Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: "... By Inspiring Terror"

It's been quite some time since I visited Charles Ellms and his delightful The Pirates' Own Book. As you will recall, Brethren, the book was originally published in the 1830s and it is a clear mirror to both the way pirates were viewed in Victorian America and the way those very Americans loved to be titillated and frightened. Inaccuracies aside, the book is still a good read. No wonder it was a best seller.

Last night I delved into the chapter on Captain Low and was not disappointed. Edward "Ned" Low was one of the few pirates of the Golden Age who rightly deserves every ounce of blue prose heaped upon him by Ellms. From what I can tell he was either horribly abused in childhood or a rare "bad seed" because he started treating his fellow man badly at a very young age and only death cured him of the habit. Low's behavior is so over the top that he has already earned a post in this year's upcoming Horror On The High Seas week. But today, allow me to give you Ellms' version of the story.

Charles calls Low a "...ferocious villain" in his first sentence. Born in Westminster, Ellms concludes immediately that Low "...was by nature a pirate". He started fights in his neighborhood and appeared as if he would never amount to much, if anything. When young, Low took passage to Boston with his older brother. The boys were evidently either indentured or apprenticed to a "rigging-house" there but Low chafed at the work and "his master" and took a berth aboard a sloop headed for Honduras.

The Captain was seeking to make his fortune in the "log trade". This was basically a form of poaching; cutting down trees on Spanish land and hurrying them off to islands in the Caribbean where they could be used for structures or shipbuilding. Low again had a falling out with authority. When he tried to shoot his Captain and missed, killing a fellow sailor, he and a few like-minded mates took off in a boat and turned to piracy.

Low met up with the established freebooter George Lowther and the two cruised together for a short while. They were nearly caught by pirate hunters and Low went his own way thereafter. According to Ellms it was at Port Rosemary that Low began using his trademark attack and rounded up several ships at anchor in the bay. He managed to capture thirteen ships and converted some of them into pirates, pressing men to join his crews and intimidated the island Governor into supplying water and stores.

Low was overcome by a hurricane near the Leewards but according to Ellms this was only a minor setback. He is next seen plundering in small boats while his larger ships are being repaired. Once they are he makes for the Azores and "...the great good fortune of Low is now singular". Ellms frequently notes that Low is by now a feared scourge in the Caribbean and "...by inspiring terror, without firing a single gun" he was able to take ship after ship. Unlike the ruthless Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, however, Low is actually putting whole crews to the sword and torturing those who will not reveal the hiding places of their treasure with what might be termed reckless abandon.

Several cringe-worthy examples of Low's cruelty are served up, as is usual in The Pirates' Own Book. There is the cook on the French frigate that Low's crew find to be "...a greasy fellow" who will "fry well" so they tie him to the mast and set fire to the ship. An unfortunate Portuguese captain who tossed "...a bag with eleven thousand moidores" out his cabin window was treated to special attention. When Low found out, he cut the man's lips off with his cutlass before killing him. Ellms also tells us that Low and his crew very much enjoyed their cruelties and relates the fate of the unfortunate Captain Graves of Virginia. Low offers his captive a bowl of punch and tells Graves: "Captain, here's half for you." When Graves declines the offer, "... Low cocked and presented a pistol... saying 'Either take the one or the other'." Ellms is unfortunately silent on Captain Graves' decision.

At some point Low and the Captain he now works with, Charles Harris, are confronted by the man-of-war HMS Greyhound. Low and Harris make a stand at first but when Harris' mainmast is shot away Low "... abandoned her to the enemy, and fled." This cowardly move brings real venom from Ellms, who seems more outraged at such behavior than he did at the miseries previously inflicted on innocent captives:

The conduct of Low was surprising in this adventure because his reputed courage and boldness had hitherto so possessed the minds of all people, that he became a terror even to his own men; but his behaviour throughout this whole action showed him to be a base cowardly villain...

I think this is telling. Ellms, probably very much like his readers, expects the pirates he writes about to be murderous ruffians. What he does not expect them to be at any point is base, selfish and craven. Perhaps it is this filter of Victorian opinion that is the reason Americans remember Blackbeard and Laffite, but have very little recognition of names like Low and Lowther.

The chapter hurries on to it's end at this point, almost as if Ellms is washing his hands of Low. Finally, Low's crew gets fed up with him when he murders his own quartermaster while the man is asleep. He is put in a boat and a French vessel picks him up. Recognized, he is taken to Matinico (Martinique) where "... after a quick trial by the authorities he received short shift on a gallows erected for his benefit."

And so the villain gets a taste of his own and once again all is right with the world. At least until the next chapter. Thank you again Charles Ellms; you and your pirates always give me something to think about.

2 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Always fun to read about the "bad guy" pirates from Charles Ellms and the "The Pirates' Own Book"... Ned Low certainly seems to qualify, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Ellms is always worth reading, second only to Exquemelin in my opinion. And more about nasty Ned Low coming in October!