Chinese Pirates

This tale of piracy did not occur on the waters of Lake George. But at Silver Bay, there was once a double row of classrooms along the path between the auditorium and the lawn below Forest Lodge, and each was dedicated to a religious figure.

The second classroom on the right (above) was dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Walter Macon Lowrie, a Presbyterian missionary who perished at the hands of Chinese pirates. The reason for Lowrie’s death, however, is absent from the many memorials to his memory. In fact, Lowrie died neither for his faith or his country.

Born in 1819, Walter Macon Lowrie was the son of a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, also Walter Lowrie (1784-1868), who after his term as a Senator served for 12 years as the Secretary of the Senate. The elder Walter was a religious man, and after his time in government, in 1836, he became the corresponding secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. His son was educated at Presbyterian schools: Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was ordained as an evangelist in 1841 and left for China as the Rev. Walter Lowrie in 1842.

Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to the Second Presbytery of New York that described the situation in China as he saw it and clearly expressed his goals:

“The eyes of all the world are turned to this empire at this moment, and the facts that I mention are known to all. There is then, at this time, a two-fold contest going on in China. One is conducted by the British nation, the other by the Christian world. The object of the former is to open China for commercial purposes, in order that a market may be found for manufacturers and productions, and a mine be opened from which the inhabitants of other nations may dig stores of this world’s treasures, which all perish in the using. The object of the latter is to overthrow the power of Satan in this empire, to scatter the beams of Heaven’s own light on the thick darkness that envelops it, to save the souls of our brethren who inhabit these ends of the earth.”

Lowrie spent his first two years at the Presbyterian mission in Macao, learning Cantonese, preaching, and traveling whenever possible. In 1845, he went to Ning-po, a port city on the southern shores of the Hangzhou Gulf of the East China Sea. On his list of things to accomplish were a Chinese-English dictionary that would enable the Chinese to study the Bible, the establishment of a Chinese printing press for publication, a translation of the New Testament into Chinese, and translations of Chinese classics into English so that the Western world might better understand China.

In August of 1847, Lowrie was attending a conference in Shanghai, just north of the Hangzhou Gulf, when he was called back to Ning-po. The land trip would have been long; he chose the direct route back across the Gulf by boat. He was traveling with a servant and one other Chinese assistant. About 12 miles out to sea, their boat was set upon by pirates. As the piratical craft approached, the Rev. Lowrie went to the bow of the boat and waved a small American flag he was carrying. The pirates, unimpressed, responded with gunfire and the Rev. Lowrie went below to his cabin. When the pirates arrived to ransack his belongings, he gave them the keys to his truck and boxes, to spare them the trouble of breaking them open. The pirates had stripped the crew of clothing but no one touched Lowrie. When the pirates began tearing up the floorboards of his cabin, he moved again, returning to the deck where he read the Bible.

The pirates were then to conclude their foray by disabling the boat, taking away its rudder and cutting its sails before departing, when a complication arose. In a letter to Lowrie’s parents, the Rev. A.W. Loomis of the Ning-po mission diplomatically wrote, “something seemed to have awakened a fear in the minds of the pirates, lest when he [Lowrie] reached Shanghai they would be reported to the authorities.” But it wasn’t “something,” it was “someone,” and that someone was the Rev. Walter Macon Lowrie, who from the bow of the ship informed the pirates in his excellent Cantonese that he recognized some of them, and would give information against them as soon as he reached land.

One can easily imagine the exchange of glances among the pirates. They briefly debated whether Lowrie should be killed where he stood or tossed into the ocean. The ocean won and two men were dispatched to throw him overboard. One wonders if, in his last moments, Lowrie thought that perhaps he should have kept his plans to himself. But there was so little time. As he struggled with the two men, Lowrie kicked off his shoes. A third man joined the struggle and, at the last moment, Lowrie turned and threw his Bible to the deck, lest it fall into the sea. A  moment later, he was in the water, and one pirate was given the job of keeping him away from the side of the boat with a long pole capped by an iron hook. Lowrie struggled to return to the boat, but the waves were high, and he “soon sank.” The crew survived, and returned to tell the story of what had happened.

The Rev. Lowrie was 28 years old. He never married. His Bible, Bagster’s edition in Hebrew, Greek and English, was returned to Ning-po. The Rev. Lowrie was memorialized at Ning-po, the Princeton Theological Seminary and Silver Bay. In 1849, his father published his sermons and letters.

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I am indebted to Stories of Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks (2011) by Thomas Reeves Lord for its mention of the Rev. Lowrie. Also helpful: a letter by Lowrie sent to the Second Presbytery of New York, from Hong Kong, November 9th, 1842; “China: Piracy and Murder of the Rev. W.M. Lowrie” in Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence, November 23, 1847; Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M.  Lowrie, Missionary to China (1849). And for color, an illustration by N.C. Wyeth for “The Rakish Brigantine” by James B. Connolly, Scribner’s Magazine, August 1914.

SB Classrooms Uphill

“Lowrie Hall” can be seen on the left in this postcard, just uphill from Mills Memorial.