Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

This is part of a series

January 1725

The Saga of Pirate Captain John Gow, Part I

“Peterson…answered in a surly Tone…So as we Eat so shall we Work:  This he spoke aloud so as that…the Captain should hear him.

Editor’s Introduction:

This is the first of two pieces in which we will examine Daniel Defoe’s history of John Gow and his famous, if short, career in piracy.  John Gow was born in Thurso, in the far north of Scotland in about 1689, and moved to the Orkneys as a young man.  Gow was in many ways the typical pirate of his era, the “Golden Age of Piracy.”  Of humble origins, with inordinate knowledge of sailing, and a quenchless thirst for vengeance against the innumerable wrongs done to him throughout his life at the bottom of European society, Gow long harbored the desire to “turn pirate,” and simply awaited the opportune moment.  As Defoe’s narrative relates, Gow rallied fellow crewmembers to his cause while sailing under the command of one Captain Ferneau, employed in goods transport for Amsterdam merchants.  Protesting Ferneau’s management of the ship, his crew steadily rejected their captain’s authority and seized control of the ship for themselves.  Gow and his crewmates murdered their captain and several other officers, determined to “go on Account,” making war upon constituted authority and living only for themselves.  Having declared war upon the existing socio-political order, pirates in the “Golden Age” remade society at sea, each vessel a novel social organization spontaneously and (mostly) democratically ordered.  Part I of Defoe’s narrative here follows Gow from his earliest days to his election as captain of the newly-formed pirate crew.  Part II will continue the story from there as Gow and his crew attempted to correct the social and political wrongs of the Early Modern period.

 

Anthony Comegna

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

An Account of the Conduct and Proceedings of the late John Gow alias Smith, Captain of the late Pirates, Executed for Murder and Piracy. London. 1725.

By Daniel Defoe

Tho’ this Work seems principally to enter into the History of one Man…it may indeed be call’d the History of all the late Pirates so far as they acted together in these wicked Adventures…for ‘tis eminently known, that among such Fellows as these, when once they have abandon’d themselves to such a dreadful hight of Wickedness, there is so little Government or Subordination among them, that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders.  And tho’ they generally put in this or that Man to act as Commander for this or that Voyage, or Enterprise, they frequently remove them again upon the smallest Occasion, nay, even without any Occasion at all, but as Humours and Passions govern at those Times:  And this is done so often, that I once knew a Buccaneering Pirate Vessel, whose Crew were upwards of 70 Men, who, in one Voyage, had so often changed, set up, and pull’d down their Captains and other Officers, that above seven and Forty of the Ships Company had, at several Times, been in Office of one kind or other; and among the rest they had, in particular had, 13 Captains…

At Amsterdam…Gow ship’d himself afore the Mast, (as the Seamen call it) that is to say, as a Common Sailor, on Board an English Ship of 200 Tons Burden, call’d the George Galley…Appearing to be an active skillful Sailor he obtain’d the Favour of being made Second Mate…

Captain Ferneau being a Man of Reputation among the Merchants at Amsterdam, got a Voyage for his Ship from thence to Santa Cruz, on the Coast of Barbary, to Load Bees Wax, and to carry it to Genoa…but not being able to Man themselves wholly with English or Scots, they were oblig’d to take some Swedes, and other Seamen to make up his Compliment, which was 23 in all; among the latter Sort…both of them Swedes by Nation, but as wicked too as Gow and his other Fellows were…

‘Tis evident, that this Gow, in particular, whatever the rest might have done, had entertain’d this bloody Resolution in General, (I mean of turning Pirate) long before this Voyage; he had endeavour’d to put it in Practice, at least once before…and had only fail’d for want of being able to bring over a sufficient Gang of Rogues to his Party…but it seems he had not been able to bring it to pass till now, when finding some little Discontent among the Men, on account of their Provisions, he was made the Devil’s Instrument to run up those Discontents to such a dreadful hight of Fury and Rage, as we shall find they did…

…We must content ourselves with beginning where he began, that is to say, when they seiz’d the Captain, murdered him and his Men, and run away with the Ship, on the Coast of Barbary, in the Mediterranean Sea…

[At a meeting with a group of merchants,] Three of the Men, (viz.) Winter and Peterson, two Swedes, and Maccaulya Scotchman, came rudely upon the Quarter-Deck, and as if they took that Opportunity because the Merchants were present, believing the Captain would not use any Violence with them, in the presence of the Merchants, they made a long Complaint of their ill Usage, and particularly of their Provisions and Allowance (as they said) being not sufficient, nor such as was ordinarily made in other Merchant Ships…

In their making this Complaint, they seemed to direct their Speech to the Merchants, as well as to the Captain…

The Captain was highly provok’d at this Rudeness, as indeed he had reason…however, he restrain’d his Passion, and gave them not the least angry Word, only, that if they were aggreiv’d they had no more to do, but to have let him known it, that if they were ill used it was not by his Order, that he would enquire into it, and that if any thing was amiss it should be rectify’d…

Peterson…answered in a surly Tone, and with a kind of Disdain, So as we Eat so shall we Work:  This he spoke aloud so as that he might be sure the Captain should hear him, and the rest of the Men also; and ‘twas evident, that as he spoke in the plural Number We, so he spoke their Minds as well as his Own, and Words which they had all agreed to before…

Soon after this the Calm went off, and the Land-Breeze sprung up, as if usual on that Coast, and they immediately weigh’d and stood off to Sea; but the Captain having had those two Ruffles with his Men, just at their putting to Sea, was very uneasy in his Mind…The Captain told [the First Mate] he thought it was absolutely necessary to have a Quantity of finall Arms brought immediately into the great Cabbin, not only to defend themselves if there should be occasion, but also that he might be in a Posture to correct those Fellows for their Insolence…

But two Mistakes in this Part was the ruin of them all.  (1).  That the Captain spoke it without due Cation, so that Winter and Peterson, the two principal Malecontents, and who were expressly mentioned by the Captain to be corrected, overheard it, and knew by that Means what they had to expect, if they did not immediately bestir themselves to prevent it.  (2.)…The Captain unhappily bad [the Mate] go immediately to Gow, the second Mate and Gunner, and give him Orders to get the Arms cleared and loaded for him, and so to bring them up to the great Cabbin; which was, in short, to tell the Conspirators that the Captain was preparing to be too strong for them if they did not fall to work with him immediately…

They fell downright to the Point, which Gow had so long form’d in his own Mind, (viz.) to seize upon the Captain and Mate, and all those that they could not bring to joyn with them; in short, to throw them into the Sea, and to go upon the Account.

All those who are acquainted with the Sea Language, know the Meaning of that Expression and that it is in few Words, to run away with the Ship and turn Pirates

They came to this short but hellish Resolution, (viz.) That they would immediately, that very Night, murder the Captain, and such others as they nam’d, and afterwards proceed with the Ship as they should see Cause…

The Persons they had immediately design’d for Destruction, were four, (viz.) the Captain, the Mate, the Super Cargo, and the Surgeon, whereof all, but the Captain, were gone to Sleep; the Captain himself being upon the Quarter-deck.

Between Nine and Ten at Night, all being quiet and secure, and the poor Gentlemen, that were to be Murdered, fast asleep, the Villains, that were below, gave the Watch-Word, which was, who Fires next? At which they all got out of their Hammocks, with as little Noise as they could, and going, in the Dark, to the Hammocks of the Chief Mate, Super Cargo, and Surgeon, they cut all their Throats…The Mate, whose Throat was cut, but not his Windpipe, had struggled Vigorously with the Villain, that attempted him…and the Super Cargo, in the same Condition, got forwards between Decks, under some Deals, and both of them begg’d, with the most moving Cries and Intreaties, for their Lives; and when nothing could prevail, they beg’d, with the same Earnestness, but for a few Moments to Pray to God, and Recommdn their Souls to his Mercy; but alike, in Vain, for the wretched Murderers, heated with Blood, were pass’d all Pitty; and not being able to come at them with their Knives, with which they had begun the Execution, they shot them with their Pistols, Firing several times upon each of them, till they found they were quite dead..

The Captain…call’d out, and ask’d, what was the Matter?…when Winter, Rowlinson and Melvin, coming that Moment behind him, lay’d Hands on him, and lifting him up, at once attempted to throw him Overboard into the Sea; but he being a nimble, strong Man, got hold of the Shrouds, and struggled so hard with them, that they could not break his Hold; but turning his Head, to look behind him, to see who he had to deal with, one of them cut his Throat with a broad Dutch Knife…He constantly cry’d out to God for Mercy, for he found there was no Mercy to be expected from them:  During this Struggle, another of the Murderers stab’d him with a Knife in the Back, and that with such Force, that the Villain could not draw the Knife out again to repeat his Blow, which he would otherwise have done.

At this Moment Gow came up from the Butchery he had been at between Decks, and seeing the Captain still alive, he went close up to him, and shot him (as he confess’d) with a Brace of Bullets…

The first thing they did afterward, was to call up all Eight upon the Quarter-Deck, where they congratulated one another, and shook Hands together engaging to proceed, by unanimous Consent, in their resolved Design, that is to say, of turning Pirates…

They had drawn in four more of the Men to approve of what they had done, and promise to Joyn with them, so that now they were twelve in Number, and being but 24 at first, whereof four were Murdered, they had but either Men to be Apprehensive of, and those they could easily look after…They were told by Gow, what his Resolution was, viz. to go a Crusing, or to go upon the Account, (as above) that if they were willing to Joyn with them, and go into their Measures, they should be well used, and there should be no Distinction among them, but they should all fare alike, that they had been forced by the barbarous Usage of Ferneau to do what they had done, but that now there was no looking back; and therefore as they had not been concern’d in what was past, they had nothing to do but to act in Concert, do their Duty as Sailors, and obey Orders for the good of the Ship, and no Harm should be done to any of them…Tho’ such of them as sometimes afterward shewed any Reluctance to act as Principals, were never Trusted, always Suspected, and often severely Beaten, and some of them were many ways inhumanly Treated, and that particularly by Williams, the Lieutenant, who was, in his Nature, a merciless, cruel, and inexorable Wretch…

They were now in a new Circumstance of Life, and acting upon a different Stage of Business, tho’ upon the same Stage as to the Element, the Water…But they were now a Crew of Pirates, or…Corsaires, Bound no where, but to look out for Purchase and Spoil wherever they could find it.

In pursuit of this wicked Trade, they first chang’d the Name of the Ship, which was before call’d the George Galley, and which they call now the Revenge, a Name indeed suitable to the bloody Steps they had taken…

 

See also:  Cordingly, David.  Under the Black Flag:  The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates.  Orlando:  Harcourt, Inc. 1995.

This is part of a series