Classic piracy still retains that aura of romanticism and carefree adventure, which it gained primarily in the 19th century. But while it might seem attractive and fascinating to an onlooker, it was anything but to those who suffered from it, as it usually cost them their possessions, if not their very lives.

Interestingly, it also wasn’t all that profitable for the pirates themselves, as the vast majority ended up hanging from a rope or dying in circumstances related to their trade, whether it was falling in battle or drowning in the midst of a storm. Few managed to retire to enjoy their loot, and alongside Henry Morgan, who managed to be knighted and became the governor of Jamaica, the most famous case was Henry Every.

It’s hard to know for sure what his real name was, as he used several aliases throughout his career. Some varied the last name to Avery or Evory, while others changed Henry to John or Jack, and it’s known that he even used a completely different one like Benjamin Bridgeman, which led his own men to give him the nickname Long Ben. Adding to this were the popular nicknames his contemporaries used to refer to him: The Arch Pirate and The King of Pirates. Not bad, considering he only spent a couple of years in the business.

A few verses from the era attributed to Every the use of a red flag. Other 20th-century sources added a skull and crossbones, which, in fact, was supposedly conceived by another pirate, Emanuel Wyne, though the bandana and earring were introduced by 19th-century artist Howard Pyle
A few verses from the era attributed to Every the use of a red flag. Other 20th-century sources added a skull and crossbones, which, in fact, was supposedly conceived by another pirate, Emanuel Wyne, though the bandana and earring were introduced by 19th-century artist Howard Pyle. Credit: WarX / Wikimedia Commons

Based on parish records from Newton Ferrers (Devon, England), where there is a record of who might have been his presumed parents, it’s assumed he was born in 1659. Other alternatives for his birthplace have been suggested, but these are all late and often based on the novel The King of the Pirates by Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe, who also made him appear in The Life of Captain Singleton), so they are generally not considered valid.

The fact is, Newton Ferrers was—and still is—a small fishing village very close to Plymouth, one of England’s main ports, thus greatly influencing the maritime vocation of its inhabitants.

Indeed, Every began his relationship with the sea in the ranks of the Royal Navy. Although legend has it that he took part in the bombing of Algiers in 1671, among other adventures, the first documented action dates back to 1689, in that Nine Years’ War that pitted all of Europe against the great power of the time, Louis XIV’s France. He did this as a midshipman aboard the HMS Rupert, a sixty-four-gun ship commanded by Sir Francis Wheeler. The records about Every were positive in all aspects, and his role in capturing an enemy convoy earned him a promotion to petty officer.

The Battle of Beachy Head (Theodore Gudin)
The Battle of Beachy Head (Theodore Gudin). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The following year, he followed his captain to another larger ship, the ninety-gun HMS Albemarle, with which he soon took part in the naval disaster of Beachy Head (or Bévéziers, as the enemy called it), where the French navy sank a dozen ships of the Anglo-Dutch alliance without losing a single one. That same summer, Every left the service of Her Gracious Majesty to embark on a private venture with a lucrative business: the slave trade.

The monopoly on that dreadful business belonged to the Royal African Company, an English company founded by the Stuarts in 1660, which, after a period of decline, had been revived under the leadership of the Duke of York before he became King James II. Therefore, any slave-trading activity outside of that was illegal, and thus Every found himself on the wrong side of the law.

Despite the fact that the Royal Navy itself was responsible for protecting the company’s interests, the enormous profits from the slave trade made it worth the risk, and according to a documented testimony by Thomas Phillips, captain of the HMS Hannibal, tasked with patrolling the Atlantic coast of Africa, Every worked by transporting slaves from the Guinea coast to the Bahamas for Governor Cadwallader Jones. Not much is known about this phase of his life, which ended in 1693 when a new opportunity arose for many sailors in the context of the still ongoing Nine Years’ War (which wouldn’t end until 1697).

Wood engraving from 1725 showing Every with slave
Wood engraving from 1725 showing Every with slave. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

That year, Sir James Houblon, a prominent merchant, London councilman, and director of the Bank of England (recently founded by someone with notable links to piracy, William Paterson), brought together several investors to try to revitalize the economy with what was dubbed the Spanish Expedition Shipping. This was an expedition commissioned by Charles II of Spain to attack French possessions in the Caribbean, as well as to bring goods and weapons to Spanish troops stationed there and salvage treasures from sunken galleons.

It would consist of four warships: a pingue (a small type of ship, similar to a cutter), named The Seventh Son, plus two frigates called James and Dove (in which the second officer was William Dampier, later famous for being the first Englishman to set foot in Australia and circumnavigate the globe three times), to which the Spanish Navy contributed another ship, the Carlos II.

The squadron would be commanded by Don Arturo O’Byrne, an Irish gentleman who had served under the Spanish Crown. The pay wasn’t only good; it was guaranteed every six months, with the first payment in advance, so Every enlisted, and since he had experience, he was appointed as an officer. But nothing went right. The captain of the flagship died before they set sail, the journey to the first stage in La Coruña was delayed five months due to bureaucratic reasons, and once at the Galician port, they spent another five months for the same reason, leaving the sailors without money to live on, and a rumor began to circulate among them that they had been sold as slaves to the Spaniards.

Eighteenth-century image of Henry Every with his ship, the Fancy, in the background.
Eighteenth-century image of Henry Every with his ship, the Fancy, in the background. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

All of this created such discontent that when the time finally came to depart, they demanded to be paid upfront. To prevent desertions, they were denied, and a mutiny began to be planned, in which Every, due to his seniority, was one of the organizers. On May 7, 1694, the crew of the James took control of the Carlos II, and before anyone could stop them, they escaped to open sea, allowing those who didn’t want to join to leave on a boat (except for the surgeon, who was always needed on board).

They renamed the ship to Fancy and, assuming their new outlaw status, headed to the Indian Ocean because they had heard that the previous year the pirate Thomas Tew had achieved a fabulous heist in the Red Sea.

On their way, they started attacking ships. Their first prize was off the coast of Cape Verde: three British merchant ships headed to Barbados with supplies; several of their sailors, by the way, joined them, bringing the total to ninety-four men. They then captured slaves, but upon arriving at Bioko, the weight caused the ship to tilt, so Every ordered the number of decks to be reduced to improve speed. In fact, the Fancy became very fast, which helped them secure more loot in the following months and round the Cape of Good Hope without major problems to anchor in Madagascar first and then the Comoros Islands.

Thomas Tew narrating his adventures to the Governor of New York (Howard Pyle)
Thomas Tew narrating his adventures to the Governor of New York (Howard Pyle). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It was in that archipelago that, presumably, Every wrote a letter to all English navigators. In it, he lied by assuring that he had never attacked ships of that nationality and suggested that they hoist a signal if they met so they could continue this practice in the future, as his pirates might not be so kind.

It’s supposed that he actually wanted to avoid trouble with the British East India Company, whose fleet could pose a threat due to its potential; but in any case, he didn’t achieve his goal and was considered a proscribed pirate. This was especially true since new attacks further increased his crew to about a hundred and fifty men.

However, his biggest score was not against European interests but Asian ones. He knew that every year a fleet from India carrying Muslims to Mecca passed through that area, and these were wealthy pilgrims, so he decided to wait for them and ally with five other pirates who were operating in the vicinity: the aforementioned Tew, Joseph Faro, Richard Want, William Mayes, and Thomas Wake, totaling almost half a thousand pirates. A formidable force was needed because the Indian fleet comprised twenty-five ships and included the powerful Ganj-i-Sawai and Fateh Muhammed, large and armed dhows belonging to the Mughal Empire’s navy.

The Mughal Empire at its maximum extension
The Mughal Empire at its maximum extension. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The assault took place that summer, and only half of the ships were used (Fancy, Pearl, and Portsmouth Adventure), as the others (Amity and Susanna) were too slow—actually, they arrived with the battle already started—and one (Dolphin) was abandoned, with its crew redistributed among the others.

The Fateh Muhammed was taken with ease, yielding a rich haul, in part because the wealthy merchant Abdul Ghaffar, the owner of dozens of merchant ships, was aboard. It’s estimated that the raiders obtained enough to buy the Fancy fifty times over. The only drawback was that Tew died in action.

They then pursued the Ganj-i-Sawai, sometimes mentioned in chronicles with the name Gunsway. It was a formidable rival, with eighty cannons and four hundred musketeers to defend its several hundred passengers. A lucky broadside dismasted it, immobilizing it, but the attempt to board it by the pirates failed as they were repelled by musket fire. However, they got lucky again: a cannon exploded, and a fire broke out on deck, causing chaos, encouraging a new boarding attempt. The fight lasted three hours, after which Every emerged triumphant.

The Muslim sailors and passengers, among whom were women (including a possible granddaughter of Emperor Aurangzeb), were tortured for several days to reveal where they had hidden their wealth. Many even took their own lives to avoid those torments, and the story of what happened, which reached the whole world, horrified people, even causing some of those responsible to feel guilty later on. However, at that moment, they saw things differently: the treasure obtained (half a million gold coins, precious stones, fabrics…) surpassed that of Fateh Muhammad and is considered by some studies to be the richest in the history of piracy.

Scottish Privy Council arrest warrant for Henry Avery offering £500 for his capture
Scottish Privy Council arrest warrant for Henry Avery offering £500 for his capture. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It was distributed proportionally to those who participated in the raid, but this didn’t prevent disagreements. As a result, the French and Dutch sailors decided to leave the Fancy on Reunion Island, while the others headed to Nassau after loading a hundred slaves. During a stopover on Ascension Island, several sailors also chose to retire and enjoy their earnings.

The robbery put the British East India Company in a tough spot, as it was already going through a rough time following its defeat in the so-called Child’s War against the Mughals (1686-1690). The conflict had ended with a British compensation agreement with the emperor, and obviously, the attack on his fleet messed everything up, especially after the survivors reached India, recounting the atrocities they had endured.

Furthermore, Aurangzeb detained every English person living there, seized the company’s properties, and bombarded Bombay, which was under British control at the time. To pacify him, they had to increase the promised compensation and declare the pirates “Hostis humani generis” (Enemies of the human race), with the promise to pursue them wherever they might be. A reward was offered for Every’s head or information on his whereabouts, and pardons were issued for those who betrayed him.

The problem was that the Fancy had already reached the Bahamas, outside the company’s jurisdiction, and anchored in the port of Nassau, the capital of New Providence Island. To do this, Every bribed the governor, Sir Nicholas Trott, by gifting him the ship and a substantial sum of money, although he was already inclined to accept their presence because there were very few inhabitants (fewer than pirates), and the ship’s forty cannons would serve as a deterrent against any potential French conquest attempt. Trott turned a blind eye to the cargo they carried (ivory, gunpowder, ammunition), which identified them as outlaws – not to mention the slaves – so the crew could settle on the island without any problems, like any other neighbors. The Fancy sank as mysteriously as it did conveniently, erasing a crucial piece of evidence.

Every selling his jewels (Howard Pyle)
Every selling his jewels (Howard Pyle). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

However, this didn’t prevent an arrest order against the pirates from arriving, which the governor couldn’t ignore. What he did do was warn them to flee before the authorities arrived. Thanks to this, only twenty-four were arrested, of whom five ended up hanged in England, though not exactly for piracy but for mutiny and stealing the frigate Carlos II.

Most went to the North American colonies or returned to Great Britain, though at times, when they disembarked with their wealth, they aroused suspicion and had to escape again. Some made it to Bristol, where, when they tried to sell the jewels they had with them, they were swindled and ended up in poverty.

As for Every, no one knows what became of him. Some say he stayed in his native Devon with a new name until he died in 1714; others say he had to live off begging after being one of those swindled in Bristol; and there were also those who made up stories that he had fled to Madagascar and ruled over a pirate republic like the one established in Nassau. The thing is, the War of the Spanish Succession was ending, and the privateers involved in it, having lost their jobs, were about to start what would be known as the Golden Age of Piracy: Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Benjamin Hornigold…


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 12, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Henry Every, el capitán que consiguió el mayor botín de la historia de la piratería

Sources

Don C. Seitz, Under the Black Flag. Exploits of the most notorious pirates | Joel Baer, Pirates of the British Isles | Angus Konstam y Angus McBride, Pirates 1660–1730 | George Francis Dow y John Henry Edmonds, The pirates of the New England coast 1630–1730 | Markus Rediker, Villains of all nations. Atlantic pirates in the Golden Age | Jan Rogoziński, Honor among thieves. Captain Kidd, Henry Every, and the pirate democracy in the Indian Ocean | Frank Sherry, Raiders and rebels. The Golden Age of Piracy | Wikipedia


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