An ex­cerpt from Black Flags, Blue Wa­ters by Eric Jay Dolin

Soundings - - Classics -

With the dra­matic de­cline in piracy that took place along the Amer­i­can coast be­tween 1719 and 1726, only a few pi­rates were bold and suc­cess­ful enough to leave a sig­nif­i­cant mark on his­tory. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing was the no­to­ri­ous, de­spi­ca­ble and ar­guably men­tally de­ranged Ed­ward Low.

Born in London, Low went to sea at an early age and had made his way to Bos­ton some­time around 1710. He be­came a rig­ger in a lo­cal shipyard, per­form­ing the of­ten per­ilous high-wire work of equip­ping sail­ing ves­sels with the ropes, chains, and blocks and tack­les nec­es­sary to make them sea­wor­thy. In 1714, Low mar­ried Eliza Mar­ble, joined the Sec­ond Church and was on his way to be­com­ing a fam­ily man. But tragedy soon up­ended his life. His son died in in­fancy, and not long af­ter his daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth was born in 1719, his wife, too, died, leav­ing Low bereft and heart­bro­ken. His melan­choly state af­fected his work, and he was ei­ther fired or left on his own ac­count. Aban­don­ing El­iz­a­beth some­time in 1721, Low signed on to a ship head­ing to Hon­duras to gather log­wood.

Ac­cord­ing to one ac­count, af­ter Low’s 12- man crew re­turned to the ship with a par­tial load of log­wood late one af­ter­noon, Low asked the cap­tain for per­mis­sion to come aboard so that he and his men could eat. Ea­ger to fill the hold as soon as pos­si­ble and sail from this dan­ger­ous place, so as to avoid be­ing at­tacked by the ever-vig­i­lant Span­ish Guarda Costa, the cap­tain re­fused the re­quest, and in­stead sent a bot­tle of rum to the men, or­der­ing them to go back to shore and con­tinue work­ing. En­raged, Low fired a mus­ket at the cap­tain, miss­ing him but fa­tally wound­ing an­other man. Be­fore the cap­tain could re­spond, Low and his crew fled down the coast. It is likely that these men, with Low as ring­leader, had been pre­par­ing for some time to ei­ther mutiny or go off on their own, and they took ad­van­tage of the cap­tain’s re­buff to take action. But whether their action had been pre­med­i­tated or spon­ta­neous, the re­sult was the same. They be­came pi­rates, and the day fol­low­ing their es­cape, they com­man­deered an­other ves­sel and headed for the Cay­man Is­lands, ar­riv­ing at the end of 1721. There, they joined forces with an­other re­cently minted pi­rate named Ge­orge Lowther, who had led a mutiny aboard a Bri­tish Royal African Com­pany ship off the Gam­bian coast, and then pro­ceeded to the Caribbean, where he and his crew aboard the Happy Delivery plun­dered a num­ber of ves­sels. The newly ar­rived crew piled onto Lowther’s sloop, with Lowther serv­ing as cap­tain and Low as his lieu­tenant. Over the next five months in the Bay of Hon­duras, they cap­tured nu­mer­ous ves­sels from Bos­ton, burn­ing most of them, along with their log­wood, and of­ten sub­ject­ing their crews to cruel treat­ment. Come spring, they headed north. Off the coast of Vir­ginia on May 28, 1722, the pi­rates cap­tured the Re­becca, a brig­an­tine out of Charlestown, Mas­sachusetts, that had been head­ing home from the Caribbean is­land of St. Christo­pher (mod­ern-day St. Kitts). This ac­qui­si­tion al­lowed the pi­rates to split up. Lowther re­mained on the sloop, while Low be­came cap­tain of the Re­becca, which was equipped with two can­nons and four swivel guns. The pi­rate crew of about one hun­dred was di­vided down the mid­dle. As for the Re­becca’s orig­i­nal crew and pas­sen­gers, all but three of them, who were forcibly de­tained, were sent off on an­other ves­sel, ul­ti­mately re­turn­ing to Charlestown. Lowther and Low then sailed off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

On June 3, Low and his men plun­dered three ves­sels in the vicin­ity of Block Is­land, re­liev­ing them of food, wa­ter, clothes, sails, masts and gun­pow­der. The pi­rates vi­ciously stabbed Capt. James Ca­hoon of New­port, and greatly dam­aged his ves­sel and the two oth­ers, mak­ing them nearly in­op­er­a­ble — an ap­par­ent at­tempt on Low’s part to buy more time to leave the area be­fore his vic­tims could alert lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. That night, Ca­hoon’s ves­sel limped into Block Is­land Har­bor, and the fol­low­ing morn­ing, a whale­boat dis­patched from the is­land was able to warn of­fi­cials in New­port about the at­tacks, prompt­ing the gov­er­nor to im­me­di­ately or­der “drums ... to be beat about the town for vol­un­teers to go in quest of the pi­rates.”

By Fri­day, June 15, Low had sailed all the way to Port Rose­way (mod­ern-day Shel­burne), lo­cated at the south­west cor­ner of Nova Sco­tia. When the Re­becca en­tered the port in the early af­ter­noon, Low saw a great va­ri­ety of ves­sels ar­rayed be­fore him. They had come in from the fish­ing grounds off­shore to use the safe, deep and rel­a­tively ca­pa­cious har­bor as a place to rest un­til the Sab­bath was over. Low an­chored the Re­becca, and over the next few hours, more fish­ing ves­sels ar­rived. To re­main in­con­spic­u­ous and avoid set­ting off alarms, Low must have had most of his men hide be­lowdecks to make it ap­pear that the Re­becca was noth­ing more than a mer­chant brig seek­ing shel­ter. For Low, this gath­er­ing of fish­ing ves­sels was an aus­pi­cious sight.

One of the fish­er­men en­ter­ing the har­bor late that af­ter­noon was Philip Ash­ton, cap­tain of the schooner Mil­ton out of Mar­ble­head, Mas­sachusetts. He and his small crew had spent much of the week catch­ing cod in the wa­ters to the south of Cape Sable. Ash­ton saw the

Re­becca in the dis­tance and as­sumed it was a trader from the West Indies. At about 6, Ash­ton no­ticed the Re­becca’s boat with four men aboard, rowing to­ward the

Mil­ton, and thought they were com­ing to pay a so­cial call. But when the boat came along­side, its oc­cu­pants jumped onto the

Mil­ton’s deck. Be­fore the Mar­ble­head­ers knew what was hap­pen­ing, the pi­rates, ac­cord­ing to Ash­ton’s later telling, drew

their pis­tols and cut­lasses “from un­der their clothes, and cocked the one, and bran­dished the other, and be­gan to curse and swear at us, and de­manded a sur­ren­der of our­selves and ves­sel to them.”

Low asked the six Mar­ble­head men be­fore him to sign the ar­ti­cles. When they re­fused, he threat­ened them, but they held fast. Ash­ton was also sub­jected to an­other form of per­sua­sion. Af­ter de­clin­ing Low’s in­vi­ta­tion, he was sent be­lowdecks, where the pi­rates tried to win him over by of­fer­ing him rum, treat­ing him with “re­spect and kind­ness,” telling him “what mighty men they de­signed to be,” and ask­ing him to “join with them, and share in their spoils.” Nei­ther this, nor Low’s threat to shoot him if he didn’t ac­qui­esce, per­suaded Ash­ton to sign the ar­ti­cles. His fel­low Mar­ble­head­ers were equally res­o­lute. In the end, it didn’t mat­ter to Low, for he added the men’s names to ar­ti­cles none­the­less — they were go­ing with him whether they wanted to or not.

On June 19, Low trans­ferred the ar­ma­ments and his crew to one of the fish­ing schooners — “new, clean and a good sailer” — which he named the Fancy. All of his pris­on­ers were placed on the Re­becca. Then, he or­dered the Re­becca to sail to Bos­ton, let the re­main­ing fish­ing ves­sels go, and left Port Rose­way be­hind in his wake.

Over the next eight months, Low sailed east across the At­lantic to the Azores and Cape Verde Is­lands, then crossed the At­lantic again, reach­ing Brazil, from there trav­el­ing north to St. Croix in the Caribbean, back down to Cu­raçao, and fi­nally ar­riv­ing at the Bay of Hon­duras in the late win­ter of 1723. Along the way, Low plun­dered more than 10 ves­sels, adding a cou­ple to his fleet. He also forced a few men to join, and wel­comed oth­ers to his crew, which now stood at about 100 strong. Over the course of this jour­ney, Low’s trade­mark cru­elty and ma­ni­a­cal rage be­gan mak­ing more fre­quent ap­pear­ances, set­ting him apart from most of the pi­rates dur­ing the Golden Age who, typ­i­cally, used vi­o­lence and ex­treme bru­tal­ity rarely, and only as a last re­sort.

Through­out this time, Ash­ton, who spent much of the time in the hold try­ing his best to avoid his cap­tors, was sub­ject to fre­quent ver­bal and phys­i­cal abuse, es­pe­cially when he re­peat­edly re­fused to sign the ship’s ar­ti­cles, which in­vari­ably re­sulted in be­ing “thrashed with sword or cane.” Close contact with the pi­rates, and with Low’s cru­elty, did noth­ing to lessen Ash­ton’s in­tense ha­tred of them. “I soon found,” he later re­called, “that any death was prefer­able to be­ing linked with such a vile crew of mis­cre­ants, to whom it was a sport to do mis­chief; where prodi­gious drink­ing, monstrous curs­ing and swear­ing, hideous blas­phemies, and open de­fi­ance of heaven, and con­tempt of hell it­self, was the con­stant em­ploy­ment, un­less when sleep ... abated the noise and rev­el­ing.” Tor­tured and mis­er­able, Ash­ton dreamt of es­cape, and on March 9, 1723, he got his chance.

On that late win­ter day, Low’s mini pi­rate ar­mada was off Roatán, an un­in­hab­ited lozenge of an is­land ringed by lush coral reefs, 30 miles long, a few miles wide, and lo­cated about 40 miles from the Hon­duran main­land. When Ash­ton saw the long­boat from one of Low’s other ships head­ing for the is­land to fill wa­ter casks, he asked to be taken along. The men were re­luc­tant at first, but Ash­ton pleaded with them, not­ing that he had not been on land since his cap­ture in Port Rose­way, while other men had gone ashore mul­ti­ple times. The cooper, who was lead­ing the wa­ter­ing party, re­lented, and Ash­ton jumped in.

Sur­prised by this op­por­tu­nity, yet un­will­ing to let it pass, Ash­ton was not par­tic­u­larly well pre­pared for es­cape. All he wore was a pair of pants and a hat — no shoes, no shirt, no stock­ings and no knife. Had he asked the cooper to wait while he gath­ered other use­ful items, sus­pi­cions surely would have been raised, given the sim­ple na­ture of re­fill­ing the wa­ter sup­ply. What­ever the con­se­quences of his flight, Ash­ton was re­solved never again to set foot on one of Low’s ships.

Af­ter land­ing on shore, Ash­ton ea­gerly helped the men fill the first few casks, but then slowly am­bled down the beach, pick­ing up shells and stones, try­ing to ap­pear as non­cha­lant as pos­si­ble. When he was a few hun­dred feet away from the rest of the com­pany, the tense cap­tive edged to­ward the woods, but just as he was about to plunge in, the cooper — sud­denly alert to Ash­ton’s dis­tance from the rest of the men — de­manded to know where he was go­ing. Ash­ton pro­fessed

he wanted to gather co­conuts, an ex­cuse that seemed to sat­isfy the cooper, who re­turned to his task. Sens­ing that the win­dow for his es­cape was just about to close, Ash­ton ran into the woods, mov­ing as fast as he could in his bare feet and ex­posed skin through the sharp un­der­brush, ul­ti­mately hun­ker­ing down in a dense thicket that was far enough away so as to be well con­cealed, but close enough to the beach so that he could still hear what the pi­rates might say.

The casks full, the cooper yelled for Ash­ton to come down to the boat. Hear­ing noth­ing, the men be­gan call­ing to Ash­ton, who stayed still and silent. Ash­ton heard one of them say, “The dog is lost in the woods, and can’t find the way out again.” The calls then be­came more in­sis­tent, and an­other com­ment made its way to Ash­ton’s ears: “He is run away and won’t come again.” In a fi­nal gam­bit, the cooper bel­lowed, “If you don’t come away presently, I’ll go off and leave you alone.”

That was ex­actly what Ash­ton wanted, so he said noth­ing. Fi­nally, the boat de­parted. Ash­ton could see Low’s ships off­shore, and he wor­ried that a search party would be sent to find him, but it never came — he wasn’t valu­able enough to Low as a pris­oner to war­rant one. A day af­ter he stepped ashore, Ash­ton watched the pi­rates sail away. Stand­ing at the edge of the beach, he was truly and ut­terly alone.

Ex­cerpted from Black Flags, Blue Wa­ters: The Epic His­tory of Amer­ica’s Most No­to­ri­ous

Pi­rates by Eric Jay Dolin. © 2018 by Eric Jay Dolin. Used with per­mis­sion of the pub­lisher Liveright Pub­lish­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, a di­vi­sion of W. W. Norton & Com­pany, Inc. All rights re­served.

Allen & Gin­ter cig­a­rette card in­sert, circa 1888, show­ing Ed­ward Low and a scene of him “tor­tur­ing a Yan­kee.”

An 1884 litho­graph depicting New­port, Rhode Is­land, in 1730. Thirty-six men were tried for piracy there in 1723 and twenty-six were con­victed and hanged. Be­low, the front and back of an ex­tremely rare piece of eight from 1683.

Pi­rate cap­tain Ge­orge Lowther in Ama­tique Bay, Gu­atemala. In the back­ground you can see his ship be­ing ca­reened.

A Por­tuguese cap­tain cuts loose a bag of gold coins, rather than turn them over to Low. In re­tal­i­a­tion, Low killed the cap­tain and his crew of thirty-two.

A fish­ing boat sim­i­lar to the type Low com­man­deered from Ash­ton. Top, Roat‡n Is­land, where Ash­ton spent two years be­fore be­ing res­cued.

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