Biography of Edward Low

Cruelest of the English Pirates

Flag of pirate Edward Low
Flag of pirate Edward Low. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Edward "Ned" Low (also spelled Lowe or Loe) was an English criminal, sailor, and pirate. He took up piracy sometime around 1722 and was very successful, plundering dozens if not hundreds of ships. He was known for his cruelty to his prisoners and was greatly feared on both sides of the Atlantic. There are conflicting versions of his final fate, but he did cease pirate activities in 1724 or 1725 and was probably captured and hanged by the French on Martinique.

Early Life of Edward Low

Low was born in Westminster, probably sometime around 1690. As a youth, he was a thief, gambler, and a thug. He was a strong, physical young man and would often beat up other boys for their money. Later, as a gambler, he would cheat brazenly: if anyone called him on it, he would fight them, usually winning. When he was a teenager he went to sea and worked for a few years in a rigging house (where they made and repaired ships' ropes and rigging) in Boston.

Low Turns Pirate

Tiring of life on land, Low signed on board a small vessel which was headed to the bay of Honduras to cut logwood. Such missions were risky, as the Spanish coastal patrol would attack them if they were sighted. One day, after a long day's work cutting logwood and loading it, the captain ordered Low and the other men to make one more trip, so as to fill the ship faster and get out of there. Low became enraged and fired a musket at the captain. He missed but killed another sailor. Low was marooned and the captain took the opportunity to rid himself of a dozen or so other malcontents as well. The marooned men soon captured a small boat and went pirate.

Association with Lowther

The new pirates went to Grand Cayman Island where they met a pirate force under the command of George Lowther on board the ship Happy Delivery. Lowther was in need of men and offered to let Low and his men join. They did happily, and Low was made lieutenant. Within a couple of weeks, the Happy Delivery had taken a big prize: the 200-ton ship Greyhound out of Boston, which they burned. They took several other ships in the Bay of Honduras in the next few weeks, and Low was promoted to captain of a captured sloop which was outfitted with eighteen cannons. It was a quick rise for Low, who had been a junior officer on board the logwood ship only weeks before.

Low Strikes out on His Own

Not long after, as the pirates refitted their ships on an isolated beach, they were attacked by a large group of angry natives. The men had been resting on shore, and although they were able to escape, they lost much of their loot and the Happy Delivery was burned. Setting out in the remaining ships, they resumed piracy once more with great success, capturing many merchant and trading vessels. In May of 1722, Low and Lowther decided to part ways: there is nothing to suggest that their parting was anything but friendly. Low was then in charge of a Brigantine with two cannons and four swivel guns, and there were some 44 men serving under him.

A Successful Pirate

Over the next two years or so, Low became one of the most successful and feared pirates in the world. He and his men captured and robbed dozens of vessels over a wide area, ranging from the western coast of Africa to Brazil and north to the southeastern United States. His flag, which was well-known and feared, consisted of a red skeleton on a black background.

Low's Tactics

Low was a clever pirate who would use brute force only when necessary. His ships collected a variety of flags and he would often approach targets while flying the flag of Spain, England or whatever other nation they thought their prey might be from. Once close, they would run up the Jolly Roger and begin firing, which was usually enough to demoralize the other ship into surrendering. Low preferred to use a small fleet of two to four pirate ships to better outmaneuver his victims.

He could also use the threat of force: on more than one occasion, when in need of supplies, he sent messengers to coastal towns threatening an attack if they were not given food, water or whatever else he wanted. In some cases, he had hostages which he would threaten. More often than not, the threat of force or murder worked and Low was able to get his provisions without firing a shot. Low usually returned any hostages unharmed, probably reasoning that his tactics would not work in the future if he did not.

Cruel Pirate Low

Low developed a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. On one occasion, as he prepared to burn a ship he had recently captured and no longer needed, he ordered the ship's cook tied to the mast to perish in the fire: the reason was that the man was "a greasy fellow" who would sizzle: this proved amusing to Low and his men. On another occasion they caught a galley with some Portuguese aboard: two friars were hung from the Fore-Yard and jerked up and down until they died: another Portuguese passenger, who had made the mistake of looking "sorrowful" at the fate of his friends, was cut to pieces by one of Low's men.

On another occasion, upon learning that the captain of a ship he had attacked had thrown a sack of gold out the porthole rather than let the pirates have it, he ordered the captain's lips to be cut off, cooked and then fed back to him. Not content, he massacred the captain and crew: 32 men in all. Once, when capturing a Spanish pirate with English prisoners in his hold, Low ordered the Englishmen freed and then proceeded to have his men massacre all 70 Spaniards on board.

The End of Captain Low

In June of 1723, Low was sailing in his flagship Fancy and was accompanied by the Ranger, under the command of Charles Harris, a loyal lieutenant. After successfully seizing and plundering several ships off of the Carolinas, they ran into the 20-gun Greyhound, a Royal Navy Man o' War on the lookout for pirates. Low and Harris engaged the Greyhound, which proved to be far tougher than they had expected. The greyhound pinned down the Ranger and shot down its mast, effectively crippling it. Low decided to run, leaving Harris and the other pirates to their fate. All of the hands on board the Ranger were captured and brought to trial in Newport, Rhode Island. 25 (including Harris) were found guilty and hung, two more were found not guilty and sent to prison, and eight more were found not guilty on the grounds that they had been forced into piracy.

Low's reputation for being fearless and invincible took a huge hit when it became known that he had abandoned his fellow pirates, especially in a fight he could have won. Captain Charles Johnson said it best in his 1724 General History of the Pyrates:

"The Conduct of Low was surprising in this Adventure, because his reputed Courage and Boldness had, hitherto, so possess'd the Minds of all People, that he became a Terror, even to his own Men, but his Behaviour throughout this whole Action, shewed him to be a base cowardly Villain; for had Low's sloop fought half so briskly as Harris's had done, (as they were under a solemn Oath to do ) the Man of War, in my Opinion, could never have hurted them."

Low was still active when Johnson's history came out, so he did not know his fate. According to the National Maritime Museum in London, Low was never captured and spent the rest of his life in Brazil. Another version of his fate suggests that his crew tired of his cruelty (he supposedly shot a sleeping man he had fought with, causing the crew to despise him as a coward). Set adrift in a small ship, he was found by the French and brought to Martinique for trial and hanged. This seems the most likely explanation of his outcome, although there is little in the way of documentation to prove it. In any event, by 1725 he was no longer active in piracy.

Legacy of Edward Low

Edward Low was the real deal - a ruthless, cruel, clever pirate who terrorized transatlantic shipping for about two years as the so-called " Golden Age of Piracy" wound down. He brought commerce to a halt and had naval vessels searching the Caribbean for him. He became, in a sense, the "poster boy" for the need to control piracy. Before Low, many pirates were either cruel or successful, but Low represented a sadist with a well-armed and organized fleet. He was hugely successful in pirate terms, plundering well over a hundred ships in his career: only "Black Bart" Roberts was more successful in the same area and time. Low was also a good teacher: his lieutenant Francis Spriggs had a successful pirate career after absconding with one of Low's ships in 1723.

Oddly, Low seems to have been forgotten today. Piracy is popular now (or at least the romanticized Disney version of it) but lesser pirates such as Calico Jack Rackham or  Stede Bonnet  have much greater notoriety. That's not to say that he is completely absent from popular culture: his name appears in pirate computer games and part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney is named for him. The Cayman Islands put him on a postage stamp in 1975.


Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

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