You know when someone does something wrong, and you couldn’t do anything but turn a blind eye to what that person is doing? We know it means choosing to ignore something that you know is wrong (instead of confronting or correcting it). Have you ever wondered where the idiom came from? Ask Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson

Before he became Admiral Nelson, he was simply someone who was born to a moderately prosperous Norfolk family. His uncle Maurice Suckling, a high-ranking naval officer, influenced him to join the navy. Because of his ability, he quickly rose through the ranks and worked alongside leading naval commanders. By the time he reached 20, he had already obtained his own command. And so, Admiral Nelson was known for his great leadership and unconventional strategies and tactics that proved to be effective in bringing victories to the British during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Invasion of Calvi in Corsica

Now, for us to understand the “blind eye” part of the idiom, we have to know how Admiral Nelson lost his right eye. Here’s what happened.

Horatio Nelson lost the sight in his right eye at the Siege of Calvi. Photo from Meandering Through Time History Blog

On June 19, 1794, the British forces, led by Admiral Nelson along with Lieutenant-General Charles Stuart, landed at Calvi as part of their plan to assault the French. He immediately ordered the bombardment of the enemy positions. On July 12, a shot from the enemies struck the sandbags nearby Admiral Nelson’s position. The stones and sand sprayed, and the debris struck his right eye. It was bandaged, and he returned to action. After the siege, he regained partial sight, although he could only perceive light from the dark but not see objects.

The Battle of Copenhagen

It was 1801, and the British were engaged against the Danes at Copenhagen. This time, Admiral Nelson and Sir Hyde Parker were both in command. Sir Hyde Parker was considered a great leader, too, although he wasn’t as aggressive as his companion. Instead, he liked to “stick to the book” and follow naval warfare doctrine.

The Battle of Copenhagen, 1801.

Parker ordered the Royal Navy to disengage, but Nelson didn’t like the idea.

For the way that the battle was going, he knew that the attack needed pressed harder rather than retreat. So when Parker raised the flag signal from his ship to withdraw, Nelson reportedly put his telescope up to his blind eye and said to his Flag Lieutenant, “You know Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal”.

He pushed forward, and most of their ships followed him. The battle turned in their favor, and most of the Danish ships were heavily damaged. Later on, they were forced to ally with the British. As a reward for his actions and victory, he became Viscount Nelson of the Nile.