Nigel Rigby tells the story of ruthless pirate John Gow
Nigel Rigby rediscovers the story of 18th-century pirate John Gow in a rare, and now reprinted, book about his life. Listen in to find out more about Gow’s adventures – and his eventual capture and execution.
Hello, I’m Lucinda Donnachie.
The National Maritime Museum has a large collection of rare historic books and has recently been republishing some of its gems. Our most recent reprint is a book called The Pirate Gow, which is an account of the life of the pirate John Gow and is thought to be by Daniel Defoe. To find out more about this story I’m joined by the museum’s Head of Research, Nigel Rigby. So Nigel, what’s so interesting about John Gow?
Well it’s true that very few people have ever heard of John Gow, who was executed along with a number of his crew for piracy in 1725, but at the time his short but bloody career became something of a cause celebre. Within a month of his execution at Wapping and being gibbeted just down river from here at Greenwich, a small book was published with this wonderful title, An Account of the Conduct and Proceedings of the late John Gow, Alias Smith, Captain of the Late Pirates, Executed for Murther and Piracy Committed on Board the George Galley, Afterwards Call’d the Revenge; with a Revelation of All the Horrid Murthers They Committed in Cold Blood: as Also of Their Being Taken at the Islands of Orkney, and Sent Up Prisoners to London. Now only a very few copies of the book have actually survived, and even though a reprint was published in the late 19th century, that was an edition that was limited to 250 copies, so it’s really quite a rare book, and an interesting one.
It’s also possible, although literary scholars in their way argue about this, that the book was written by Daniel Defoe. What is very certain, though, is that the early 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott used the story of Gow in his novel The Pirate, which was published in 1822 and which, like most pirate stories and films, romanticized piracy. The Gow figure in the book, Captain Cleveland, eventually repents his wicked ways and dies, heroically, for his country. In reality, Gow was a very nasty piece of work.
Can you tell us something about his piratical career?
He was second mate on board a merchant ship which was trading on the coast of North Africa, Barbary, as it was called then and Gow was one of the ringleaders of the mutiny which saw his captain, the first mate, surgeon and supercargo hacked and shot to death and thrown overboard. And Gow personally shot the captain.
As Gow was the only one left with any skill in navigation he was elected captain – this was actually quite usual in pirate ships where captains only remained captains with the support of the crew, and they were expected to deliver the goods in terms of booty.
On Gow’s ship they didn’t have too much success in one sense, as although they took five or six ships fairly quickly, they were all carrying salt fish and marine stores rather than the strong liquor that the crew wanted. The author says this was an item that they were prodigiously in need of. And Gow nearly had a mutiny of his own when his second-in-command, who was an equally nasty piece of work, if not nastier, a man called Williams, criticised Gow’s refusal to chase a much strong ship than their own and tried to take over as captain from him. Williams was badly wounded in the affair and Gow handed him over to the next merchantman they captured with the request that he be handed over to a British naval ship for trial as a pirate. Sort of getting his own back I think.
They did actually capture a ship carrying wine in the end and shortly after that Gow decided to sail north and refit the ship in his native Orkney, and to indulge in a little bit of light plundering to boot. They went there, and they posed as innocent merchantmen, and all was going really quite well until some of his crew deserted and blew the gaff. Now outed as pirates, Gow began to raid some of the islands, but he went aground on a small island called the Calf of Eday when he was planning to attack the house of his old schoolfriend James Fea. Gow was completely outwitted by Fea, and he and his crew were swiftly captured by the islanders and they were sent to London for trial and execution. And that was the end of that.
Not much romance there, then.
Well, none at all really, although there is a legend in Orkney, which doesn’t appear in the book, that Gow had become engaged to a young woman when they were back in Orkney. And the two of them had made a marriage contract by joining hands through a stone called the Stone of Odin, which had a big hole through it. Contracts done in this way were considered absolutely unbreakable in the Orkneys and so once they’d done that she was tied to him for life and he did relinquish his oath like that so all was well. It’s a story that’s very nice but it pushes the imagination a bit.
You said earlier that Daniel Defoe may have written the book. Can you say any more about that?
Well, it’s an obscure academic debate, like all these things are, and it hinges on a book called A True History of the Pyrates which was published in a number of editions at about the same time as John Gow in the 1720s. The History of the Pyrates was supposed to have been written by a Captain Johnson and the 1725 edition of The History of the Pyrates carries a cut-down version of Gow’s story. Actually, no one really knows who Captain Johnson was but from the late 19th century there was a strong body of opinion that he was a pen-name of Defoe. In fact, in the 20th century one academic claimed hundreds of previously unattributed 18th-century texts as being written by Defoe. He claimed that Defoe had written 500 books. Now, Defoe worked for a publisher called Applebee, a publisher who specialised in rogues’ yarns, highwayman’s tales, convicted criminals and murderers and things like that. And it was Applebee who published the first editition of The Pirate Gow so therefore if you believed that Defoe wrote A True History of the Pyrates the odds were that he also wrote The Pirate Gow and there were other internal clues as well. More recently though, a number of scholars have argued that it is highly unlikely that Defoe wrote either, so you pays your money and you takes your choice. It’s a good story though.
Nigel, thank you. If you’d like to learn more about The Pirate Gow then the book is available now from the Museum shop.