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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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'A Greater Monster Never Infested the Seas'
Edward Low
By Cindy Vallar

Edward
                Lowe

One of the last successful pirates in the waning years of the golden age, Edward “Ned” Low also gained a deservedly vicious reputation. Of his early life, we know next to nothing and what is recounted comes from a single source, Captain Charles Johnson. The problem is that some information included in his bestseller, A General History of the Pyrates, is false or embellished, so there’s no way to ascertain where the truth of Low’s childhood lies.

According to Johnson, Low was born in the Westminster area of London, England. He was illiterate and spent most of his formative years gaining his education from the streets. Petty thievery and gambling were his usual pastimes, and woe to anyone who dared to steal from him or had the audacity to accuse him of cheating. He ably defended himself and feared nothing. Such behavior was apparently a family trait; one brother spent a fair portion of his time being toted in a basket on a porter’s back through the crowded streets of London. When the opportunity presented itself, this seven year old stole hats and wigs from other porters’ heads and hid them. It proved a lucrative trick until he grew too big for the basket, at which time he turned his skills to pickpocketing, stealing, and burgling. This brother was eventually caught, tried, convicted, and executed.

Another sibling persuaded Low that he needed a different and more honest line of work. The two signed aboard a merchant ship and, several years later, Low set down roots in Boston, Massachusetts. Historical records show that he married Eliza Marble, who came from a good family, on 12 August 1714, at First Church; the Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth presided over the ceremony. Rather than continue working on ships, Low became a ship rigger. Four years later, he and his wife joined Second Church, where their children were later baptized. Their infant son soon died. Daughter Elizabeth came into this world in the winter of 1719, but her mother died shortly after her birth.1  After Eliza’s death, Low lost his job and left Boston.2 Rather than take his daughter with him, he gave her into the care of relatives of her mother. This abandonment of his daughter left its mark on Low. One of his captives later remarked:
[I] could observe in him an uneasiness in the sentiments of his mind and the workings of his passions toward a young child . . . which upon every lucid interval from reveling and drink he would express a great tenderness for, insomuch that I have seen him sit down and weep plentifully upon the mentioning of it. (Ashton, 264)
Edward Low's flag created by Orem (source:
                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Low_Flag.svg)Low did not immediately turn to piracy. He boarded a sloop heading to the Bay of Honduras to pick up logwood.3 In the midst of loading such a cargo, Low and the men working with him returned to the sloop just before dinner. He proposed that they stay and eat before resuming their work, but the captain nixed that idea. The quicker they finished loading, the sooner they could sail away and the less likely anyone would try to stop them. Angered, Low fired a musket with the intention of wounding or killing the captain. Instead, his shot hit a fellow crewmember in the head. The fatal shot compelled Low to abscond with one of the sloop’s boats and twelve men went with him. Sometime during the next day, they seized another vessel, voted to go on the account, and elected Low captain of the pirates. They hoisted a black flag with a red skeleton and set sail for the Cayman Islands.

When they arrived around Christmas, they discovered they weren’t the first pirates to anchor in the harbor. The need for fresh water had brought George Lowther and his men there. While the pirates became acquainted, Low’s vessel sank. Since Lowther also needed men, he offered Low a proposal. Since he only had a few men lacked sufficient arms and ammunition, they should join forces. Lowther would remain captain of his sloop, the Happy Delivery, and Low would become his lieutenant. The two men reached an accord, and after sinking Low’s little vessel, the pirates went hunting. It was a union that lasted until 28 May 1722, but would be renewed several times more during Low’s career as a pirate.

George LowtherThey returned to the Bay of Honduras on 10 January 1722, where they found a 200-ton merchant ship called Greyhound. Benjamin Edwards was captain of the Boston-owned vessel, and he refused to just surrender to the pirates. The battle lasted roughly an hour, at which time Edwards deemed it was better to surrender, else their fate might be harsher. Neither Low nor Lowther were in a forgiving mood. Their men whipped, beat, and cut the sailors, before forcing five to join the pirates.4 One of these was the Greyhound’s second mate, Charles Harris, who apparently had no problem with becoming a pirate, for he would become captain of another captured sloop.

While Low torched Edwards’ Greyhound, Lowther captured and burned seven other Boston vessels just “because they were New England men.” (Dow, 144) Three more sloops were also taken. The one from Connecticut suffered the same fate as the previous eight, but the captain of the Virginia one was permitted to keep her after the pirates unloaded her cargo. The Jamaican sloop was added to the pirate fleet; her new captain was Harris. Low also gained his own sloop that originally hailed from Newport, Rhode Island. Aside from being new, this 100-ton boat sailed well. The pirates added eight guns and ten swivel guns. With her addition to the armada, the pirates had three vessels with which to mount an attack and one that served as a supply tender.

The first stop after weighing anchor was Port Mayo in the Gulf of Matique to careen their sloops so they would sail more quickly than they did with the hulls fouled. This required they unload as much as possible, storing their booty and supplies under tented sails, and then heaving the sloops onto their sides. Doing so made the pirates the most vulnerable because their guns were off-loaded and they were less mobile. Normally, they feared an assault from the sea; this time, a great number of natives attacked. The pirates sought refuge on the unrepaired sloops, while their attackers hauled away or destroyed their stores and set fire to the Happy Delivery.

Lowther assumed command of the largest of the remaining sloops and named her Ranger, which carried ten guns and eight swivels. All the pirates piled aboard her and towed the other sloops from the island and abandoned them. Hungry pirates, few provisions, and lost treasure made for short tempers, bitter accusations, and infighting – a situation not remedied until they encountered a brigantine in the West Indies. Seizing this vessel, they found much needed food, which alleviated the bickering. Once the supplies were offloaded to their vessels, they sank the prize and headed for the Florida Straits to attack ships near the Bahamas.

Another brigantine was taken on Tuesday, 28 May 1722. The Rebecca was on her way to Boston, having left St. Christopher (St. Kitts, today), and Captain James Flucker knew his crew numbered far too few to fight Lowther’s 100 or so pirates. Among the twenty-three on Rebecca were five women and, for once, they were apparently well treated. Lowther also promised that they would, in due course, reach their destination, because once he found a better vessel, Flucker could have his ship back.

The Rebecca provided Lowther with the means to part company from Low. Apparently, the latter was never satisfied and often caused problems among Lowther’s men. To appease the troublemaker, Lowther offered Low the brigantine and forty men chose to go too. These pirates also took “two guns, four swivels, six quarter-casks of powder, provisions and some stores,” as well as three from Rebecca’s crew: Joseph Sweetser (Charleston, Massachusetts), Robert Rich (London, England), and Robert Willis (London). (Dow, 146) Willis, who had previously fallen from the mast, pleaded a broken arm and asked not to be taken, but Low ignored the request.

At this point, Low and his men needed their own articles of agreement. These later appeared in the 8 August 1723 issue of the Boston News-Letter and in an account of the “Tryals Of Thirty-Six Persons for PIRACY” published that same year.
I. THE Captain shall have Two full Shares, the Master a Share and a half, the Doctor, Mate, Gunner, Carpenter, and Boatswain a Share and quarter.

II. He that shall be found Guilty of Striking or taking up any unlawful Weapon either aboard of a Prize, or aboard the Privateer, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and majority of the Company shall see fit.

III. He that shall be found guilty of Cowardice in the Time of Engagement, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the majority of the Company shall think fit.

IV. If any Jewels, Gold or Silver is found on board of a Prize to the Value of a Piece of Eight, and the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter-Master in Twenty-four Hours Time, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and majority of the Company shall think fit.

V. He that shall be found Guilty of Gaming, or playing at Cards, or Defrauding or Cheating one another to the Value of a Royal of Plate, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and majority of the Company shall think fit.

VI. He that shall be Guilty of Drunkenness in the Time of an Engagement, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and majority of the Company shall think fit.

VII. He that shall hath the Misfortune to loose any of his Limbs in the Time of Engagement in the Companies Service, shall have the Sum of Six Hundred Pieces of Eight, and kept in the Company as long as he pleases.

VIII. Good Quarters to be given when Craved.

IX. He that sees a Sail first shall have the best Pistol, or Small Arm aboard of her.

X. And lastly, No Snapping of Arms in the Hold. (Tryals, 191)
Five days after Low’s company signed these articles, they seized a sloop near Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. This boat belonged to Newport, Rhode Islander James Cahoon, whose arm was badly sliced during the fight with the pirates. Low took the mainsail, provisions, and water. He ordered his men to toss overboard the sloop’s bowsprit and all rigging, before setting sail on a southeasterly course. In spite of the damage to both his vessel and himself, Cahoon arrived at Block Island around midnight. A whaler left for Newport with the news of the pirate attack. Early the next morning, drummers announced the governor’s need for volunteers to pursue the villains. One hundred forty men answered his summons; eighty went with Captain John Headland aboard a sloop armed with ten guns. Captain John Brown, Jr. took sixty men on his sloop of six guns; they also carried a large reserve of small arms. Their commission to hunt for the pirates was good for ten days, but they never caught sight of Low and eventually returned to Newport empty-handed.

When Boston learned of what had happened to Cahoon, the drums sounded there and more than 100 men responded. Captain Peter Papillion never found Low, but they did locate the Rebecca. As Lowther had promised, Low returned the brigantine to Captain Flucker after selecting a new vessel at Port Roseway (Shelburne), Nova Scotia. Aside from the remainder of his crew and his female passengers, Flucker also carried a number of Marblehead fishermen who had lost their vessels to Low. On 9 July, the Boston News-Letter reported that the goods left aboard the Rebecca were auctioned off at Captain Long’s house in Charlestown. The items sold included
1 Turtle Net, 1 Scarlet Jacket, 1 small Still, 2 pair Steel yards, 1 Jack and Pendant, 2 doz. Plates, 2 papers of Pins, 5 Horn books, 2 pieces of cantaloons, 1 main-sail, Boom and small Cable belonging to a Schooner, a small Boat and 20 yards of old Canvas. (Dow, 149)5

To be continued . . .


Notes:
1. Elizabeth grew to adulthood and wed James Burt on 7 December 1739 in Boston.

2. The reason for Low’s dismissal is unknown. Dow and Edmonds mention his “cock-sure disposition and [that he] frequently engaged in disputes and quarrels.” (Dow, 142) Other historians suggest that he may have become despondent following Eliza’s death. Whatever the case, he was sacked.

3. The heart of the logwood tree was prized for the dye it produced. Many English buccaneers, including William Dampier, harvested the logs, but it was a dangerous endeavor. The land where the trees grew was claimed by Spain, and the Guarda Costa often patrolled the region seeking the interlopers, many of whom were pirates, who dared to steal from them.

4. The five from the Greyhound who went with the pirates were Christopher Atwell, Charles Harris, Henry Smith, Joseph Willis, and David Lindsay.

5. According to Textiles in America by Florence Montgomery (W.W. North, 2007), cantaloon was a fine woolen bedcover made in Catalina. Later, the term also applied to French and English worsteds.


For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
Ashton, Philip. “He Repeated the Snapping of His Pistol at My Head” in Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder & Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996, 260-291.

Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
Bradford, Andrew. “The American Weekly Mercury No. 184 (20 June – 27 June 1723)” in The American Weekly Mercury vol. IV 1722-1723. The Colonial Society of Pennsylvania, 1907, 70.
Burg, B. R. “The Buccaneer Community” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001, 211-243.
Burl, Aubrey. Black Barty: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean. Sutton, 1997.

Caretakers Paranormal. “A Pirate’s Treasure,” Nova Scotia Ghost Stories, Folklore and Legends (December 2016).

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dolin, Eric Jay. Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates. Liveright, 2018.
Dow, George Francis, and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. Dover, 1996.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunn, 2003.

Flemming, Gregory N. At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton. ForeEdge, 2014.
Flemming, Greg. Cruise of the Pirate Edward Low 1722-1724 [map and timeline].

Hanna, Mark G. Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740. University of North Carolina, 2015.

Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History. Osprey, 2008.

Lewis, Brenda Ralph. The Pirate Code: From Honorable Thieves to Modern-Day Villains. Lyons, 2008.

Marley, David F. Pirates of the Americas v. 2: 1686-1725. ABC-CLIO, 2010, 690-693.
Mist’s Weekly Journal (19 March 1726), London.

Pirates in Their Words: Eye-witness Accounts of the ‘Golden Age’ of Piracy, 1690-1720 edited by E. T. Fox. Fox Historical, 2014.
The Pirates Own Book, or Authentic Narratives of the Lives, Exploits, and Executions of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers. Francis Blake, 1855.
Pringle, Patrick. Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age. Dover, 2001.

Rediker, Marcus. “The Seaman as Pirate: Plunder and Social Banditry at Sea” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001, 139-168.
Roberts, George. “I Waited to Have My Doom Determined” in Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder & Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996, 186-243.
Roberts, George. The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. A. Bettesworth and J. Osborn, 1726.
Rogozenski, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers, & Privateers in Fact, Fiction, & Legend. Facts on File, 1995.

Seitz, Don C. Under the Black Flag: Exploits of the Most Notorious Pirates. Dover, 2002.
Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.
Selinger, Gail. Pirates of New England: Ruthless Raiders and Rotten Renegades. Globe Pequot, 2017.
Seybolt, Robert Francis, Jonathan Barlow, and Nicholas Simons. “Captured by Pirates: Two Diaries of 1724-1725,” The New England Quarterly 2:4 (Oct., 1929), 658-669.
Sherry, Frank. Raiders and Rebels: The Golden Age of Piracy. HarperCollins, 2009.
Smith, Roger C. The Maritime Heritage of the Cayman Islands. University Press of Florida, 2000.
Snow, Edward Rowe. Pirates & Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Commonwealth Editions, 2004.

“Tryals of Thirty-Six Persons for Piracy” in British Piracy in the Golden Age: History & Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007.

Whymper, F. The Sea: Its Stirring Story of Adventure, Peril, & Heroism. Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1870, vol. 3, 70-71.

Copyright © 2018 Cindy Vallar
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