Monday, March 19, 2012

The Pirates Own Book: When Charles Ellms Met Henry Avery

Most of the stories told of our favorite pirates have trouble at the beginning. No one is really sure where the gentleman rover in question came from. What is more certain is the grisly death met by the dread fellow; from Bartholomew Roberts to Jean Laffite, from Francois L’Olonnais to Thomas Tew, spilled blood and guts come before the end of the story. In other it must be said less frequent cases, the pirate in question fades from history never to be seen or heard from again. From Christopher Condent to that fiction about the Laffite brothers, they simply stop being pirates and “blend in”. Henry Avery was among those “lost to history”, but Charles Ellms tells us that was not at all the case.

In The Pirates Own Book, Ellms begins his chapter on Avery with the usual story of the Captain’s exceeding wealth and marriage to the Great Mogul’s daughter thanks to his capture of one of the ruler’s treasure ships. Ellms quickly sets us straight, however, by informing us that Avery was “… actually starving without a shilling” at the time of his death.

Ellms then launches into the usual routine. Avery was born in Devonshire, he tells us, and went to sea in merchant ships at an early age. Avery was mate aboard the vessel of Captain Gibson when, in 1715, he began to foment mutiny among his fellows. He clearly had the itch to go a-pirating and the rest of the crew, according to Ellms, was just as eager. Gibson was fond of the bottle and one night when he was sleeping off a drunk, Avery and his men cut the ship’s cable and headed out from Corunna in the West Indies. When Gibson awoke, Avery informed him that he had taken over the ship. “You must know that I am captain of this ship now, and this is my cabin, therefore you must walk out; I am bound for Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”

Gibson decides against joining Avery, and is set on shore with a small group of like-minded sailors.

Once in the waters around Madagascar, Avery recruits the captains of two armed sloops to join him in his pirating venture. They form a little flotilla and take a galley of the aforementioned Mogul in the Indian Ocean. The ship is bound for Mecca where the Mogul’s daughter is making a pilgrimage, and it is packed to the gunnels with more riches than can reasonably be imagined. As Ellms points out: “It is a well known fact that people of the east travel with great magnificence…”

Avery and his cohorts plunder the ship of all its wealth and the ship limped home to India where the Mogul immediately protested to the British government. “The noise which this made over all Europe,” Ellms says, “gave birth to the rumors that were circulating concerning Avery’s greatness.”

Meanwhile, Avery was duping the two captains of those sloops out of their share of the Mogul’s treasure. Through assurances of his own ship’s superior sailing and fighting power, he led these captains to understand that their booty would be better off aboard him. When they agreed and transferred their wealth, Avery sailed for the West Indies under cover of night, leaving the unfortunate captains behind.

Convincing his men that their wealth would now allow them to live like kings ashore, Avery first considered settling at New Providence. He then moved on to Boston but was concerned that he would not be able to sell the gems of the Great Mogul without raising suspicions. He sailed for Ireland and eventually ended up in Brideford, Devonshire, according to Ellms.

At this point, most historians agree that further information on what became of Avery is unattainable, but Charles begs to differ. In a wonderful plot twist – which the reader has to hope wasn’t true – he has Avery casting about Devonshire trying to sell his cache of diamonds. “When he unbosomed himself to [a speculator] and other pretended friends,” these men, posing as merchants, assured Avery that they could sell his treasure for the highest possible price. Leaving a deposit with former pirate, they took the diamonds and disappeared with no intention of returning. As Ellms so eloquently puts it: “… the merchants thus proving themselves as good pirates on land as [Avery] was at sea.”

The end of this story is poignant in the extreme. Avery sets out for Ireland in search of the con men. Having no luck, he is reduced to walking home to Brideford from Plymouth. “He had been there but a few days, when he fell sick and died; not being worth so much as would buy him a coffin!”

Thus the man once known as Long Ben and “the Arch Pyrate” ended up buried in a paupers’ field in Devonshire. Or so Charles Ellms tells us.

Header: Captain Avery receiving the three chests of Treasure on board his Ship from The Pirates Own Book


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds like Ellms decided to make up a little "moral of the story" type ending...

Oh well, I guess it's beter than "fading into Bolivian" as Mike Tyson would say.

Pauline said...

It's kind of cool in that "every story should have an ending" sort of way. That's why I like Ellms so much; he wasn't afraid to embellish.