swashbucklers, most famously The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Don Juan, all starring his close friend Errol Flynn. In Robin Hood he reprised his role as Little John, having first played the character in the extravagant silent version by swashbuckling film star, producer, and director Douglas Fairbanks. He took up the role again in 1950 in Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Hale, born Rufus Edward MacKahan, co-starred in several other Flynn films as well: Dodge City, Virginia City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and several others for a total of thirteen films.
Maureen O’Hara as Claire, Daughter of Athos
I’ll doubtless devote an entire post one day to Maureen O’Hara and her swordplay in swashbucklers. Alas, as often as she wielded a sword in a swashbuckler, she did not in another. In The Spanish Main and The Black Swan, the most successful of her swashbucklers, she had no sword-in-hand (although Binnie Barnes took up the blade admirably in the former). So, until I post a full article on O’Hara, here are a few images of the strong-willed, independent, red-headed, Dublin-born and raised actress (or actor, if you prefer):
Cornel Wilde as d’Artagnan Jr.
Born to Czech-Hungarian parents in Manhattan, Cornel Wilde often traveled with his father to Europe where he picked up several languages and, reportedly, skill at fencing. An avid and outstanding fencer, Wilde turned down membership on the US saber team for the 1936 Olympic Games in order to accept a theatrical position–a decision few fencers would ever consider making. It’s one thing to give up a potential or possible eventual position on an Olympic fencing team, quite another to give up an offered one. That said, the several actors I know with fencing experience might very choose an opportunity in the form of a middling role in film or theater over fencing in the Olympic Games, although I’m sure the decision wouldn’t be an easy one.
An accomplished actor, Wilde’s looks, swordplay, and athleticism led him to starring roles in numerous swashbucklers.
Wilde furthered his fencing study in the US under famous Hungarian-born fencing master Joseph Vince who had a studio and fencing supplier company first in New York City, later in Beverly Hills. Wilde even illustrated Vince’s book on fencing.
If I have a favorite of Wilde’s films, it is almost certainly The Naked Prey. Relegated to cult film status by many today, it is best considered as an action art film, if such a category exist. In any case, it is a minor classic (Criterion has released it), notwithstanding mixed reviews. Wilde was fifty-two when he produced, directed, and starred in the film, a physically demanding starring role for anyone, not to mention that he was ill most of the time–demands that most men even half his age probably could not have handled.
Dan O’Herlihy as Aramis Jr.
An accomplished actor who should be better known today, O’Herlihy played a variety or roles during his long career, ranging from several swashbucklers to serious contemporary roles to character pieces such as “The Old Man” in the RoboCop films.
O’Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in Robinson Crusoe, directed by famous-auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel.
Ever the distinguished-voiced actor’s friend: audio books.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. First posted December 20, 2017, last updated January 7, 2018.
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. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
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.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
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–an 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.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
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. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
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. Last updated April 14, 2020.
“[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).
So associated with sea battles were timber legs, that even song lyrics mentioned them:
Now, Boys, who wins a Golden Chain?
Ne’er fear a Wooden Leg.
–Anon., “The Sea-Fight, A Song,” 17th century
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.
The most famous English surgeon of the 17th century, Richard Wiseman, wrote in his famous text on surgery that “In our Sea-fights oftentimes a Buttock, the Brawn of the Thigh, the Calf of the Leg, are torn off by Chain-shot and Splinters.”
Worse, some surgeons were too quick to amputate. Again, Richard Wiseman: “Amongst the Cruisers in private Fregats from Dunkerk, it was complained, that their Chirurgeons were too active in amputating those fractured Members [arms and legs]. As in truth there are such silly Brothers, who will brag of the many they have dismembered, and think that way to lie themselves into credit. But they that truly understand Amputation and their Trade, well know how villanous a thing it is to glory in such a work.”
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, 1722, vol. 1:22.)
It is important to point out that buccaneers were not the originators of this compensation. It was often part of merchant seamen agreements, and usual among navies as well. For example, in 1685 in the English navy, the “Chatham Chest” for pensioners would pay an annual stipend of 6 pounds, 13 shillings, and 4 pence for the loss of an arm or leg, and twice that for the loss of two legs. For the loss of two arms, 15 pounds per annum, for the loss of the use of an arm (but not the loss of the arm itself), 5 pounds, and for the loss of an eye, four pounds. (From A Descriptive Catalogue of the Naval Manuscripts in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, vol. 1.)
But back to pirates! William Dampier, during his voyage with buccaneers across the Pacific from the Spanish Main under Captain Swan, mentions buccaneer William Williams “that had a wooden Leg.” 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 are at least two “Golden Age” pirates 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. Another famous wooden-legged admiral was Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta who successfully defended Cartagena de Indias from English attack in 1741. Early in his sea-going career he lost an eye, a leg, and the use of an arm from wounds received in battle.
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, according to Stevenson himself, by the 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 2017-2019. Created 4 December 2017. Last updated January 25, 2023.