How an English pirate nearly sunk the fortunes of the East India Company

An engraving from 1887 titled ‘Avery sells his jewels’ by Howard Pyle.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Henry Avery may not be as infamous as some of his fellow pirates like Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts or Charles Vane, but his brief (and highly lucrative) stint sailing under the Jolly Roger not only inspired these men to take up plundering on the seas, it could have also changed the course of India’s history.

Born in 1653 near Plymouth in southwest England, the man who would come to be known as the ‘King of Pirates’ joined the Royal Navy in 1671, and served there, by all accounts with distinction, until he was discharged in 1690.

Avery then became involved in the Atlantic slave trade for some years until he joined a Spanish ship called Charles II in 1694.

After a year on the high seas, with numerous failed raids and ebbing morale, Avery launched a mutiny, renamed the ship Fancy, and declared his intention to be a pirate. By the next year Avery’s crew of buccaneers had grown to 150, and he was joined by other pirate ships.

A seasoned raider now, Avery announced his next big target: A treasure fleet belonging to Emperor Aurangzeb, which was returning from its annual pilgrimage to Mecca home to Surat.

Surat during the 17th century was the wealthiest port in western India, serving both as an important mercantile link to West Asia and also as the embarkation point for thousands of pilgrims on their way to Mecca for the Haj. Avery had his eyes set on the imperial treasure ship, Ganj-i-Sawai, which was carrying ₹52 lakh worth of gold as well as the aforementioned pilgrims.

Big haul

Avery set sail in August 1695 with his crew of ruffians to the mouth of the Red Sea, and lay in wait for the fleet.

They first captured and ransacked the flagship’s escort, the Fateh Muhammed. Their appetites whetted, the crew sailed in pursuit of Ganj-i-Sawai, despite losing three of their own pirate ships in the first raid, and being outnumbered and outgunned by the Mughal warship.

They caught up on September 7, with Avery gambling on a surprise attack that destroyed the Ganj-i-Sawai’s mainmast. According to ‘The Ballad of Long Ben’, a pirate shanty about the raid, the Mughal ship’s captain, Ibrahim, “..twirled his ‘stache and raised his sword and gave a might roar…” before hiding below deck as the fierce battle slowly began going the pirate’s way.

Muhammed Khafi Khan, a contemporary historian in Surat, wrote in the multi-volume The History of India, as Told by its Own Historians, that the pirates spent several days repeatedly torturing and raping those on-board, and that several Muslim women committed suicide, claims that were later corroborated in the confessions of several of Avery’s crew.

Barbarous, indeed

Sir John Gayer, then governor of Bombay and head of the East India Company, wrote in a letter to the Privy Council that “it is certain the Pirates ... did do very barbarously by the People of the Ganj-i-Sawai and Abdul Ghaffar’s ship, to make them confess where their money was.”

Avery’s flotilla made its triumphant journey back to the Bahamas, the crew unaware of the consequences they would soon face once word of Ganj-i-Sawai’s fate reached the Mughal court.

Aurangzeb was infuriated. Not only was his treasure stolen, but his subjects violated and killed. The Emperor was convinced that no mere pirate would have dared attack his ships without the tacit support of the East India Company. As the Ganj-i-Sawai limped back into port, all English subjects living in Surat were first arrested.

A furious emperor

The enraged Aurangzeb then swiftly closed down four of the Company’s factories in India, threatened to attack Bombay, and expel the English from the subcontinent.

The Company had still not recovered from the disastrous Child’s War, and its fortunes were almost entirely dependent on trade with the Mughals.

To appease the Emperor, Avery and his men were declared exempt from all pardon by the British Parliament in 1696, and the Company promised to compensate for the loss of Aurangazeb’s treasure fleet.

By this time Avery was in the Bahamas and outside the jurisdiction of the East India Company. His capture became a matter of critical national importance, but he continued to evade escape.

Pirate kingdom

Legends about the man grew more outrageous as the manhunt continued: there were rumours of a pirate kingdom in Madagascar with Avery as its ruler; there were romanticised literary depictions of the man, most famously by Daniel Defoe, who modelled the protagonist of his 1720 novel The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singletonafter him.

The Life and Adventures of Capt. John Avery, written in 1709, claimed that he had not only scarpered off with the Emperor’s ship but with his granddaughter as well, who happened to be on board. The couple, it suggested, was living in Madagascar in marital bliss.

Another rumour that persisted long after his death was that Avery returned home only to be swindled of his money by Bristol merchants. Alone, and tormented by visions of his exotic treasures, ‘Long Ben’ died penniless in a gutter.

Whatever the truth, the legend of the King of Pirates lived on, and his exploits inspired the last generation of buccaneers to sail the Atlantic in search of gold. As for Aurangzeb, he did not follow through on his threat to expel the British, or else history might have been rather different.

The London-based freelance journalist writes on politics, art, and society.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 10:52:19 PM |

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