When we think of a pirate king, many of us picture Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, a lovable rogue who looks like the love child of Keith Richard and Pepe le Pew.
But the man widely regarded as the King of the Pirates is someone you may never have heard of; one Henry Avery, who pulled off perhaps the biggest heist in history and became the subject of the world’s first global manhunt.
He almost saved India from the British. Almost.
I came across him when I was researching East India, a novel about a mutiny and shipwreck of the Batavia, in the Indian Ocean in the 17th century.
Avery may have been a rogue, but he wasn’t a lovable one. Discharged from the Royal Navy in 1690, he was involved in the Atlantic slave trade for some years. He later joined a Spanish privateer, the Charles II. Unhappy with the poor pickings, he led the crew in mutiny. He gave the ship a fancy name – he called her The Fancy – and he and his crew plundered their way along the coast of Africa towards the Red Sea.
That wasn’t enough. Avery had his eyes set on the biggest prize of all; the Indian Mughal’s flagship, the Ganj-i-Sawai. Joining forces with several other pirate ships, captained by the American buccaneer, Thomas Tew, they tracked her down off the port of Surat on September 7, 1695.
The Ganj-i-Sawai was the biggest ship in all India, boasting several dozen cannons and 400 riflemen – more than the entire pirate fleet combined. But by sheer luck, one of Avery’s first volleys cut down the Ganj-i-Sawai’s mainmast. Minutes later, the Indian crew panicked when one of their own cannons exploded.
Avery’s men were able to board her, and the Indian crew were subdued when the captain took refuge below deck and ordered a group of slave girls to fight in his place.
When the pirates took control of the ship, they found a treasure hoard beyond their wildest imagination. The gold, silver and jewels they found in the hold was worth tens of millions of dollars today and was the richest haul in the history of piracy.
But then it gets ugly.
Muhammed Khafi Khan, a contemporary historian in Surat, wrote in The History of India, that the pirates spent the next few days torturing and killing the surviving crew, and the female passengers – including an elderly relative of the Grand Mughal – were repeatedly raped. Several Muslim women threw themselves into the sea to avoid further degradation. Khan’s accounts were later corroborated by the confessions of Avery’s crew.
There was not much honour among the thieves themselves either. Avery and the men of the Fancy didn’t fancy sharing this haul with Tew’s men, so they loaded their hold with the loot, and arranged to meet and divide it later. Instead they headed for the lawless Caribbean. The other privateers could not catch Avery’s ship when she was under full sail.
Upon arriving at New Providence, Avery bribed the governor, Nicholas Trott, buying protection for him and his men, handing over their ship and a fortune in ivory tusks.
Back in India, there was a storm brewing.
The Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb was apoplectic with rage. He was not inclined to differentiate between British pirates and the British East India Company, and held them to account. He closed down the Company’s factories in India and threatened to attack Bombay and expel the English from the subcontinent. The Company fortunes were entirely dependent on trade with the Mughals. Something had to be done.
The Company promised to compensate for the loss of Aurangzeb’s treasure fleet and bring Avery to account. His capture became a matter of critical national importance.
Soon East India Company and Royal Navy vessels were scouring the seas in search of the Fancy, and a huge bounty was placed on Avery’s head. Trott warned the pirates in time, and Avery and almost his entire 113-man crew got away safely. Only 12 were captured.
The rest went to Charleston, some to Ireland and England, and some remained in the Caribbean. Avery himself vanished from history at this point, which only added to his mystique.
His legend grew as the manhunt continued: there were rumours he had established a pirate kingdom in Madagascar with the Moghuls’ granddaughter as his queen. Another story said that he had returned home to a happy retirement in Bristol, only to be bilked out of his money by local scammers. This happened, believe it or not, even in the days before the internet. Some said that he died penniless in a gutter.
Whatever the truth was, tales about him inspired the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, as thousands of impoverished and downtrodden European seamen tried to follow his example and sail the Atlantic in search of loot.
As for Aurangzeb, he did not follow through on his threat to expel the British, or else history might have been rather different. India might perhaps have been spared colonial rule.
Facing exclusion from the Indian subcontinent, the East India Company proposed to the Mughals that they provide protection for the Emperor’s ships. This clever move eventually gave the Company control of the Empire’s seaboard.
Perhaps the greatest irony in the story lies with the British government hanging a handful of pirates for stealing the Mughal’s gold while giving the East India Company leave to steal an entire country.
I found this story while researching the background for East India. It was based on another infamous act of mutiny and piracy, this one from the annals of the Dutch East India company, and also involved a fortune in Mughal treasure. It ended in one of the greatest – and most notorious – survival stories in history.