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Henry Avery: The Pirate Who Kept His Loot

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Henry Avery: The Pirate Who Kept His Loot

Henry Avery

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Henry Avery Biography:

Henry “Long Ben” Avery was an English pirate who made one big score – the Grand Moghul of India’s treasure ship “Ganj-i-Sawai” – before retiring. Contemporaries believed that Avery made his way to Madagascar with his loot where he set himself up as a King, with his own fleet and thousands of men. There seems to be evidence that he returned to England and died penniless, however, and little is known for certain of his ultimate fate.

Henry Avery Turns to Piracy:

Avery was born in Plymouth sometime between 1653 and 1659. Some contemporary accounts spell his last name Every. He soon took to sea, and served on several different merchant vessels as well as ships of war when England went to war with France in 1688. In early 1694, Avery took a position as First Mate on board the privateer vessel Charles II, then in the employ of the King of Spain. The mostly English crew was extremely unhappy with their treatment (which was appalling, truth be told) and they convinced Avery to lead a mutiny, which he did on May 7, 1694. The men renamed the ship Fancy and turned to piracy, attacking and sacking some English and Dutch merchantmen off the coast of Africa. At about this time, he released a sort of statement in which he declared that English vessels had nothing to fear from him, as he would only attack foreigners.

Madagascar and the Indian Ocean:

The Fancy was headed to Madagascar, then a lawless land known as a safe haven for pirates and a good place to launch attacks in the Indian Ocean. He restocked in Madagascar before modifying the Fancy in such a way as to make her swifter while under sail. This improved speed began paying dividends immediately, as he was able to soon overtake a French pirate vessel. After looting it, he welcomed some 40 new pirates to his crew. He headed north, where other pirates were amassing, hoping to loot the Grand Mughal of India's treasure fleet as they returned from their annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Capture of the Fateh Muhammed:

In July of 1695 the pirates got lucky, as the great treasure fleet sailed into their arms. Including the Fancy, there were six pirate ships, including Thomas Tew's Amity. They attacked the Fateh Muhammed first: this was an escort ship to the flagship, the Ganj-i-Sawai. The Fateh Muhammed, seeing itself outgunned by the large pirate fleet, did not put up much of a fight. There was treasure aboard the Fateh Muhammed: some £50,000 to £60,000 pounds. It was quite a haul, but didn't add up to much when divided up amongst the crews of all six vessels. The pirates were hungry for more.

The Taking of the Ganj-i-Sawai:

Not long after, Avery's ship caught up with the Ganj-i-Sawai, the powerful flagship of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Lord. It was a mighty ship, with 62 cannon and some 400 to 500 musketmen. Still, it was too rich a prize to ignore, so the pirates attacked. The pirates got lucky during the first broadside: they were able to damage the Ganj-i-Sawai's main mast, and one of the Indian cannons exploded, causing great mayhem and confusion on deck. The battle roared on for hours as the pirates boarded the Ganj-i-Sawai. The captain of the Mughal ship, terrified, ran below decks and hid among the concubines. After a fierce battle, the surviving Indians surrendered. The exact date of the battle is unknown, but probably sometime in July of 1695.

Looting and Torture:

The survivors of the battle were subjected to several days of torture and rape by the victorious pirates. There were many women on board, including a member of the court of the Grand Moghul himself. Romantic tales of the day say that the beautiful daughter of the Moghul was on board and fell in love with Avery and ran off to live with him on some remote island - Madagascar, perhaps - but the reality was far more brutal. The haul from the Ganj-i-Sawai was incredible: hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods, gold, silver and jewels. It was quite possibly the richest haul in the history of piracy.

Deception and Flight:

Avery and his men did not want to share all the loot with the other pirates, so they tricked them. They loaded their holds with loot and arranged to meet and divide it, but they took off instead. None of the other pirate captains had any chance of catching up with the speedy Fancy. They decided to head for the lawless Caribbean. Once they reached New Providence, Avery bribed Governor Nicholas Trott, essentially gaining protection for him and his men. The taking of the Indian ships had put a great strain on relations between India and England, however, and once a reward was put out for Avery and his fellow pirates, Trott could no longer protect them.

Disappearance of Henry Avery:

Trott did tip off the pirates, however, and Avery and almost all of his crew of some 113 men got out safely: only 12 men were captured. Avery's crew split up: some went to Charleston, some went to Ireland and England and some remained in the Caribbean. Avery himself vanishes from history at this point, although according to Captain Charles Johnson, one of the best sources of the time, he returned with much of his loot to England but was later swindled of much of it, dying poor. Most of his contemporaries did not know this, however, and it was commonly believed that he had run off somewhere and set himself up in style with his great wealth.

Henry Avery’s Flag:

It is impossible to know the exact design used by Long Ben Avery for his pirate flag: he only ever captured a dozen or so ships, and no first-hand accounts from his crew or victims survive. The flag most commonly attributed to him is a white skull in profile, wearing a kerchief on a red or black background. Below the skull are two crossed bones.

Legacy of Henry Avery:

Avery was a legend during his lifetime and for a while thereafter. He embodied the dream of all pirates: to make a huge score and then retire, preferably with an adoring princess and a large pile of loot. The idea that Avery had somehow managed to get away with all of his wealth helped create the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" as thousands of poor, abused European seamen tried to follow his example as a way out of their misery. The fact that he supposedly refused to attack English ships (although he did) became part of his legend: it gave the story a "Robin Hood" sort of twist.

The legend of Henry Avery grew with every retelling. Books and plays were written about him and his exploits. Many people at the time believed that he had set up a kingdom in a far-away land with his beautiful Princess. They had a fleet of 40 warships, an army of 15,000 men. He had a mighty castle fortress and had even begun minting coins with his face on them. This was all nonsense, of course: Captain Johnson's story is almost certainly closer to the truth.

Needless to say, Avery's deeds caused a great deal of headaches for English diplomats. The Indians were furious, and even arrested officers of the British East India Company for a while. It would take years for the diplomatic furor to die down.

Avery's haul from the two Mughal ships alone puts him at the top of the list of pirates who earned the most, at least during his generation. He managed to take in more loot in his brief pirating career - in which he only ever took a dozen or so ships - than did "Black Bart" Roberts, who took hundreds of vessels over a three-year career.

Today, Avery is not nearly as well known as some of his contemporaries in spite of his great success. He is much less well-known than pirates like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny or "Calico Jack" Rackham, even though he earned more loot than all of them put together.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Defoe, Daniel (writing as Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

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