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February 1725

The Saga of Pirate Captain John Gow, Part II

Gow’s pirate crew—much of it sailing with him involuntarily—falls apart, and Gow is hanged.

Editor’s Introduction:

In the second and final of our investigations into the piratical career of Captain John Gow, Defoe’s narrative advances beyond Gow’s election as captain.  The crew, now declaring themselves the enemies of all nations, terrorized the coast of Portugal and the Portuguese Madeira islands in the Atlantic.  During their endless search for wine (which includes scaring a colonial governor so much that he soils himself), Gow resolves to convince his crew that easy, yet rich pickings awaited them in the Orkney Islands.  While the Orkneys were a far cry from the standard pirate stomping grounds in the Caribbean and West Africa, Gow assured his crew that his extensive knowledge of the coasts and wealthy, landed population guaranteed success against any meager, locally-raised resistance.  With the ship anchored so near to many sailors’ homes, the bulk of Gow’s crew deserted him as soon as they had the opportunity and betrayed their captain to mainland authorities.  In a desperate attempt to gather what spoils he could and possibly in an attempt to avenge himself against his homeland, Gow ordered his men to attack one Mr. Fea, a wealthy member of the Orkney gentry.  Triumphing over the pirates, Fea captured those who remained, including Gow himself, and denied his final wish of being shot sword-in-hand.  Fea delivered Gow to the local sheriff, who then transported him to London for execution.  Gow, however, had declared war not only on the enemies of his youth, not only on the empires and other constituted authorities of his day, but he had declared war on all earthly forces, including Death itself.  When hanged on the gallows in 1726, Gow managed to break his noose through sheer, brute force.  The assembled crowd cheered Gow’s final grand act of piracy, jeering at and ridiculing the British officials who led the condemned to his second hanging.  The second time took.

 

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

Instead of pursing their Voyage to Genoa with the Ships Cargo, they took a clear contrary Course, and resolv’d to Station themselves upon the Coasts of Spain and Portugal, and to Cruise upon all Nations; but what they chiefly aim’d at, was a Ship with Wine, if possible, for that they wanted Extreamly.

The first Prize they took was an English Sloop…This was a Prize of no Value to them, for they knew not what to do with the Fish; so they took out the Master…and his Men…and what else they found worth taking out, and sunk the Vessel…

The next Prize they took was a Scotch Vessel…with Herring and Salmon…This Vessel was likewise of little Value to them, except that they took out, as they had done from the other, their Arms, Ammunition, Cloths, Provisions, Sails, Anchors, Cables, &c. and every Thing of Value, and therefore they sunk her too, as they had done the Sloop…They were very unwilling to leave the Coast of Portugal, till they had got a Ship with Wine, which they very much wanted.

They Cruised eight or ten Days after this, without seeing so much as one Vessel upon the Seas…when they descried a Sail…being a Ship about as big as their own…hoisting up French Colours, and standing away…The Frenchman chang’d his Course in the Night, and so got clear of them…

They resolved to stand away for the Maderas, which they knew was not far off, so they accordingly made the Island in two Days more…expecting to meet with some Portuguese Vessel going in or coming out; but ‘twas in Vain…

They stood away for Porto Santa, about ten Leagues to the Windward of Maderas, and belonging also to the Portuguese; here putting up British Colours, they sent their Boat ashore with Captain Somervills Bill of Health, and a present to the Governour of three Barrels of Salmon, and six Barrels of Herrings, and a very civil Message, desiring leave to Water, and to buy some Refreshments…

The Governour very courteously granted their Desire…went off himself, with about Nine or ten of his principal People, to pay the English Captain a Visit…

However, Gow, handsomely dress’d, receiv’d them with some Ceremony…for a while…and when the Governour and his Company rose up to take their leave, they were, to their great Surprize, suddenly surrounded with a gang of Fellows with Musquets and an Officer at the Head of them, who told them in so many Words, they were the Captains Prisoners, and must not think of going on Shore any more, till the Water and Provisions, which were promised, should come on Board…

The poor Governour was so much more than half Dead with the Fright, that he really Befoul’d himself in a piteous Manner; and the rest were in no much better Condition; they trembled, cry’d, begg’d, cross’d themselves, and said their Prayers and Men going to Execution…They were however well enough Treated, except the Restraint of their Persons, and were often ask’d to Refresh themselves, but they would neither Eat or Drink any more all the while they stay’d on Board…

Having no better Success in this out of the way run, to the Maderas, they resolved to make the best of their way back again to the Coast of Spain or Portugal

They met with a New England Ship…laden with Staves, and bound for Lison, and being to Load there with Wine for London; this was a Prize also of no Value to them, and they began to be very much discouraged with their bad Fortune.  However they…gave the Ship to Captain Wise…who they took at first in a Sloop…and made them Satisfaction…He gave to Captain Wise and his Mate 24 Cerons of Bees Wax, and to each of his Men…two Cerons of Wax each; thus he pretended Honesty, and to make Reperation of Damages by giving them the Goods which he had robb’d the Dutch Merchants of, whose Super-Cargo he had Murdered…

They met with a French Ship from Cadiz, laden with Wine, Oyl, and Fruit; this was, in some respect, the very Thing they wanted; so they Mann’d her with their own Men, and stood off to Sea, that they might divide the Spoil of her with more Safety, for they were then too near the Land…

They gave that Ship to Captain Somerville, the Glascow Captain, whose Ship they had sunk, and to Captain Cross, the New England Captain, who they had taken but just before; and to do Justice, as they call’d it, here also, they gave half the Ship and Cargo to Somerville, one quarter to his Mate, and the other quarter to Captain Cross, and 16 Cerons of Wax to the Men to be shar’d among them…Cross’s Men where all detain’d, whether by Force, or by their own Consent…

Two days after this they took a Bristol Ship bound from Newfoundland to Oporto with Fish; they let her Cargo alone, for they had no occasion for Fish, but they took out also almost all their Provisions, all the Ammunition, Arms, &c. all her good Sails, also her best Cables, and forced two of her Men to go away with them, and then put 10 of the French Men on Board her, and let her go…

This was the last Prize they took, not only on the Coast of Portugal, but any where else…

Some [were] for going to the Coast of Guinea…others were for going to the West Indies, and to Cruize among the Islands, and take up their Station at Tobago; others…propos’d the standing in the Bay of Mexico, and to joyn in with some of a new sort of Pirates at St. Fago de la Cuba, who are all Spaniards, and call themselves…Guardships for the Coast; but under that pretence make Prize of Ships of all Nations, and sometimes even of their own Countrymen too, but especially of the English; but when this was propos’d it was answered, they durst not trust the Spaniards.

Another sort was for going to the North of America, and after having taken a Sloop or two on the Coast of New England, or New-York, laden with Provisions for the West-Indies, which would not have been very hard to do…then to have gone away to the South Seas; but Gow objected, that they were not Mann’d sufficiently for such an Undertaking; and likewise, that they had not sufficient Stores of Ammunition, especially of Powder, and of Small Arms for any considerable Action with the Spaniards.

Then it was offered…to go away to the Honduras, and to the Bay of Campeachy among the Buccaniers and Logwood Cutters, and there they should in the first Place be sure to pick up forty or fifty stout Fellows, good Sailors, and bold, enterprising Men, who understand the Spaniards, and the Spanish Coast on both sides of America as well as any Men in the World…

Others said they should go first to the Islands of New-Providence, or go to the Mouth of the Gulph of Florida, and then crusing on the Coast of North-America…upon the Coast of Carolina, and as high as the Capes of Virginia.  But nothing could be resolv’d on; till at last Gow let them into the Secret of a Project, which…he had long had in his Thoughts…to go away to the North of Scotland, near the Coast of which, as he said, he was Born and Bred; and where he said, if they met with no Purchase upon the Sea, he could tell them how they should Enrich themselves by going on Shore…

About the middle of last January, they arriv’d…in the Isles of Orkney, and came to an Anchor in a Place, which Gow told them, was safe Riding under the Lee of a finall Island at some Distance from the Port…

But now their Misfortunes began to come on, and Things look’d but with an indifferent Aspect upon them; for several of their Men, especially such of them as had been forc’d or decoy’d into their Service, began to think of making their Escape from them; and to cast about for Means to bring it to pass.  The first was a young Man, who was originally one of the Ships Company, but was Forced by fear of being Murdered…to give a silent Assent to go with them, he took an Opportunity to get away…escaped to Kirkwall, a Market-Town, and the Chief of the Orkneys, about 12 Miles from the Place where the Ship lay…

But the next Disaster that attended them, was, (for Misfortunes seldom come alone) more fatal than this, for 10 of Gow’s Men, most of them likewise Men forced into their Service, went away with the long Boat, making the best of their Way for the main Land of Scotland…These Men…were taken in the Firth of Edenburg, and made Prisoners there…

But harden’d for his own Destruction, and Justice evidently pursuing him, he grew the Bolder for the Disaster; and notwithstanding that the Country was alarm’d, and that he was fully discover’d, instead of making a timely Escape, he resolved to Land upon them, and to put his intended Projects, (viz.) of Plundering the Gentlemens Houses, in Execution, whatever it cost him.

In order to this, he sent the Boatswain and 10 Men on Shore…directing them to go to the House of Mr. Honnyman of Grahamsey, Sheriff of the County, and who was himself at that Time, to his great good Fortune, from Home…

Mrs. Honnyman and her Daughter were extreamly Frighted at the sight of so many Armed Men coming into the House, and ran screaming about, like People Distracted, while the Pirates, not regarding them, were looking about for Chests and Trunks, where they might expect to find some Plunder…She recovered some Courage, and ran back into the House immediately; and knowing, to be sure, where her Money lay, which was very Considerable, and all in Gold, she put the Bags in her Lap and boldly…carried it all off, and so made her Escape with the Treasure.  The Boatswain being inform’d that the Money was carried off, resolved to revenge himself by burning the Writings and Papers, which they call there, the Charters of their Estates, and are always of great Value in Gentlemens Houses of Estates; but the young Lady…tying the most considerable of them up in a Napkin, threw them out of the Window, jumpt after them herself, and Escaped without the Damage…

And now Gow resolved to make the best of his Way for the Island of Eda, to Plunder the House of Mr. Fea, a Gentleman of a considerable Estate, and who Gow had some Acquaintance with, having been at School together when they were Youths…

 [Fea and his men-at-arms manage to capture Gow’s Boatswain and his company of pirates.]

They were all five now in his Power, and he sent them away under a good Guard to a Village in the middle of the Island, where they were kept separate from one another, and sufficiently secur’d.  Then Mr. Fea dispatch’d Expresses to the Gentlemen in the neighbouring Islands, to acquaint them with what he had done, and to desire their speedy Assistance; also desiring earnestly that they would take care that no Boat should go within reach of the Pirate’s Guns; and at Night he, Mr. Fea, caus’d Fires to be made upon the Hills round him, to alarm the Country…

Next day…it blew very hard all Day; and in the Evening…the Ship run directly on Shore on the Calf Island; nor could all their Skill prevent it:  Then Gow, with an Air of Desperation, told them they were all dead Men…for having lost the only Boat they had, and five of their best Hands, they were able to do little or nothing towards getting their Ship off…

On the 17th, in the Morning, contrary to Expectation, Gow himself came on Shore, upon the Calf-Island, unarm’d, except his Sword, and alone, except one Man at a distance, carrying a white Flag, making Signals for a Parlee…

Mr. Fea made no Hesitation, but told him in short he was his Prisoner; at which Gow starting, said, it ought not to be so, since there was a Hostage delivered for him.  Mr. Fea said he gave no Order for it…but advis’d Gow, as he expected good Usage himself, that he would send the Fellow, who carried his white Flag, back to the Ship, with Orders for them to return [the hostage] and to desire Winter and Peterson to come with him.

Gow declin’d giving any such Orders; but the Fellow said he would readily go and fetch them, and did so, and they came along with him.  When Gow saw them, he reproached them for being so easily imposed, and order’d them to go back to the Ship immediately…They demanded Gow to deliver his Sword, but he said he would rather dye with it in his Hand, and begg’d them to shoot him:  But that was deny’d…

Being thus brought up to London…and the Government being fully inform’d what black uncommon Offenders they were, it was thought proper to bring them to speedy Justice…

But as they Acted together, Justice requir’d they should Suffer and accordingly Gow and Williams, Belvin, Melvin, Winter, Peterson, Rollson, Mackawley, receiv’d the Reward of their Cruelty and Blood at the Gallows, being all Executed together the 11th, of June.

N. B.  Gow as if Providence had directed that he should be twice Hang’d, his Crimes being of a Two-fold Nature, and both Capital; soon after he was turn’d off, fell down from the Gibbet, the Rope breaking by the Weight of some that pull’d his Legs to put him out of Pain; he was still alive and sensible, tho’ he had Hung four Minutes, and able to go up the Ladder the second Time, which he did with very little Concern’d, and was Hang’d again; and since that a third Time (viz.) in Chains over-against Greenwich, as Williams is over-against Blackwall.

 

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

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