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A Pirate Profile: The Most Vicious Ned Low

WORLD HISTORY | April 20, 2019

Jolly Roger, the Pirate's Flag. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Nowadays, there is glamour associated with pirates from the 17th to 18th centuries – think Johnny Depp. But curiously there was nothing glamorous about them. The vast majority had lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. Such was the case of the cruelest pirate of them all – Edward “Ned” Low.

One chronicler of the Pirate Age summed up Low: “…if ever a man sailing the seas deserved to be hanged and gibbeted in chains, it was Low. If one-half of the tales that have been told about him are true he must at times have been little short of a maniac.”

How does a person become so notorious? In Low’s case, it was circumstance.

An image of Edward Lowe. Picture is from the National Maritime Museum in London. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Early Life

Born in 1690 in Westminster Ned Low was raised in and influenced by the poverty of his age. He could neither read nor write and the desperate culture about him was awash in brutality and crime. His older brother was a thief and like him, Ned took to thievery. Proceeds were duly gambled away. From there, it was but a few steps to becoming the most notorious pirate of his age.

In about the year 1710 he went to sea with his brother. He ended up in Boston where he worked at a rigging house. While in Boston he met Eliza Marble who was from a respectable family. They married on August 12, 1714.

Low at this point may have had a chance for a fresh start in the New World, as many immigrants did. But that was not to be. Eliza conceived two children. A boy who died in infancy and then a daughter born in 1719. However, Eliza died from the trauma of childbirth leaving Low a widower and a single parent.

Low by all accounts loved his daughter and for a short while tried to work honestly as a rigger. But he also was short-tempered and arrogant. He argued with his employer and soon found himself out of work. With nothing else for it, he left his child and took to sea in 1721.        

Notorious pirate Ned Low who commanded the sloop 'Fancy'. Taken from 'The Pirates Own Book',circa 1750. Source: (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

A Pirate is Born

Ned Low shipped on a sloop bound for Honduras to illegally harvest logwood from Spanish territory. However, Low’s short temper took hold of him again. An altercation broke out between him and the captain of the sloop. Low and twelve followers deserted the ship in a stolen boat.

Until this point, Low might be a sympathetic character, but the choices he made would destine him to become one of the most reviled men of his time. But in an era filled with class distinction, great discrepancies of wealth and power, and few freedoms, those that wished to live life on their own terms had few options. He and his men made a black flag, and the next day they captured a small vessel.

A pirate was born.

Plate Nr. 89 as shown in "The Sailing Ships of New England 1607-1907" caption: Brigantine "Experiment," of Newburyport, 114 Tons, Built at Amesbury in 1803. Source: (pirateglossary.com)

Pirate Team-Up

They sailed for the Grand Caymans, a notorious pirate haunt, and found Captain George Lowther, a b-lister as pirates go. They teamed up and Low became Lowther’s lieutenant. They then went on a plundering spree in the Caribbean. They captured merchantmen, and those crew that showed resistance were whipped, cut, and beaten. Others were forced to join the pirate crew, and thus their numbers increased.

Lowther and Low were moderately successful, but Lowther found Low to be argumentative and unruly. After a brigantine was taken off the mid-Atlantic Coast, Lowther saw the opportunity to get rid of Low. The two parted ways on May 28, 1722, with Low taking the new brigantine.

Real pirate treasure at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

Low Goes Solo

Low’s solo career was the stuff of pirate legend. He ranged from the waters of New England to the Azores, to the South American coast. With every capture, his violent reputation grew. On June 15 he took 13 ships at anchor in Nova Scotia by deception. On August 3, he took seven ships in the St. Michael’s Roads. He didn’t need to fire a shot – he just threatened them all with instant death. He then ransomed six of the vessels to the local governor who gave him water and supplies in exchange for the ships.

All this time, Low was constantly changing ships, upgrading to better vessels as he caught them. Pirate hunters could not catch him, and his success was singular.

One of Ned Low's crew killing a wounded Spaniard, engraving. NL: (Edward, Loe, Lowe), English buccaneer active off the New England coast, in the Caribbean and Atlantic ocean, born c. 1690 - c. 1724. Source: (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Extremes in Violence

Coming into 1723, his string of successes continued, although it was accompanied by extremes in violence. In one case, calling a ship’s cook they had captured “a greasy fellow that would fry well,” had him tied to the mainmast of a ship and burnt alive with the ship. In other cases, aside from the normal beatings and slashings of the crew that offered resistance, he had ears and limbs lopped off. One extreme case was when they had captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Signora de Victoria. Low and his crew tortured those aboard to divulge where their money was. The captain confessed that he threw out his cabin window and into the sea a money bag with 11,000 moidores in gold, a small fortune.

Low flew into a rage. He massacred the crew of the Victoria, killing them all. He had the captain’s lips cut off and boiled in front of him before he too was murdered. 

Privateers attacking Spanish ships. Source (en.wikipedia.org)

Defeat

The beginning of the end of Ned Low’s brutal spree started on June 10, 1723, when pirate hunters led by Peter Solgard of the Greyhound out of New York caught up with him. In a fierce action, Low was defeated. Rather than be captured, he stole away in one of his remaining ships leaving his remaining men to be captured.

If this defeat might have mellowed the pirate, think again. Two days after his escape he captured a sloop out of Nantucket. They beat the crew and Low had the captain whipped, cut off his ears, and then shot. Low sunk the sloop. It got worse. In another instance, he had a captain’s ears cut off, roasted with salt and pepper, and forced him to eat it. In another instance, he forced a mate to eat his captain’s roasted heart. The violence was so horrid that many of his own crew deserted him or compelled him to stop.

By now some sources indicate that Low had amassed nearly £150,000 in gold, silver, and plate.

The cruelties of Ned Low. (Taken from the Pirates Own Book, gutenberg.org)

The End of Ned Low

Low’s final fate is unknown, but of the various accounts, the most likely is that his own rage did him in. Low quarreled with his quartermaster and then shot him in his sleep. His own horrified crew took him and a few of his supporters and cast them adrift in a boat. He was then picked up by French authorities and executed on the island of Martinique in 1724.

Other accounts allege that he escaped to Brazil, but by 1725, Ned Low was pirating no more.

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).