E19 -

John Gow harbored a deep resentment of the elite. Gow wanted to turn pirate from the start; he only awaited the right opportunity.

The Golden Age of Piracy raises the question: Who among you would turn down the opportunity to play Master to a small continent? Would you submit passively to be dominated by the world? Would we respect the lives and liberties of those weaker than ourselves, or would we, too, given the right opportunities, proclaim ourselves King?

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

“The Saga of Pirate Captain John Gow”

“From Pirate to Tyrant: John Plantain, King of Madagascar”


Anthony Comegna: In 1725 John Gow murdered his captain and turned pirate. By June 11, 1726, British authorities hanged him for his crimes, three separate times. Gow knew that he was an outcast and villain to all nations of the Earth and having once gone on the account, he knew there was no turning back.
[00:00:30] Welcome to Liberty Chronicles. A project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
The decision to turn pirate was a declaration of war. War on all earthly forces [00:01:00] that would constrain the individual. War on exploitation of poor people like himself. More than a class struggle though, Gow’s war was waged in defiance of death itself. The ultimate oppressive force in the ultimate punishment. When the London authorities hanged him and his compatriots, Gow managed to survive the first downward jolt against his windpipe. He was unusually strong. Perhaps too powerful for English justice to truly conquer. The sympathetic crowd of Londoners [00:01:30] tugged at the pirate’s feet until the rope snapped. As Gow once again climbed the gallows, the people shouted at their rulers and the hangman, deriding and insulting them. The second hanging took and for a flourish, the British chained Gow’s corpse to a wall at Greenwich, outside London on the banks of the Thames. Even after death, the empire used sailors against their will and exploited their bodies for private profit but Gow’s ugly and yet grimly, heroic tale remains to us [00:02:00] that we might see the horrific effects of violence.
Sailors in Gow’s generation matured during the Golden Age of Piracy’s peak in the late 1710s and early 1720s. Most sailors who turned pirate were poor Englishmen or like Gow, inhabited others of the British Isles. He was born in Thurso, far North in Scotland near abouts the year 1689 but Gow moved to the Orkney’s as a youth. He harbored a deep resentment against the region’s elite and soon fled for the sea. [00:02:30] According to Daniel Defoe, Gow wanted to turn pirate from the start. He only awaited the right opportunity.
The average sailor was not formally educated but he was aware of several key facts about his world. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English nation state empires now owned almost every scrap of land in the Atlantic Basin or at least they claim to. And they were almost constantly at war in combination or another. Sailors knew that their own labors [00:03:00] actually created and moved much of this new wealth. Everyone understood that pirates were the empire’s most serious enemies. These massive global dominance machines were vastly over extended and sailors could see and feel the stretching better than anyone else. Drawing upon their common experiences in maritime culture, sailors like Gow had plenty of reason to rebel and make war until death. The average sailor pirate died within a year or two of joining a crew. Those who didn’t [00:03:30] die in battle had every reason to expect they’d meet a John Gow‐​like fate. At least they could once more spit in the eye of the empire, cursing kings, queens, and captains before their necks snapped.
In 1725, Gow found a moment to finally turn pirate. Having sailed the Mediterranean on scanty provisions, he rallied his crew to stage a protest. When his captain, Freneau, was meeting with a group of merchants, the crew clustered around them on the quarter deck [00:04:00] for an airing of grievances. They shamed their captain for his ill usage of them and one man, a Swede named Peterson, proclaimed, “So as we eat, so shall we work.” The message was clear enough and audible to all. Captain Freneau ordered his first mate to lock up ammunitions in preparation for a mutiny but the mate informed to Gow and the game was up. Gow formed his conspiracy below decks and soon murdered his captain. Like other pirate ships, Gow’s instituted an egalitarian [00:04:30] social order. Unlike most others, this one was ruled by Gow’s iron fist and the terrorism of his loyal conspirators. Captain Freneau’s men were impressed into service, tortured, or executed. Gow’s men terrorized the Portuguese coast in the Madeira Islands on an endless search for wine. Out of provisions, potentially facing mutiny and still driven by old hatred, Gow sailed back to the Orkney’s and his personal enemies.
He planned to raid the home of one Mr. Fea, [00:05:00] of the local elite but as they were now very near their homes, most of Gow’s crew deserted. Fea and a posse of islanders overpowered Gow in a shoot out on the beach. Fea denied Gow his final wish to be killed sword in hand during battle and delivered him to the London authorities. Not all late Golden Age pirates were as unfortunate and short lived as John Gow but they were all intolerable threats to the evolving political and economic order. In fact, piracy did much more [00:05:30] to damage English shipping in the decade after the war of Spanish succession than was actually done during the war. Pirate fleets captured over 2400 ships in all and to transatlantic authorities and genteel souls, it seemed that Satan had emptied Hell into all the Earth’s waterways.
The Bahama Islands were ungovernable spaces and made perfect pirate rendezvous points, opportunities for shore leave, reprovisioning, and general carousing. As pirates concentrated in these islands, [00:06:00] they began calling themselves the Flying Gang. Their predations inspired British efforts to force government on the islands. King George the First ordered former privateer Woodes Rogers, now elevated to Colonial Governor and Vice Admiralty Judge to make war on the pirates and subdue the islands. Rogers dispersed the pirate hoards and the once strong Flying Gang spread out like peacock’s feathers to the far corners of the world. Some went North to familiar Carolina [00:06:30] country or the friendly faces at port in Boston or Providence. Others took their chances in the heavily patrolled Caribbean. One of the more interesting crews sailed with Edward England to the coast of East Africa to settle amongst the natives in Creoles. During the early 18th century, Clement Downing served on a variety of ships in the Indian Ocean as an Officer in the British Navy. During his ship’s efforts to counter piracy throughout the ocean basin, Downing visited a particularly fascinating [00:07:00] pirate settlement on mainland Madagascar in a place called Ranter Bay.
The pirate’s leader was one John Plantain who styled himself King of Ranter Bay. He was born in Jamaica in the late 1600s to parents of means enough to send him to school. Formal education did not agree with him. He forgot whatever literacy he acquired and at 13, he joined an English privateering vessel, sailed against the Spanish for some time, and eventually turned pirate. Downing later included [00:07:30] Plantain’s bizarre biography in his compendious history of the Indian Wars.
Speaker 2: A compendious history of the Indian Wars, 1737, by Clement Downing.
The history of John Plantain called King of Ranter Bay and Company.
John Plantain was born in Chocolate Hole, on the Island of Jamaica, of English parents, who took care to bestow [00:08:00] on him the best education they themselves were possessed of, which was to curse, swear, and blaspheme, from the time of his first learning to speak. This is generally the chief education bestowed on the children of the common people in those parts. He was sent to school to learn to read, which he once could do tolerably well, but he quickly forgot the same, for want of practicing it. The account he gave of his first falling into that wicked and irregular course of life was, that after he was about thirteen years of [00:08:30] Age, he went as Master’s Servant on board a small sloop belonging to Spanish‐​Town, on the island of Jamaica, and they went out a privateering and to cut logwood in the Bay of Campeacy, where they generally used to maroon the Spaniards, and the Spaniards used to maroon them, as the one or the other happened to be strongest. He followed this course of life till he was near 20 years of age, when he came to Rhode Island. There, he fell into company with several men who belonged to a Pirate sloop. These tried to persuade [00:09:00] him, with several others, to go with them, shewing great sums of gold, and treating him and others in a profuse and expensive manner. His own wicked inclinations soon led him to accept the offer, without much hesitation.
From Rhode Island they shaped their course for the coast of Guinea, and in their way took three ships. They pretended to give liberty to those ship’s crews either to go or stay with them. They usually are at no certain allowance amongst themselves, till they are in a likelihood of being short of provision, but every [00:09:30] man is allowed to eat what he pleases. Then they put all under the care of their Quartermaster, who discharges all things with an equality to them all, every man and boy faring alike; and even their Captain, or any other officer, is allowed no more than another man; nay, the Captain cannot keep his own cabin to himself, for their bulkheads are all down, and every man stands to his quarters, where they lie and mess, though they take the liberty of ranging all over the ships.
Anthony Comegna: [00:10:00] Plantain followed Captain Edward England’s fleet, headed East to Madagascar where they dissolved their crews to settle amongst and intermarry with indigenous peoples. Plantain was one of the wealthier men in England’s company and once landed, he invested in large numbers of native slaves. He ordered them to construct a castle to which he added guns with every further conquest of ships and territory. Plantain projected strong, well armed, battle tested pirate soldiers throughout the region, forcing all rivals to bend to his [00:10:30] will. Downing went on to describe the sorts of men who accompanied Plantain on his quest for a petty, personal empire.
Speaker 2: Plantain and his companions were daily increasing their store. Plantain, James Adair, and Hans Burgen, the Dane, had fortified themselves very strongly at Ranter Bay and taken possession of a large tract of country. Plantain, having the most money of them all, called himself King of Ranter Bay, and the natives commonly sing songs [00:11:00] in praise of Plantain. He brought great numbers of the inhabitants to be subject to him, and seemed to govern them arbitrarily, though he paid his soldiers very much to their satisfaction. He would frequently send parties of men into other dominions, and seize the inhabitants’ cattle. He took upon him to make war, and to extort tribute from several of the petty Kings and his neighbors, and to increase his own dominions.
James Adair’s birth and education was something superior to that of Plantain, for [00:11:30] he was learnt to write as well as read. Not behaving to the satisfaction of his Parents, he went for London, and from thence, for the West Indies, but was taken by the pirates, and after that entered voluntarily with them. He was a young man of a very hard countenance, but something inclined to good nature.
Hans Burgen, the Dane, was born at Copenhagen, and had been brought up a Cooper, but coming to London, he entered himself with Captain Creed for Guinea. The Ship being taken by the pirates, he [00:12:00] agreed to go with them, and became a comrade to King Plantain. This Plantain’s House was built in as commodious, a manner as the nature of the place would admit, and for his further, state and recreation, he took a great many wives and servants, whom he kept in great subjection, and after the English manner, called them Moll, Kate, Sue or Peg. These women were dressed in the richest silks, and some of them had diamond necklaces. He frequently came over from his own territories to St. Mary’s [00:12:30] Island, and there began to repair several parts of Captain Avery’s fortifications.
Anthony Comegna: Among his conquests was the Kingdom of Massaleage, led by a man the pirates called Long Dick or King Dick. When Plantain demanded to marry the King’s half English daughter, the King flatly refused. Captain England’s original company of pirates spread around the island and either allied with Plantain or the King of Massaleage. Plantain defeated King Dick.
Speaker 2: [00:13:00] The Europeans who were dispersed about the island, came soon to hear of these disturbances and some of them proposed to attempt the taking of Plantain’s Castle, but the place being guarded by cannon, and a River very near the place, the design was laid aside.
At St. Mary’s Island, a man named Thomas Lloyd, said he was left with six more of their men on the island, and had suffered very much by a petty prince called King Caleb, that had it not been for Prince William, they should have been [00:13:30] murdered; that these pirates live in a most wicked profligate manner, and would often ramble from place to place, and sometimes have the misfortune of meeting some of the natives, who would put them to lingering deaths, by tying their arms to a tree, and putting lighted matches between their fingers; that they served two of his shipmates in the like manner, and would stand and laugh at them during the time of their agonies. This, I think, was a just retaliation to the pirates for the inhuman barbarities they are guilty of. The [00:14:00] wars between Plantain and these petty princes were carried on for near two years, when Plantain having got the better of them, put several of his enemies to death in a most barbarous manner.
After Plantain had put King Dick to death, and those Dutch and English who had fought against him, he marched to the King of Massaleage’s dominions, and found a great deal of treasure at King Dick’s house, and great store of such sort of grain as the island produced, which Plantain ordered to be packed up, and sent to Ranter Bay. [00:14:30] As to the inhabitants, he sent great numbers of them down to Ranter Bay, made slaves of them, and caused them to form several plantations of sugar canes, and after brought the same to great perfection. So soon as he had cleared the town, he caused his men to set the same on fire, and then went to King Kelly’s chief town, and did the same there. He found but little subsistence in all these dominions, for he now tyrannized over the natives all over the island.
During the season that Plantain was at his castle, [00:15:00] the time was spent in great mirth and entertainments amongst the English that were there under his protection, several new songs were made in token of his victories, and at the end of almost every verse was pronounced, Plantain King of Ranter Bay, which he seemed mightily pleased with, as well as with dances performed by great bodies of the natives. After he had destroyed King Dick, and King Kelly, he established two Kings in their stead, leaving them to rebuild and make good what he had demolished. They were also tributary [00:15:30] to him, and sent him in every month, a certain number of cattle of all sorts that the places afforded, and they were to keep the lands in good order, and to pay him tribute for all sorts of grain, sugar canes, and company.
Plantain was resolved that he would now make himself King of Madagascar, and govern there with absolute power and authority. He kept now near 1000 slaves, which he employed constantly on the fortifications of his castle. And had he acted as Captain Avery did, would certainly [00:16:00] have made a very strong place of his chief residence, for Captain Avery only took to the Island of St. Mary, and seldom or ever troubled the inhabitants of Madagascar for anything except supplies of Provision.
Plantain now arrived near Port Dolphin, being resolved to make an end of the war that summer. In his march, he destroyed several Towns, putting men, women and children to the sword. Having subdued Port Dolphin, he appointed a Viceroy for that dominion and several other districts he appointed [00:16:30] to the petty princes who had assisted him in his wars, and who were to be tributary to him. He was now absolute Monarch of the whole island, and the inhabitants brought in all manner of refreshments to him with great submission. When we were there in the Salisbury, the natives seemed very subject to him, though I think we might at that time have surprised him, and brought him away, which would have prevented the mischief’s he has since done.
Anthony Comegna: [00:17:00] In the end, Plantain subjects of all colors rose up in general rebellion against him. He escaped across the ocean to the court of Indian Admiral Kanhoji Angre where he served as gunner. The bizarre and bloody story of John Plantain, King of Ranter Bay, suggest that all individuals, great and small alike, do in fact have power and we know what they say about power. From the Golden Age of Piracy, [00:17:30] Plantain’s challenge echoes down to us. Who among you would turn down the opportunity to play master to a small continent? Would you submit passively to be dominated by the world? Would we respect the lives and liberties of those weaker than ourselves? Or would we, too, given the right opportunities, proclaim ourselves King?
Liberty Chronicles [00:18:00] is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.