Posted by: Rob Viens | March 25, 2013

William Low – Rogue or Businessman?

The answer to that question is not as easy as it might seem (even taking into account that throughout history a person could easily be both of these things). If you ask Darwin about “Captain Lowe” and then look at the notes from Captain FitzRoy regarding “Mr. Low”, you get a somewhat different answer. Darwin paints him as a “notorious terror”, while FitzRoy seems him as “enterprising” and “down on his luck”. The contrast is almost humorous.

Here is what they had to say upon first mentioning the notorious and enterprising captain – Darwin first:

“On Friday a sealing vessel arrived commanded by Capt. Lowe; a notorious & singular man who has frequented these seas for many years & been the terror to all small vessels. — It is commonly said, that a Sealer, Slaver & Pirate are all of a trade; they all certainly require bold energetic men; & amongst Sealers there are frequently engagements for the best “rookerys”. & in these affrays Capt Lowe has gained his celebrity. — In their manners habits &c I should think these men strikingly resembled the old Buccaneers, Capt Lowe brought with him the people belonging to a vessel which was wrecked on the SW coast of Tierra del by the great gale of the 13th of Jan. — Thus we already know of the loss of two vessels & a third which was got off shore. — Capt Lowe considers this Summer to have been the most boisterous he has ever seen. It is satisfactory to have felt the very worst weather, in one of the most notorious places in the world. & that in a class of vessel, which is generally thought unfit to double the Horn. — Few vessels would have weathered it better than our little “diving duck”.” (Mar 24)

A love the reference to the Beagle as a “diving duck”.

View of the Harbor of Port Louis – Berkley Sound, East Falkland by Lt. Lowcay (late 1830’s? – from Wikipedia Commons):

Port Louis

In contrast, where is what FitzRoy says about “Mr. Low”:

“A sealing schooner, the Unicorn, arrived, Mr. William Low being sealing master and part owner; and, although considered to be the most enterprizing and intelligent sealer on those shores, perhaps anywhere, the weather had been so much against him that he returned from his six months’ cruise a ruined man, with an empty ship. All his means had been employed to forward the purchase and outfit of the fine vessel in which he sailed; but having had, as he assured me, a continued succession of gales during sixty-seven days, and, taking it altogether, the worst season he had known during twenty years’ experience, he had been prevented from taking seal, and was ruined. Passengers with him were the master and crew of a North American sealing schooner, the Transport, which had been wrecked on the south-west coast of Tierra del Fuego, in Hope Harbour; and he told me of two other wrecks, all occasioned by the gale of January 12-13th.” (FitzRoy’s Narratives)

I strongly suspect, based on later references to “Low” that FitzRoy was closer to the mark.  By all accounts the Falklands were a stopping ground for all sorts of rough captains and sailors in the southern seas.  I wonder if Darwin was a little frightened by all these “tough guys” and jumped to the initial conclusion that they were all pirates and rogues. (I’m going to guess that Darwin’s suggestion that he was a “slaver” was a bit hasty, too.  Otherwise, I suggest we would have heard more about it.)

In any case, all I really know about William Low (aside from the history FitzRoy provides)  was that he was in fact, a Scottish sealer who spent the better part of his nautical career in the area around Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands.  There are further suggestions that he also traveled up the west coast of South America – giving Darwin a description of the Galapagos Islands when the Beagle return to the Falklands in 1834.

It took me a little while to figure out what was going on here, since not only are the descriptions slightly different but the dates are, too.  FitzRoy’s entry suggests the Unicorn was encountered around March 10th. While Darwin’s entry is from two weeks later. So I’m still not exactly sure when this first encounter occurred.

In any case, FitzRoy liked the look of the Unicorn, and knowing that Low needed money, the captain was ready to make a deal… (RJV)


  1. This attempt to envision the wholeness of “Mr Low(e)” based on impressions of the time has me imagining scholars in 2120 attempting to reconstruct today’s adventurers based on the tweets and facebook posts of the community. Would love to witness that!

  2. Which calendar was being used – Justinian or Gregorian? There was an 11 day difference.

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