Monday, September 20, 2010

People: The Arch Pyrate

In his own era, late in the 17th century when the buccaneers had faded into memory and the Golden Age of piracy had not yet dawned, Henry Avery was the very model of a lucky pirate. He was written and rumored about; there was even a wildly successful play about him called The Successful Pyrate on stage in London. Then, too, he was never caught or tried. He slipped out of the public eye just as mysteriously as he jumped into it and was not to be heard from again.

Where Henry Avery came from is a mystery. In fact his name may very well have been an alias as he sometimes went by John and Ben and he used the last names Every and Bridgeman as well. In this he is typical of many pirates and privateers. So much confusion has arisen out of aliases used by freebooters that it would make one’s head spin. Avery was almost certainly British and he surely had a background in seafaring but beyond that speaking of his early life would only be speculation.

By 1693 Avery was First Lieutenant aboard an English privateer named Charles or Charles II. Her Captain, Charles Gibson, held a letter of marque from the Spanish to harass the rich French merchants sailing to and from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. At some point, apparently early on in his cruise aboard Charles, Avery decided to turn pirate. He convinced the crew to back him, or perhaps they convinced him to step up to the lead, and a plan was hatched. One night when Gibson was drunk, the trap was sprung. Gibson was killed and Avery became Captain. He renamed the fast privateer of forty guns Fancy and, per his agreement with his crew, charted a course for Africa.

During the last decade of the 17th century Madagascar was a favorite pirate haunt. It offered safe harbors and easy access to the rich Indian treasure ships and East Indiamen that sailed through the Indian Ocean. Avery put in at the port of Johanna, Madagascar some time in 1695 and got right to work. He captured four vessels, one a French privateer who joined in consort with Avery and the other three English merchants. Bold as brass for his first heady success, Avery sent one of his prizes back to London with a letter he instructed the captain to have published. It stated that Avery was the big dog in the Indian Ocean now, that he didn’t want to take English or Dutch merchants but that his men were “…hungry, stout and resolute, and should they exceed my desire I cannot stop myself.” The letter was signed: “As yet an Englishman’s friend, Henry Every.”

Later that same year all thought of small British prizes paled in the face of Avery’s next adventure. Hearing that the Indian Pilgrim fleet, which ferried Muslims from India to Mecca annually and returned home with not only the pilgrims but enormous wealth in payment for silks, teas and other goods previously delivered to the Arab nations, was about to head home Avery pounced. He rounded up all the pirate captains he could and headed up the coast for the Red Sea where he hoped to capture one or more of the grand treasure ships.

Avery’s flotilla almost missed their prize when the Pilgrim fleet slipped past them in the night. Fortunately, a lookout spotted the tail of the fleet as dawn broke and Avery gave chase. A small consort ship, Fath Mohammad, surrendered quickly but one of the huge treasure ships, Ganj-i-Sawai, put up a tenacious fight. And well they should have; the ship belonged to the Grand Moghul and one of its many passengers was the Moghul’s own sister.

Despite the Moghul’s men’s bravery, Avery and his pirates took Ganj-i-Sawai. Angered by their own loss of life and prejudiced against the Indian Muslims, the pirates gave themselves over to horrific savagery. Though Avery himself managed to protect that Indian princess, the other women aboard were used repeatedly for the sexual entertainment of his men and most of the Indian men still alive were slaughtered. Many of the women committed suicide by jumping overboard and several more died when the week long ordeal was over. The pirates stripped the treasure ship of everything aboard, leaving her without sail or mast to limp back to India as best she could.

The total haul was an astounding amount even for pirates used to huge prizes. The Ganj-i-Sawai is estimated to have yielded over 100 million in today’s dollars. Each sailor went away with over $100,000 dollars in their pocket, an unimaginable sum in a time when a laborer might be lucky to make $5.00 for six days of work. Captains and officers probably took an even larger share. Avery’s flotilla disbanded and he took Fancy back to the Caribbean where she pulled into the Bahamas some time in 1696.

By then word had reached Britain’s colonies that Avery’s attack on Ganj-i-Sawai had driven the Grand Moghul to revenge. He had the leaders of the British East India Company chained and tortured and confiscated their lands and goods. Henry Avery was no longer “an Englishman’s friend”; he and his men were now outlaws. The East India Company even posted a 1,000 pound reward for the capture of any man involved in the taking of Ganj-i-Sawai.

Thinking quickly, Avery approached and probably bribed the English Governor for temporary immunity. He sold Fancy and bought a small sloop which he crewed with Fancy’s men. Avery then began calling himself Bridgeman and set about the task of sailing from the Carolinas to Canada, dropping off handfuls of his men as he went. He probably reached Halifax, Nova Scotia some time in 1697 and some historians believe he left his sloop and the roving life behind, booking passage to Ireland.

Where Henry Avery actually went and what became of him is not known. He certainly seems to have given up the pirating life, knowing enough to stop while he was winning. So the “Arch Pyrate” known as “Long Ben” sailed into obscurity and legend with his life and a nice chunk of one of the most impressive pirate treasures in history.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that's a pretty cool story. One question, though: What happened to the princess? Just curious, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Good question. Some historians think she basically took charge of the prize and got it home to India and the fact that she was unmolested encouraged the Grand Moghul to be lenient toward the East India Company's men in the final analysis. No one seems to know for certain, though.