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Piracy in Northern Waters

I recently had the great honour and pleasure of taking part in Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society’s production of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan.

In this story, the pirate band is not very successful. They simply cannot make piracy pay. It turns out that the reason is that they are too gentlemanly: They refuse to attack orphans, having all been orphaned themselves. But since everyone knows this, anyone who is under attack by the pirates simply claims that he is an orphan. So the pirates, acting on their own rule, then have to let him go.

Piracy in Northern Waters

This story of the somewhat unsuccessful gentleman pirates reminds me of the life story of our own Orkney pirate: Pirate John Gow. Born in 1698, Pirate Gow grew up in Stromness in the early 1700s, and started his career as a seaman onboard trading ships. In 1724 he was second mate and gunner on a trading vessel, sailing from Amsterdam to Spain. However, the conditions for the crew were not good, and there was grumbling onboard. While lying off Santa Cruz the crew decided they had had enough and mutinied. Some of the crew seized their chance at night and snuck up on the first mate, the surgeon and the supernumerary and cut their throats. The captain managed to get up on deck, where there was a fight. This is when John Gow got involved. During the fighting on deck he shot the captain and dumped his body in the sea. The other mutineers then elected John Gow as their captain, as he was the only one with navigating skills. That is how John Gow’s life as a pirate began. The crew renamed their ship the “Revenge” and set off plundering around Spain and Portugal. But the ship was in bad need of repairs, and John Gow decided to take it home to Stromness to give it a good scrub and mend it.

The Pirate Gow bookcover

In 1725 Gow and his crew reached Stromness, pretending to be peaceful merchants, having quickly renamed the ship the “George”. John Gow’s parents were delighted to see their son as captain of his own ship and proudly took him around to visit the important families. Little did these families know that they were in for being robbed! The crew had strict instructions from the captain that no-one was to give away their real identity as pirates. This strategy worked for a while, but then rumours began to circulate in Orkney. Some of the crew escaped, and one of them made his way to Kirkwall, where he told the whole story to the legal officials, claiming the he had been forced to piracy by the others.

Meanwhile, pirate Gow and the remaining crew tried to rob the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir – a fine mansion house near the shore, and therefore an easy target. This is where Pirate Gow shows his gentlemanly streak and resembles the unsuccessful Pirates of Penzance: He had heard that in the Hall of Clestrain there was ten thousand pounds, and that the daughter of the house owned a fine diamond ring. However, after the robbery he escaped with no more than seven pounds, a couple of silver spoons, some wine, a piper and two young kitchen maids. One version of the story has it that the daughter of the house managed to hide the valuables under her clothes and run away. The two young kitchen maids, however, were initially taken away on the pirate ship, but already the next day they were put ashore on Cava – some say they were then laden with presents.

Two unfortunate young men who like Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance thought they were going to be pilots, but then found themselves among pirates, were William Pottinger from Westray and Magnus Hewison from Papay. They had gone to the “George” in Stromness, being unaware that it was a pirate ship. The pirates, who needed them as pilots on their next expedition to rob the mansion house of James Fea in Eday, then locked them on board and only released them when they were well underway.

But the “George” never reached Eday: It went aground on the Calf of Eday. Perhaps Pottinger did it on purpose when he discovered what the real mission was? Pirate Gow and his crew were then forced to surrender, and were brought to Newgate Prison in London. Pirate Gow was sentenced to death and hanged, and his poor fiancée Helen, according to one version of the story, had to travel all the way down from Orkney to London. The reason was that she and John Gow had made their promises to each other by holding hands through the hole in the Odin Stone. That her fiancé was dead was not reason good enough to be released from the betrothal, as the only way to do it was by touching the person’s hand. Poor Helen then had to go to London to touch the hand of her beloved’s body. Today Gow’s Folly, or summerhouse, can be seen in Tankerness House Garden. Pirate Gow never had a summerhouse, but it was built later on, using the ballast of volcanic rocks from the hull of the pirate ship after it had run aground. In his book “Pirates: Facts, Figures and Fun” Iain Zaczek concludes that “in many ways, Gow’s career as a pirate was much more typical than those of his better-known peers. It was brief, violent and entirely devoid of the boldness and enterprise that became such a feature of pirate films and books.” However, Pirate Gow’s life did inspire a hugely popular and entertaining novel: “The Pirate” by Sir Walter Scott. If you prefer a more historically accurate approach, though, I would recommend the historical novel “Gow’s Folly” by Orkney writer Kim Foden, which you can download for free from gowsfolly.com.

Pirate Gow is not the only Orkney pirate. If we go back to the Orkneyinga Saga, we see that Orkney was full of Viking pirates back in medieval times. The last pirate in the saga is Sveinn Asleifarson, who lived in the 12th century and was a contemporary of Earl Rognvald Kali Kolsson. Sveinn Asleifarson lived in Gairsay, where he had an estate. Early in the year he would go on his “spring trip”, where he raided in Scotland, England or Ireland. He would then come home to Gairsay and see to his farming through the summer, before embarking on his “autumn trip” for more raiding. Even Earl Rognvald, a saint, attacks and robs an Arabic ship in the Mediterranean on his way to Jerusalem for no particular reason other than a desire to see if they could win it. Rognvald and his crew do indeed succeed in taking the ship, and they get away with a lot of gold after having killed most of the crew and set fire to the ship. This is not the sort of behaviour that we would nowadays expect from a recognised saint, but the author of the Orkneyinga saga doesn’t bat an eyelid at it, as the standard of the time was that you could attack as long as the victims were not Christian …

Earl Rognvald is, however, not the only Orkney Earl to have been involved in piracy. Earl Patrick Stewart, otherwise known as “Black Pate”, did not have a clean record in this respect either. According to The New History of Orkney, in 1592 Earl Patrick had his Sheriff Depute in Shetland seize a ship coming from Danzig, which had been badly damaged in a storm and was lying in Burrafirth. The ship was stripped of all its cargo, and even of its sails, anchor and artillery! William Thomson’s judgement of this affair is that it “lies on a thin dividing line which separates salvage from piracy.” On another occasion Earl Patrick’s own ship was captured by English pirates, and Earl Patrick later claimed to have been robbed of £ 36 000, which was an enormous sum. As a reprisal, Earl Patrick in an act of plain piracy took an English ship carrying wheat to London.

But going back to The Pirates of Penzance: Is anyone else apart from me curious about what “indentures” are? In The Pirates of Penzance, it is said that “Frederic’s out of his indentures.” The story is that Frederic, the main character, is going to be released from his contract with the pirates, as it expires on his 21st birthday. This contract is what is called his “indentures”. The word is made up of three parts: In-dent-ures, and the middle part, dent, may sound familiar: It is the same “dent” as in “dentist” or to make a “dent” in something. It means “tooth” in Latin, and when you accidentally make a dent, let’s say in a table, it looks kind of like a tooth mark. In medieval times, people didn’t of course have photocopiers, and they needed a way to make sure that a document was an accurate copy. Contracts were therefore made in two identical halves on the same piece of parchment. It was then cut in two, in a zigzag pattern. The point was that anyone could check that these two parts were indeed two identical copies of the same contract by putting them together like two parts of a jigsaw puzzle. This type of contract was called “indentures” because when you see just the one half, it is zigzagged at the bottom or top, like teeth.

At the end of The Pirates of Penzance, it transpires that the pirates are not just a band of common scoundrels, but indeed “noblemen who have gone wrong”. They are then asked to “resume their ranks and legislative duties” in the House of Peers. Well, in my own fanciful, imagined sequel to the story, they take up their legislative duties by issuing letters of marque to privateers. These were official letters, written by the government, allowing privateers to attack and plunder ships of an enemy nation. Legal piracy, in other words. This strategy was used in Northern waters during the Napoleonic war in the early 19th century, when the Danish-Norwegian government allowed Norwegian privateers to attack British ships. At the time, Denmark-Norway was under blockade by Britain, which stopped all import of food and other goods to Norway, the result being that grain stores were running low and the population was starving. Legal piracy was then a way both to obtain merchant goods and at the same time harm the enemy nation. Wouldn’t it be a funny twist if the Pirates of Penzance carried on in the pirate business by issuing official letters which made piracy legal?


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