How Peter Love the pirate went from Lewes to Lewis

In popular imagination all pirate ships ply their terrible trade in exotic locations as depicted here. However, Sussex-born privateer Peter Love committed his brand of seaway robbery around the islands of Scotland.
In popular imagination all pirate ships ply their terrible trade in exotic locations as depicted here. However, Sussex-born privateer Peter Love committed his brand of seaway robbery around the islands of Scotland.

A pirate with the romantic name Peter Love was born in Lewes during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Intriguingly, Captain Love didn’t ply his violent trade in the Caribbean or even the Mediterranean. No – he preferred the waters around Ireland and the Scottish isles.

Fishing boats on the beach at Hastings. Two centuries or so ago, the towns mariners were not averse to a spot of piracy as a sideline to fishing.

Fishing boats on the beach at Hastings. Two centuries or so ago, the towns mariners were not averse to a spot of piracy as a sideline to fishing.

Indeed, at one time he had a hideaway on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Now, like me, you might have first thought that the similarity of the name “Lewis” to that of “Lewes” is somewhat suspicious. But I defer to respected Scottish historian William Cook Mackenzie who wrote Love’s story in a 1906 book, “ A History of the Scottish Highlands and Isles”.

That Mackenzie is a trusted source is shown by how he disproved a legend that had the island of Lewis once home to a race of pygmies. Writer Dean Monro gave credence to the tale in the 16th Century, around the same time that Peter Love was active. Mackenzie’s simple test was to have some bones long held to be those of deceased tiny people sent to the Natural History Museum for classification. All the bones were found to be animal remains from creatures that had most likely provided food for religious hermits.

Back to the pirates. We must presume that Peter Love became a mariner early in life and first set sail from a Sussex port. The nearest harbour to Lewes in Elizabethan times was Seaford, a Cinque Port where the River Ouse emptied into the English Channel. However, in 1579 (around the time of Love’s birth) a terrible storm blocked the river, disabled the port and eventually led to the establishment of Meeching (now Newhaven) some miles to the east. It therefore seems more likely that Love went to Rye or Shoreham.

His progress into piracy is unknown. The usual route would occur after a commercial vessel had been captured by corsairs when the crew would be given a choice of joining the pirates or, at best, being forced into an open rowing boat and set adrift.

Piracy clearly suited Peter Love. He rose quickly to become captain of the “Priam”, a strange choice of name for a ship as we know the King of Troy wasn’t blessed with a whole lot of luck. Love’s choice of the Outer Hebrides as a hunting ground may have been because his ship was unsuitable for long voyages.

According to Mackenzie, Love and the “Priam” sought a base within Loch Roag, Lewis, when carrying a valuable cargo of spices looted from an English ship. There were also 700 hides from the West Indies plus silver plate and a box of valuable gems taken from a Dutchman.

Neil MacLeod, son of a chief of the MacLeod of Lewis clan, lived in hiding nearby. In 1596 Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail was granted a “commission of fire and sword” by the Scottish authorities. This draconian measure enabled Mackenzie to apprehend named fugitives wherever they could be found. Further, Mackenzie was authorised to “administer justice and, if need be, to raise fire and sword and burn their houses and slay them”. Coveting MacLeod’s land, Mackenzie declared him an outlaw.

MacLeod refused to surrender and with a small band of followers took refuge on an island within Loch Roag. Love and MacLeod were both wanted men and their shared predicament soon led to a working friendship. Then the pirates went back to business, seizing a Flemish ship and taking five crewmen as slaves.

The friendship didn’t last. 'In an ambush following an alcohol-fueled feast, MacLeod and his men killed some pirates and captured Love. The enslaved Dutchmen were freed and MacLeod, in the hope of a pardon. sent a message to the powers-that-be seeking guidance on what he should next

Love and nine of his men were given up to the authorities and were tried in Edinburgh on 8th December 1610. They were all found guilty of piracy and were duly hanged at Leith.

A few years later, encouraged by his kinsmen, MacLeod set off for London to seek a royal pardon. But once in Glasgow he was betrayed to the authorities. Historian Mackenzie believes that MacLeod’s kinsmen colluded in his arrest. The outlaw was tried for high treason, found guilty and hanged in April 1613.

Ironically, despite never having been to the Caribbean, Peter Love’s name is perpetuated in a brand of exotic rum made by a company called Black Sail. But surely whisky would be more appropriate?

The Sussex town of Hastings has a history linked to piracy. Local fishermen were partial to a bit of buccaneering right up until the late 18th Century. At times the authorities turned an “eye with a patch” to the practice but not always. In August 1768 a Dutch ship was captured off Hastings and relieved of her cargo before being sunk. At the time England was at peace with the Netherlands and in consequence a detachment of dragoons was sent to Hastings to deter piracy. Twenty years later after war broke out between England, Holland, France, Spain and the fledgling USA, the King called on the seamen of Hastings for assistance. The new naval force received a veneer of legitimacy by being called privateers – pirates by any other name!

Somewhat bizarrely, modern-day Hastings holds the record for the biggest-ever gathering of costumed pirates anywhere in the world. This occurred in 2012 when 14,231 people assembled on the town’s Pelham Beach to regain the title from their arch-pirate people rivals, Penzance.