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Biography of Edward Low

Cruelest of the English Pirates

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Biography of Edward Low

Edward Low

Artist: J. Nichols, Year Unknown

Cruel Pirate Low

Low developed a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. On one occasion, as he prepared to burn a ship he had recently captured and no longer needed, he ordered the ship's cook tied to the mast to perish in the fire: the reason was that the man was "a greasy fellow" who would sizzle: this proved amusing to Low and his men. On another occasion they caught a galley with some Portuguese aboard: two friars were hung from the Fore-Yard and jerked up and down until they died: another Portuguese passenger, who had made the mistake of looking "sorrowful" at the fate of his friends, was cut to pieces by one of Low's men.

On another occasion, upon learning that the captain of a ship he had attacked had thrown a sack of gold out the porthole rather than let the pirates have it, he ordered the captain's lips to be cut off, cooked and then fed back to him. Not content, he massacred the captain and crew: 32 men in all. Once, when capturing a Spanish pirate with English prisoners in his hold, Low ordered the Englishmen freed and then proceeded to have his men massacre all 70 Spaniards on board.

The End of Captain Low

In June of 1723, Low was sailing in his flagship Fancy and was accompanied by the Ranger, under the command of Charles Harris, a loyal lieutenant. After successfully seizing and plundering several ships off of the Carolinas, they ran into the 20-gun Greyhound, a Royal Navy Man o' War on the lookout for pirates. Low and Harris engaged the Greyhound, which proved to be far tougher than they had expected. The greyhound pinned down the Ranger and shot down its mast, effectively crippling it. Low decided to run, leaving Harris and the other pirates to their fate. All of the hands on board the Ranger were captured and brought to trial in Newport, Rhode Island. 25 (including Harris) were found guilty and hung, two more were found not guilty and sent to prison, and eight more were found not guilty on the grounds that they had been forced into piracy.

Low's reputation for being fearless and invincible took a huge hit when it became known that he had abandoned his fellow pirates, especially in a fight he could have won. Captain Charles Johnson said it best in his 1724 A General History of the Pyrates:

"The Conduct of Low was surprising in this Adventure, because his reputed Courage and Boldness had, hitherto, so possess'd the Minds of all People, that he became a Terror, even to his own Men, but his Behaviour throughout this whole Action, shewed him to be a base cowardly Villain; for had Low's sloop fought half so briskly as Harris's had done, (as they were under a solemn Oath to do ) the Man of War, in my Opinion, could never have hurted them."

Low was still active when Johnson's history came out, so he did not know his fate. According to the National Maritime Museum in London, Low was never captured and spent the rest of his life in Brazil. Another version of his fate suggests that his crew tired of his cruelty (he supposedly shot a sleeping man he had fought with, causing the crew to despise him as a coward). Set adrift in a small ship, he was found by the French and brought to Martinique for trial and hanged. This seems the most likely explanation of his outcome, although there is little in the way of documentation to prove it. In any event, by 1725 he was no longer active in piracy.

Legacy of Edward Low

Edward Low was the real deal - a ruthless, cruel, clever pirate who terrorized transatlantic shipping for about two years as the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" wound down. He brought commerce to a halt, and had naval vessels searching the Caribbean for him. He became, in a sense, the "poster boy" for the need to control piracy. Before Low, many pirates were either cruel or successful, but Low represented a sadist with a well-armed and organized fleet. He was hugely successful in pirate terms, plundering well over a hundred ships in his career: only "Black Bart" Roberts was more successful in the same area and time. Low was also a good teacher: his lieutenant Francis Spriggs had a successful pirate career after absconding with one of Low's ships in 1723.

Oddly, Low seems to have been forgotten today. Piracy is popular now (or at least the romanticized Disney version of it) but lesser pirates such as Calico Jack Rackham or Stede Bonnet have much greater notoriety. That's not to say that he is completely absent from popular culture: his name appears in pirate computer games and part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney is named for him. The Cayman Islands put him on a postage stamp in 1975.

Sources:

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Editoed by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.

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