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From Southwest Louisiana to Southeast Louisiana, folklore and history are weaved together when it comes to Jean Lafitte and roving bands of scurvy-ridden, plunder barons of the Caribbean. There are three distinctions: pirate, buccaneer, and privateer.
A privateer was basically the same as a pirate, with the subtle difference being that privateers were hired guns for a particular country and sunk ships and plundered at the behest and benefit of those countries that they had an agreement with. Lafitte was both a pirate and a privateer (and maybe a little bit scoundrel as well). Lafitte, the most famous of pirates from the New Orleans area, was seen as a pirate king, ruling over the pirate kingdom of Barataria, just south of New Orleans. Barataria was a fortified island of sorts, existing in the waterways of Barataria Bay in Louisiana.
In our modern culture and sports teams, the University of New Orleans baseball team, the UNO Privateers exist as a thing steeped in History. But Louisiana high school mascots will often be deemed “the buccaneers” over the choice of “pirates”, while even in Florida the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to mind. Further north of Florida, the term pirate is used in South Carolina to describe the tangled history and legend of Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard the Pirate. And for some reason, the Pittsburgh Pirates exist with no historical basis or account of pirates in or around the landlocked city of Pittsburgh.
So, who were these buccaneers? Buccaneers, as it turns out, got their distinction for their known love of smoked meats and their skill at making smoked meats. No, seriously. Often marooned or hiding on various islands in the Caribbean, the pirates often took up with the indigenous people on many unnamed islands. The South American island natives took the pirates in and showed them how to make smoked meats on a wooden framework, basically a wooden grill for which wild pig or fish might be slow roasted or cooked on what was termed a “buccan” or “boucan.”
Thus, the British officers in the Caribbean who noticed this trend among pirates christened them with the name of “buccaneers”, which became the name for blood-thirsty, sea raiders who liked to have the occasional barbecue (a term which many believe also spawned from “boucan”).
Why the Eye Patch?
To this day, when it comes to both pirates and buccaneers, the symbol of the eyepatch has become indicative of our modern referent for that of all things pirate. Even on Jolly Roger pirate flags, one can still see the obvious eyepatch and even in French Quarter landmarks like the secretive pirate watering hole of Tony Seville’s Pirate’s Alley Café tucked away in Pirate’s Alley adjacent to the St. Louis Cathedral. The eyepatch makes an appearance almost every time.
How did the eyepatch become a thing that we culturally and globally accepted as a “pirate thing?”
The first and obvious answer from most folks is that swashbuckling adventurers could have lost their eye in combat and thusly an eyepatch would cover and conceal any plucked out eyeball from the socket. But there would have had to have been an inordinate amount of eye loss for that to become a cultural thing that persisted for centuries. Perhaps hand-to-hand combat at sea would have been rife with eye loss for sailors fighting pirates, yet only the pirate and buccaneer became associated with the eyepatch.
The answer is more interesting than violent ocular wounds. Pirates weren’t known so much for hand-to-hand combat; they could plunder a ship without close-up fighting under a royal white flag of surrender of unarmed merchant ships. Pirates, as it turned out, were fierce gunners, notoriously feared on the water.
The eyepatch played a key role in the pirate’s notoriety as gunners. For example, a pirate gunner would wear an eyepatch even though he would have two good, working eyes. Said pirate would be wearing an eyepatch over his left eye on the deck of the ship in the warm Caribbean sun. And when it came time for combat, the pirate gunner would have to descend, below deck to the cannons.
As the pirate gunner would descend into the darkness, from above, going below deck, he would switch the eyepatch from his left eye to his right eye, so that the left eye would already be acclimated to the dark of gunnery cabins below. They could basically see in the dark with the right eye, previously blinded by the sun above deck, now covered by the eyepatch. And the left eye, which was previously covered all day in the sun by the dark of the eye patch was now as sharp as that of a cat. Pirates could then fire off grapeshot and cannonballs in quick succession, with quick maneuvering in the dark thanks to the eyepatch. And that is what made pirates feared and excellent gunners on the high seas.
There’s a huge pirate historical figure buried in the St. Louis Cemetery Number Two with an even bigger story.
But that’s a tale for the next blog, landlubber.