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  John Gow - The Orkney Pirate

Pirate or gentleman?

Pirate ShipsReading through the different versions of John Gow's career as a "cut-throat", I am left with the opinion that although he was no saint, he may not have been as black a character as the accounts have him painted.

There is no question that Gow broke the law. And yes, he was involved in a murder plot. But as far as I can see, his involvement in the murder of the three crewmen on board the Caroline is minimal, having apparently only been responsible for allegedly shooting the captain.

What the writers of the time were not interested in was the crewmen’s side of the story. Just how bad were their rations and living conditions? Were they mistreated by the officers? Were they driven to mutiny and if so, was Gow simply swept along by the events rather than being at the forefront?

From the accounts, the real troublemakers seem to have been James Williams and Daniel MacAulay, who were responsible for the death of the mate, the surgeon and supernumerary. Gow’s involvement in their murder has the appearance of being "tacked on" to the account.

His election to captain of the commandeered vessel was due primarily to the fact that only he was able to navigate the vessel. As captain was he later seen to be responsible for events over which he had little control?

During the Revenge’s pirate exploits, Gow seems to show a compassionate and almost honourable attitude towards his prisoners. After holding them for some time, they were generally released unharmed and very often bearing gifts.

An early quarrel between Gow and one of his shipmates gives a tantalising glimpse at the Pirate’s character. For refusing to attack a French vessel, Gow was accused of cowardice by the impetuous mate, James Williams. Williams tried to kill Gow but was overpowered by the crew and detained.

A report of the time stated:

"Williams, the lieutenant, said that Gow was a coward and unworthy to command the vessel. The fact is, that Gow possessed somewhat of a calm courage, while Williams impetuosity was of the most brutal kind."

In Orkney, during the "escape" from Stromness, one account has it that the pirates abducted two servant girls from the house of Mr Honeyman on Graemsay. These girls, it claims, were "put ashore on Cava the following day so loaded with presents that they soon afterwards got husbands."

The account attributed to the author Daniel Defoe, on the other hand, preferred to state that the girls were taken from Cava and that they suffered at the hands of the pirates. Was Defoe indulging in a little artistic licence perhaps? After all, what good were pirates that behaved in a gentlemanly fashion!

As to Gow’s true nature….ultimately that has to be left to the reader to decide.