Nicky Nielsen, The Pirate Captain Ned Low (Pen & Sword, 2022)
In the prologue of The Pirate Captain Ned Low, Nicky Nielsen recounts the tale of a despicable attack on a whaler in 1723. That story illustrates who we are dealing with in this book; not a pirate of romantic myth and legend, but a genuine sea monster who you would not want to meet in your worst nightmares. Nielsen’s aim in this biography is to understand Ned Low and the world in which he lived.
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Nielsen opens with an illuminating essay on sources, then takes us off to the coast of Honduras where Low’s career as a pirate began by killing his captain and absconding on a sloop with a small crew. Nielsen switches to the story of the pirate George Lowther, whose path will cross with Low, before flashing back to crime-ridden London in the 1680s and Edward (Ned) Low’s misbegotten youth. From there to Boston in 1714, where Low can be placed with certainty. By 1719, Low was on his way to Honduras and a brief, violent life of piracy.
Low became Lowther’s lieutenant on the Happy Delivery. Nielsen takes this opportunity to describe the pirate’s life and its attractions, especially amongst the dispossessed. Lowther and Low soon parted, with Low sailing away on the Rebecca. Nielsen portrays Low at this time as an unhappy man with a tendency to extremely violent outbursts. He raided off the coasts of New England and Nova Scotia, where he took an unwilling Philip Ashton to join his crew. Nielsen follows Ashton’s memoir of his captivity where he finds some of the accounts of Low’s brutality do not jibe with Ashton’s evidence. Low’s luck turned, losing one vessel of his small fleet through carelessness. He was clever, though, and managed his piratical path around the Caribbean using guile more often than force. Then he ran into the HMS Mermaid. His smaller ship with Ashton aboard split off and Ashton escaped – Nielsen expends nearly a chapter on Ashton’s life on a deserted island afterwards before his rescue by the Royal Navy.
Nielsen returns to the Bay of Honduras in March 1723 where Low’s flotilla fought and massacred a Spanish pirate crew before sailing north again. Then, in June 1723, Low chased the wrong ship, the HMS Greyhound. He lost one ship but fled in his own to Nova Scotia, leaving some crew behind to face trial and execution, described in detail by Nielsen. Low met Lowther again, and Nielsen follows Lowther for a while before he and Low crossed to the Azores. Low’s atrocious conduct by now caused disquiet even amongst his crew. In 1724, his crew voted Low out and cast him adrift. Lowther, meanwhile, lost his ship too and committed suicide on a deserted island. As for Low, who knows? He may have been killed by natives or continued as a mercenary soldier; he was certainly never tried for his crimes and may have simply faded into history. That he might have left behind buried treasure is also an intriguing mystery, but Nielsen dispenses with that as another pirate myth.
Nielsen brings to light a fascinating tale of a vicious cutthroat and moderately successful pirate. His book is packed with action and insight into the pirate’s life, and we meet some larger than life characters along the way. I’m not sure he has enough material, though, to claim this is a proper biography; rather, Low runs through the book as a strong narrative thread tying together many different aspects of the early 18th Century pirate world that he inhabited. The book is not diminished for that incompleteness, though some editing and proofreading errors are annoying. Ultimately, this is a solid contribution to our history of pirates, particularly away from the ‘superstar’ pirates we read about so often.