Adventures of Captain John Gow


Daniel Defoe

THOUGH this Work seems principally to enter into the history of one man, namely, the late Captain John Gow, alias Smith, the leader or commander in the desperate and bloody actions for which he has been condemned; yet the share which several others had in the whole scene, and who acted in concert with him, comes so necessarily to be described and takes up so much room in the relation, that it may indeed be called the history of all the late pirates so far as they acted together in these wicked adventures.

Nor does the calling him (I mean this Gow, or Smith) their captain, denominate him anything deeper in the crime than the rest; for ’t is eminently known that among such fellows as these, when once they have abandoned themselves to such a dreadful height of wickedness, there is so little government or subordination among them that they are, on occasion, all captains, all leaders. And though they generally put in this or that man to act as commander for this or that voyage or enterprise, they frequently remove them again upon the smallest occasion—nay, even without any occasion at all, but as humours and passions govern at those times. And this is done so often that I once knew a buccaneering pirate vessel, whose crew were upwards of seventy men, who, in one voyage, had so often changed, set up, and pulled down their captains and other officers, that above seven-and-forty of the ship’s company had, at several times, been in office of one kind or other; and among the rest they had, in particular, had thirteen captains. Now, however, it was not so here; yet it seems, even in this ship, Gow himself, though called captain, had not an absolute command, and was at one time so insulted by Lieutenant Williams because he declined attacking a French ship from Martinico, that it wanted but little of deposing him at that time, and murdering him too.

In this account, therefore, we shall have some relation of the conduct of the whole ship’s crew, as well as of Captain Gow; nor will it, I hope, make the work the less agreeable to the reader, but the more so, by how much the greater variety of incidents will come in my way to speak of.

As to Gow himself, he was, indeed, a superlative, a capital rogue, and had been so even before he came to embark in this particular ship. And he is more than ordinarily remarkable for having formed the like design of going a-pirating when he served as boatswain on board an English merchant-ship, bound home from Lisbon to London, in which he formed a party to have seized on the captain and officers and to run away with the ship; when, no doubt, had he accomplished his work, the said captain and officers had run the same fate as those did we are now to mention.

This I am so ascertained of the truth of, that the captain himself is ready to attest it, to whom it was afterwards discovered, that he, Gow, had made four of the seamen acquainted with his bloody design, and had gained them over to it; but not being able to draw in any more, and not being strong enough with these who he had so debauched, they did not make their attempt.

This, it seems, was not discovered to the captain till after the ship was discharged in the port of London, and the men paid off and dismissed, when information being given, the said captain endeavoured to have apprehended Gow and his accomplices; but having, as ’t was supposed, gotten some notice of the design, made off and shifted for them selves as well as they could, in which it was his lot to go over to Holland.

Here it was, viz., at Amsterdam, that Gow shipped himself afore the mast, as the seamen called it—that is to say, as a common sailor, on board an English ship of 200 tons burden, called the George galley. He shipped himself at first, as I have said, afore the mast; but afterwards, which added to the great misfortune, appearing to be an active, skilful sailor, he obtained the favour of being made second mate. The ship was commanded by one Oliver Ferneau, a Frenchman, but a subject of Great Britain, being of the island of Guernsey, to which also did the ship belong, but was then in the service of the merchants of Amsterdam.

Captain Ferneau, being a man of reputation among the merchants of Amsterdam, got a voyage for his ship from thence to Santa Cruz, on the coast of Barbary, to load beeswax, and to carry it to Genoa, which was his delivering port; and as the Dutch, having war with the Turks of Algiers, were willing to employ him as an English ship, so he was as willing to be manned with English seamen; and accordingly, among the rest, he unhappily took on board this Gow with his wretched gang, such as Macaulay, Melvin, Williams, and others; but not being able to man themselves wholly with English or Scotch, they were obliged to take some Swedes and other seamen to make up his complement, which was twenty-three in all. Among the latter sort one was named Winter, and another Petersen, both of them Swedes by nation, but as wicked, too, as Gow and his other fellows were. They sailed from the Texel in the month of August, 1724, and arrived at Santa Cruz on the 2nd of September following, where, having a supercargo on board who took charge of the loading and four chests of money to purchase it, they soon got the beeswax on board, and on the 3rd of November they appointed to set sail to pursue the voyage.

Thus much seems, however, proper to signify to the world before they enter into the rest of Gow’s story, because ’t is evident from hence that the late barbarous and inhuman action was not the effect of a sudden fury raised in the minds of the whole company by the ill usage they had received from Captain Ferneau in the matter of their provisions, or from their having overheard the said Ferneau threaten them when he spoke to the mate upon the quarter-deck to get small arms into the great cabin, which they might suppose was in order to seize on them and bring them to correction, and so, in their heat of blood, might run them up to such a height of rage as to commit the murders which they did not intend before.

But ’t is evident that this Gow in particular, what ever the rest might have done, had entertained this bloody resolution in general (I mean of turning pirate) long before this voyage; he had endeavoured to put it in practice, at least once before, namely, in the ship (mentioned above) bound from Lisbon for London, and had only failed for want of being able to bring over a sufficient gang of rogues to his party. Whether he had not had the same design in his head long before, that we do not know; but it seems he had not been able to bring it to pass till now, when finding some little discontent among the men on account of their provisions, he was made the devil’s instrument to run up those discontents to such a dreadful height of fury and rage as we shall find they did.

And this justly entitles Gow to the charge of being the principal, as well author as agent, in the tragedy that followed. Nor does it at all take off the charge that Winter and Petersen began the mutinous language towards the captain.

The design must certainly have been laid among them before; how else should so many of them so easily form such a wicked scheme in the few minutes they had to talk together? Gow therefore is, I say, justly charged as author of all the wicked conclusions among them, and as having formed a resolution in his own mind to turn pirate the first time he had an opportunity, whatever ship or whatever voyage he went upon.

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