Hooks for Hands

Another Myth?

Let us dive into another myth of the pirate:  Did they replace hands that had been removed with hooks?

Much like the idea of peg-legs and eye patches, a person that sustained enough of an injury that their hand had to be removed was probably not going to make it through the surgery or the possible / probably infections that were going to follow.  Andy of you that have had surgeries, think about the healing time that it takes.  Now, take yourself back to the Golden Age of Piracy – the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

You are on a boat.  There has been a huge naval battle and you have had your hand damaged from a falling piece of mast.  The ships’s carpenter (who doubles as the surgeon), tells you that the hand is not repairable and he is going to have to remove it.  After you have endured a surgery where your only pain killer is copious amounts of rum you are left with an open wound wrapped in less then sterile dressings.  You are trying to keep the wound as clean as possible and avoid infection.

Along with the obvious problems that limb removal at sea has, you are also a person, a sick person on board ship, you are taking up space and food and rum.  You are also taking up the time of a valuable member of the crew when it might be better to just dump you over the side into the drink – to give you a one way ticket to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Just like any other serious injury onboard ship, it would depend on the severity of the wound or injury and of course it would depend on how important you are to the crew and the ship.  It might be worth the risk to save the navigator or the quartermaster where the 1st gunner might be able to be replaced.  Let’s say that you survived the removal of your hand.  Do you leave the hand off or do you replace it with something else.  In the argument presented in this article we are going to say you replace it with a gaff or a hook.

Certainly you have seen the gaff if you are pirate.  They are going to be on ship.  You speak to the carpenter and the blacksmith onboard ship and they fashion a leather bracer that will slide onto your arm, with a metal cup on the end with the hook from a gaff attached to the end.  You now have a hook for a hand.  How useful is that onboard ship.  You are no longer going into the rigging.  You are no longer swabbing the deck.  You are not loading a cannon.  You are stuck doing menial tasks.  Remember that all the members of the pirate crew had tasks that they did everyday.  Their tasks were based on their rank in the crew and what their vocations were.  A person that could not pull their weight would not be accepted by the crew – again, unless they ranked high enough in the crew.

So – Where did the myth originate?
I think it can be argued that the myth of the pirate with a hook for a hand can be pinned on Captain James Hook from Peter Pan.  James Barrie created what he saw as the definitive pirate.  Hook is said to have been Blackbeard’s boatswain and is the only man that Long John Silver ever feared.  His right hand – probably his sword arm – was chopped off by Peter Pan.  The fact that he was still the captain of the Jolly Roger, that he is  still feared by his crew and other pirates, speaks to the fact that he is a staunch pirate and to be respected.  He still fought Pan and the Lost Boys, thinning their herd and was the ruler of the pirates that lived and fought in Neverland.

Much like Long John Silvers became the pirate with one-leg or a peg-leg, Hook became the penultimate pirate pirate with one hand that had been replaced by a hook.  So, this Halloween when you purchase the plastic hook fr your kid to wear while they are in costume as a pirate, think about where that all started.  Spare a moment to think about Captain Hook and the theory of the hook-handed pirate that may or may not have been a part of history.