As low as one can go: the pirate captain Ned Low

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Thanks to Rafael Sabatini and Hollywood, we have the popular image of the pirate captain as a heroic, and sometimes even noble figure. There’s something to be said about this when one talks about people such as Sir Francis Drake. But the Golden Age pirate captains were a common lot, and not known for their virtues. Oh, occasionally you run into the likes of Major Stede Bonnet, who was definitely a gentleman and not very good as a pirate captain. Or Edward England, who could so admire the fighting spirit of a merchant captain who fought against him that England set him free and let him go his way unharmed, instead of killing him as his pirate crew desired.

But those characters were exceptional. By and large, the only virtue pirate captains had was bravery in battle. They were thieves, plain and simple, leaders of thieving crews, capable of unreasoning violence.

And sometimes they were much, much worse. How bad? Consider the case of Ned Low.

Keep in mind that by the 1713-1730 “Golden Age of Piracy,” there were a lot of pirates who had served on merchantmen. They had not enjoyed the low pay or harsh discipline imposed by many captains. And they sometimes took vengeance on captains of ships they seized as prizes. They’d ask the seamen on that ship if the captain was a good man or bad, and treat him accordingly. Good captains often got their ships back, and even much of their cargo. Bad captains might be killed.

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a  storm almost sank his ship

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a storm almost sank his ship

But this does not explain Ned Low. Ned seems to have combined innate viciousness with a lust for vengeance, and, to make matters worse, easily took offense. His career as a pirate captain began on May 28, 1722, when pirate captain George Lowther decided he would better be rid of a trouble causer like Ned, and turned over a new prize to him. That tells you something about Ned right there, that a pirate captain considered him too wild.

Many pirates would ransack the cargoes of the ships they captured, taking what they wanted, and sometimes casually destroying the rest. But that wasn’t enough for Ned Low. No, during much of his career as a pirate Ned preferred to set fire to the ships and destroy them and their remaining cargo. New England and Portuguese ships in particular got this treatment due to grudges Ned held.

Still, that was better than his treatment of the people on board of the ships he captured. He’d captured a French ship of 34 guns in July, but decided to scrap her after taking a pink (a square-rigged narrow-stern cargo ship) that sailed better. Apparently the French ship’s cook had been unsatisfactory, his cooking too greasy, because Ned had him bound to the mainmast before he burned the ship. The joke was watching the cook burn, to see if he was also too greasy.

Ned's crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

Ned’s crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

At least the poor cook wasn’t Portuguese. Low seems to have disliked them even more than the French. He captured a ship in August with Portuguese passengers. His crew delighted in stringing up two Portuguese friars to the foreyard mast by their arms until they were almost dead, bringing them down to recover, and then repeating this feat. One of the other Portuguese passengers on deck was disemboweled with a cutlass for looking sorrowfully upon the treatment of the friars.

On yet another occasion, Low took a Portuguese ship and tortured several of the men to find out whether there was money on board. There indeed had been, but the captain had tossed the money overboard, rather than let the pirates have it. For his pains, Low had the captain’s lips cut off and broiled them up as a delicacy right before the poor captain’s eyes. Only then did Low order the murder of the entire 32-man crew of the Portuguese ship. After all, one can only torture them before they’re dead.

Back in his early days, Ned had been a logwood man, cutting logs in the Bay of Honduras. Logwood men hated the Spanish, for the Spanish considered the Bay their territory, and often attacked the logwood men. So when Ned Low decided to pay a visit to the Bay in May of 1723 and captured a Spanish ship that had taken some logwood cutters prisoner, it is no wonder he decided to kill the entire Spanish crew. Some of the Spanish escaped by jumping overboard, but Ned ordered a boat out to hunt those men down and kill them.

Ned on one of his "off" days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

Ned on one of his “off” days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

About a month later, Low took a New England ship sailing from Jamaica. As I’ve said, Low had an animosity toward New Englanders because they had sent out ships to hunt him. So he took the captain and cut off his ears, slit his nose, and “cut him in several places of his body.” The next ship Ned took wasn’t from New England, but Ned decided to torture the crew anyway, Besides the usual slashes with a cutlass, he had burning matches tied between their fingers to burn away the flesh.

After barely getting away from an encounter with a Royal Navy ship, Ned became even more vicious. He had the captain of the next ship he took whipped naked around his deck before cutting off his ears. Only then did he kill the captain and sink his boat. (The crew survived.) He was a bit more lenient with the next boat he took, only cutting off the captain’s head. But then he returned to his usual habits. One particularly unfortunate captain had his ears cut off and then was forced to eat them. At least he got to season them with salt and pepper.

In short, Edward Low was no gentleman. Did he have any redeeming features? Well, yes, one. He’d apparently been happily married to a woman who died in childbirth. Supposedly that was one reason why, when he needed more crew members, he preferred to force single men and not married ones. And that’s the whole of Ned Low’s virtues.

Curiously, we don’t know what happened to Ned. One account has him hanged by the French, another that he was deposed by his crew and marooned on an island where he died. Frankly, I think a fitting end would have been for him to end up the victim of cannibals.

Advertisements

23 thoughts on “As low as one can go: the pirate captain Ned Low

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      I’m chuckling at your reaction, Judy. If you want to get back that sense of romance and swashbuckling adventure, go watch the 1935 movie version of “Captain Blood.” Your library might have it, and it’s on many streaming services.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Brian Bixby Post author

        I have yet to see that, though it is on my list of “pirate films” to see someday. It’s one of the few E.J. has also expressed an interest in seeing.

        Like

  1. Judy

    Brian, this is your assignment this very weekend!! Get Princess Bride, curl up with EJ and a nice glass of wine and get ready for some delightful dialogue!! You will have fun and I can’t wait to hear all about it!!

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      As you can see here, Judy, your suggestion got support. And I am informed by one of my students that one can’t have grown up in the 1980s without loving “The Princess Bride” and “The Goonies.” But this weekend I need to travel to see my almost-90-year-old mother, so it will have to wait a bit yet. (Sorry.) I will let you know when it happens . . .

      Like

      Reply
      1. Judy

        Professor Bixby..an assignment is an assignment however you have until the end of the semester to complete it because I know you are busy! Take care of your Mom and enjoy a movie date with EJ when you can!! I look forward to your report and am sure you will get a good grade!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. crimsonprose

    And another thing about The Princess Bride: it features the best sword fight ever. Plus, of course, it’s a story within a story – and you get Colombo thrown in for free.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Judy

      Too funny!! Yeah this movie has so many things!! So many good lines too!! Gosh now I am in the mood to watch it again!! Yeah and awesome swordsmanship (is that a word?)

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Brian Bixby Post author

        Et tu, CP? And, yes, “swordsmanship” is definitely a word. After seeing the “pirates of the Caribbean” series and the 2014 Korean “The Pirates,” I suppose “swordspersonship” or “swordwomanship” should be, too.

        Like

  3. lyndahaviland

    Hello, Brian. Judy has be raving about you, so I had to stop by and sample one of your pirate posts. First, I must second (or third or forth or whatever) the idea of watching “the dread pirate Roberts” in the cult classic “The Princess Bride”. And if by now you’ve watched it…did you enjoy it? Second, I’m shivering now about Ned Low, and he’s obviously been dead for over 300 years. Wow, he was brutal. Lastly, can you recommend a good book about pirates and the west coast of Florida? 😀

    Like

    Reply
    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      Judy’s been raving about me, has she? I hope she gets over that fever delirium soon. 🙂

      I have indeed seen “The Princess Bride,” and even read the book as well. It’s a faithful adaptation, and done very well indeed. Certainly better than the movie I watched last night for my class, 1995’s “Cutthroat Island,” which, thanks to its heavy reliance on action but thin characterization, is best watched by 8-to-14 year olds. Whereas, while “The Princess Bride” is nominally a children’s book, we all know better.

      On Florida piracy specifically? Not really. But here are a few related ideas. A general purpose introduction: David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag (1996). The source material for much pirate lore: Capt. Charles Johnson, The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), which is primarily organized as a series of pirate biographies. A pioneering study that is very readable: Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1986). William C. Davis’s book The Pirates Laffite (2005) covers those famed early 19th century New Orleans brothers, one of whom spent some time in Pensacola, but it is a long, weighty, scholarly read.

      My understanding is that the west coast of Florida is thinly settled up to the purchase by the U.S. (but I’m a New Englander, pardon me if I’m completely wrong). If so, then it wouldn’t see too much piracy except on a local scale, because piracy follows trade routes, though I could see its swampy coast serving as an excellent pirate refuge. On the other hand, the Spanish fleet than goes down off the east Florida coast in 1715 becomes a magnet for treasure seekers such as Capt. Henry Jennings, and spawns a major increase in piracy in the 1715-1724 era, the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” (thanks to Johnson’s book mentioned above). A recent book on that subject is Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates (2007).

      I’ve been meaning to post a review of your two published Age of Awakening books for some time now over on Sillyverse, but it somehow keeps slipping off the schedule. Probably my reluctance to review books written by people I know either directly or indirectly. I stuck up a review of a work of fiction earlier this year . . . and then found myself face to face with the author two months later. Yikes! And in your case I’ve felt a bit unqualified, because your work could be classified as supernatural romance, and much of my own writing is in an anti-romantic vein.

      Like

      Reply
      1. lyndahaviland

        I’m chuckling over the last line: “anti-romantic”. Hopefully your writing is closer to un-romantic rather than anti-romantic. 😀 But I am looking forward to digging into your stories. Do you recommend I start with Ghosts or with Witches? Both sound intriguing.

        Pertaining to the pirate research, thank you for the references. As a fiction writer, especially one who writes with a paranormal or supernatural bent, I have the luxury of getting creative with the historical perspective. However, I don’t want to unknowingly contradict historical facts.

        You are correct in that the west coast of Florida was sparsely settled, and this was a huge problem long after the US took control of it. John Ringling was instrumental in getting a rail line down into the southern part of West Florida but only after great effort and great cost. He wanted to be for the western side of the state what Flagler was to the eastern coastline.

        I think you are also correct in that the pirates (long before Ringling) also found the west coast pretty quiet. And I’m betting that they used that and the geography to their advantage as a great refuge – as you mentioned. Hoping to remain true to historical fact OR possibilities, I’d like to find out which pirates could have used that area for just that purpose. 😀

        Like

      2. Brian Bixby Post author

        I’d start with Nightfeather: Ghosts. I’m not as happy with Netherfield Witch as I’d like to be. Nightfeather was my Christmas 2013 ghost story; I’ve frequently been suggesting to people they also read the 2014 ghost story, a short story called, “When the ghost came in from the cold,” that only runs about five pages.

        Ah, wasn’t sure how much your interest was historical and how much to fuel your writing. For contemporary color, besides the Johnson book, there is also Alexander Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America (1678). Exquemelin covers the generation before Johnson. If you’re looking to set it in Florida, I’d say go with the Exquemelin along with the Johnson, Cordingly, and Woodard books I mentioned in the previous post, probably best starting with Cordingly. Cordingly will provide an overall view, Exquemelin the Caribbean buccaneers of 1630-79, Johnson many pirates from 1690-1724, and Woodard how the pirates came together circa 1715 in the Bahamas and their subsequent downfall.

        Like

      3. Brian Bixby Post author

        And a good afternoon to you, too!
        Aye, the Chinese had several major episodes of piracy on a scale that dwarfs “our” Caribbean pirates. I’d not seen that article. My thanks for pointing it out to me.

        I haven’t gone looking much at East Asian piracy yet; still reading up on the Caribbean ones. When it comes to women, they are indeed a rare thing as pirates, though I suspect if we knew more about the Chinese ones, more might turn up. I did recently stumble across a recent work, Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crime, by John C. Appleby (2013), in which he places emphasis on how women supported the piracy trade from shore in that era. Worth seeing if you can borrow it through a university library to fill out the picture of the involvement of women in the trade.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s