Biography of Edward Low, English Pirate

Edward Low

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Edward "Ned" Low (1690–1724) 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 over the course of his criminal career. Low was known for his cruelty to his prisoners and was greatly feared on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fast Facts: Edward Low

  • Known For: Low was an English pirate known for his viciousness and brutality.
  • Also Known As: Edward Lowe, Edward Loe
  • Born: 1690 in Westminster, London
  • Died: 1724 (place of death unknown)

Early Life

Low was born in Westminster, London, probably sometime around 1690. As a youth, he was a thief and a gambler. He was a strong 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 and usually win. When he was a teenager, he went to sea and worked for a few years in a rigging house (where he made and repaired ships' ropes and rigging) in Boston.

Piracy

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, 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 turned pirate.

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, which they burned. They took several other ships in the Bay of Honduras over the next few weeks, and Low was promoted to captain of a captured sloop which was outfitted with 18 cannons. It was a quick rise for Low, who had been a junior officer on board the logwood ship only weeks before.

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 the 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 1722, Low and Lowther decided to part ways. Low was then in charge of a Brigantine with two cannons and four swivel guns, and there were some 44 men serving under him.

Over the next two years, 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 the southeastern United States. His flag, which was well-known and feared, consisted of a red skeleton on a black field.

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, 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 held hostages. More often than not, the threat of force worked and Low was able to get his provisions without firing a shot.

Nevertheless, 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, and 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.

Death

In June 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 ship on the lookout for pirates. 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. Twenty-five men (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.

Historians are not quite sure what happened to Low. According to the National Maritime Museum in London, the pirate was never captured and spent the rest of his life in Brazil. Another history 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 account, although there is little in the way of documentation to prove it. In any event, by 1725 Low was no longer active in piracy.

Legacy

Edward Low was the real deal: a ruthless, cruel, clever pirate who terrorized transatlantic shipping for about two years during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy. 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 was a sadist with a well-armed and organized fleet. He was hugely successful in pirate terms, plundering well over 100 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.

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