British naval hero Adm. Horatio Nelson did not wear a patch to hide his blind right eye, according to new evidence that blows out of the water a myth dating from the mid-19th century that was popularized by Hollywood.
Not only did he not have to wear anything to hide the bad eye, but he had difficulty persuading the navy to pay him a disability pension for the loss of sight, which happened during the capture of Calvi on Corsica in 1793.
“It has long been known that there is a problem with the eye patch, but now I have found two pieces of documentary evidence that prove beyond doubt that he did not wear one,” Nelson author and expert Colin White told Reuters on Wednesday.
Disability claim rejected
The first is a letter dated 1797 — just after he had lost his right arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz — complaining that while the navy had agreed a disability claim for that indisputable loss they had rejected the claim for his eye.
“What that letter shows is that these guys looking at him could not tell whether the eye was blind let alone which one. That is clear evidence that there was no visible disfigurement to hide — in other words no eye patch,” White said.
The second was a medical certificate also dated 1797 stating that he had definitely lost the sight in his right eye.
“These two together tell us no material damage, no empty socket therefore no eye patch,” White said.
White, who has written a book of Nelson’s letters as part of celebrations leading to the 200th anniversary of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar in which Nelson smashed the French navy at the cost of his life, said the myth came after his death.
Patch appeared in 19th century paintings
“All the portraits of him during his life show him without an eye patch. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that artists began painting him with one to emphasize his disability,” he said. “The wounded hero.”
The myth was further enhanced by the fact that Nelson had an eye patch sewn into his naval hat. But that was to protect his good left eye from the sun, White said.
The patch was prominent on Laurence Olivier’s right eye when he played opposite Vivien Leigh in the 1941 film “That Hamilton Woman.”