Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: Bloody Gow

Charles Ellms devotes a scant four pages in The Pirate’s Own Book to the notorious Captain Gow, and one of those is taken up by the illustration above. His focus in documenting Gow seems to be, not the man himself who is a shadowy figure in the annals of piracy, but cataloguing the prizes he took in his brief career. The second focus is the miserable torture Gow was subjected to upon his capture, and his final avoidance of the worst sort of punishment England was handing out at the time. Of course, this is not surprising for Ellms.

Most historians agree that Gow, whose Christian name is usually given as John, was of Scottish origin. While he probably began his career at sea as a boy, Ellms picks up his story when he is leading a mutiny aboard the merchant George in July of 1724. The mutineers called their captain on deck at night with the distress of a man overboard. When the captain hurried to the rail, they tried to toss him into the sea. The captain fought valiantly, clinging to the forechains even after being wounded, but Gow dispatched him with an axe. Gow was named captain, and the mutinous crew turned to piracy.

It is worth noting that Ellms has Gow telling his men just at this moment that he will brook no treachery or disobedience:

… let every such man depend upon it that he shall certainly go the same way as those that are just gone before.

Gow immediately sets to work taking prizes and Ellms dutifully lists the cargoes therein as if he were a purser completing a manifest. By the next page it is May of 1725 and Gow has the George in port in the Orkney Islands. Here, he and his men are “… apprehended by a gentleman of that country…” and taken to London to stand trial at the Admiralty Court. When brought into court Gow “… obstinately refused to plead, for which the Court ordered his thumbs tied together with whipcord.” This torture, a relative of the thumbscrews, is endured repeatedly by Gow who continues to refuse to plead.

According to English law at the time, a lack of a plea meant that a trial could not commence. It did not, however, mean that the court could not order you put to death or – at the very least – tortured until you made a plea. Gow was sentenced to return to prison and be “… pressed to death.”

This misery, known in Medieval times as “severe and hard punishment” was almost routine and is describe by Geoffrey Abbott in Rack, Rope and Red-Hot Pincers:
The prisoner… [shall be] put in a mean room, stopped from the light and shall there be laid on the bare ground… without garment about him except something about his middle… Then there shall be laid upon his body as much iron or stone as he can bear, and more.

Usually a board was laid over the prisoner before the weights began to be piled on. People survived this hideous ordeal for days on end, slowly crushed to death.

Gow, taken into the “mean room” and shown the instruments of torture decided immediately to drop his obstinacy and plead not guilty. By this time the trials of his mates had been completed and it was short work for the court to convict Gow along with the rest.

Gow was hanged in June of 1725. He was another pirate whose noose broke and who had to ascend the gibbet twice before his execution was complete. Curiously, this is something that Ellms leaves out of his telling, choosing instead to ramble about two other pirates named Weaver and Smith who did not appear in the piece previously. Just one more quirk to appreciate about The Pirate’s Own Book.

Header: Gow killing the Captain from The Pirate’s Own Book


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! You can always count on Ellms for torture and murder, at least. I'm guessing the only reason there was no rape was due to the brevity of this chapter...

Pauline said...

I would say you're probably correct. Oh that wacky Victorian prose.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy all followers! Check out Pauline's entry to 49 Writing Center's "Ode to a Dead Salmon Bad Writing Contest":


It's titled: "The Horror: A Tale of Dismemberment"