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The Man Whom They Called the Arch Pirate

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

Pirate captain Henry Every is depicted on shore while his ship, the Fancy, engages an unidentified vessel.

Pirate captain Henry Every is depicted on shore while his ship, the Fancy, engages an unidentified vessel.

Pirates and a History of Piracy

Pirates and piracy were as ancient as highway robbery, for it did not take long for people to figure out that they could rob each other of their goods, freedom and even their very life on water and on land.

Piracy was a major problem for many periods of the ancient and medieval period, like when the daring Cilician pirates raided as close to Rome as the port of Ostia. The Eternal City that by then was controlling much of the Mediterranean was going hungry, and it took the brilliant Pompey the Great to root out the pirate problem.

Nonetheless, when people hear the word pirate, the majority do not think about the Cilician pirates, nor do people think of the Vikings or the Barbary corsairs of North Africa. It is the pirates who operated in the Caribbean Sea that somehow monopolized the image of piracy, with figures like Blackbeard flying under the Jolly Roger who epitomize the word "pirate" today.

Blackbeard was undoubtedly one of the more successful pirates; however, he was never the most successful. In terms of outright numbers, it was a successor of Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, who captured the most ships with an impressive tally of over 400 vessels captured by Roberts and his associates. Nor did Blackbeard succeed in infuriating the most powerful man of his age to such a degree that he nearly threw out the British from his country, as this feat was achieved by a figure who was active 20 years before Blackbeard. He was a man called Henry Every, and for a short time, he was simply known as the Arch Pirate.

The Eruption of the Pirate Problem of the 1690s

Little is known for certain about the early life of Every; however, he is believed to have been born in the 1650s in England, not far away from the town of Plymouth. Every became a sailor sometime in the 1660s or early 1670s and served in the English Royal Navy until 1691, when he was discharged. In the following period, he remained a sailor and served aboard ships participating in the Atlantic slave trade.

A few years later, Every was serving as the first mate of a privateer captain called Gibson, who was to act as a privateer in the service of the Spanish Crown. Gibson and the majority of the crew came from the British Isles; however, this was no problem, as England and Spain were allied by then, and nationality was no obstacle when it came to the selling of privateering licences.

Nonetheless, the alliance of England and Spain, as convenient as it may have been to both kings, unwillingly was the main reason why the pirate problem erupted in the 1690s. To understand this, we need to jump back a bit in time. For much of the late 16th and 17th centuries, England and Spain were rivals. Ever since the days of Elizabeth, the rulers of England used daring captains, the English calling them privateers, the Spanish calling them pirates, to harass the shipping lanes of the Spanish Empire.

Privateering grew into a very profitable business by the late 17th century. Using Jamaica and Tortuga as their bases, privateers licenced by England and France raided Spanish ships and maintained a large-scale smuggling business into the large Spanish colonial empire and the British colonies in North America. The locals supported the smuggling, as thanks to their colonial status, many goods were either priced unfairly by the metropole or were in very short supply.

Thanks to the reasons listed above, privateering became a very profitable business, but things changed in 1688 when William of Orange ascended to the throne of England. Under William’s leadership, England made peace with Spain and the two powers, joined by Austria, began the Nine Year’s War against France.

This new political situation left the English privateers short on prizes, as the French colonies in America were not as rich or as large as the Spanish ones. A new target was soon found in the faraway Indian Ocean when a colonial privateer called Thomas Tew led his crew against the Muslims of the East and came back with substantial loot. Tew’s success and the apparent ease with which he took his prize (his crew suffered no fatalities) inspired many of his fellow privateers, who no doubt believed that if Tew and his crew were able to take a rich prize and capture enough money to last a lifetime, so could they.

The ascension of William of Orange to the throne of England, and his alliance with Spain unwillingly lead to the creation of the pirate problem of the 1690s

The ascension of William of Orange to the throne of England, and his alliance with Spain unwillingly lead to the creation of the pirate problem of the 1690s

Every Makes a Name for Himself

One such man was Henry Every. Although Every was only second in command to Gibson, in reality, he was in control of the situation, as the unfortunate Gibson had the bad habit of drinking himself into a stupor each night. While Gibson was busy being drunk, his crew had become very unhappy with their situation, as while the ship was waiting for the completion of their papers testifying for their status as privateers contracted by Spain, payment was late to arrive.

Every used the man's resentment to his own ends and hatched a plan to seize the ship, turn pirate, head to the Indian Ocean, seize a large ship and live out the rest of his life as a rich man. Every had little trouble seizing the ship, as Gibson, once again being drunk, did not even notice that his ships left the port. Once awake, Gibson demanded an explanation. Every confronted him with the facts and stated that the ship was now under his command, though provided Gibson would give up drinking, he could stay as his second in command. If Gibson refused, Every would allow him and every crew member who wanted to return to the port to find their way ashore in a longboat.

Gibson refused and was joined by a few men; however, the majority chose to stay with Every. The new captain rechristened their ship Charles II to its new name Fancy and headed towards Madagascar, the island which at the time was a real pirate nest. On their way to the island, Every attacked several other ships, including ones from England, Denmark and France. Ironically, when he attacked the French ship he claimed that his king was at war with Louis XIV.

At Madagascar, Every resupplied his ship and took on new recruits. Once their job on the island was finished, Fancy headed towards the Red Sea. From captured locals, Every found out that a rich Mughal fleet carrying rich aristocrats who made their pilgrimage to Mecca was expected to soon make its return journey to India. With this information at hand, Every headed towards the mouth of the Red Sea, where he bumped into five other pirate ships, including the famous captain Tew whose earlier successes inspired Every and his companions.

The captains convened and agreed to assist each other in their venture. They also elected Every as the overall commander of the fleet, no doubt thanks to the fact that the Fancy, having over 40 guns and a battle-hardened crew of over 100 sailors, was by far the most formidable of all their ships.

The ships patrolled the sea lanes in the following period, but the Mughal convoy succeeded in evading them. Nonetheless, with the prey still within striking distance, the pirates decided to give chase. Tew and his ship engaged a Mughal ship called the Fateh Muhammad, only to be repelled, with Tew dying during the fighting when a cannon ball pierced a giant hole into his abdomen. His crew was disheartened by the death of their captain and called off the chase.

Every was not deterred just yet and continued the chase, capturing Fateh Muhammad after some fighting. The pirates caught rich plunder, but Every was not satisfied just yet. With a much larger ship, the Ganj-i-sawai, still in sight, the pirates decided to continue their chase. The pirates were caught with the large Mughal ship. Initially, they met heavy resistance, but the battle-hardened pirates overwhelmed the defenders eventually. Angered by the losses they sustained, the pirates unleashed their fury on the personnel travelling on the ship, and an orgy of violence which included murder and rape, erupted for days, according to some chroniclers, until the officers managed to reestablish order.

The loot captured on the Ganj-i-sawai probably exceeded the wildest dreams of the pirates, as they captured a sum of around 600,000 dollars, which in modern money as anyone can imagine would be an awful lot more, becoming one, if not the richest loot ever captured by the pirates. It is believed that even the lowest members of the crews received around 1,000 dollars, which at the time was more than what any honest sailor could earn in 30 years of service.

Aftermath

Once the riches were moved to the pirate ships, the Mughal ship was allowed to head home, while the pirates made it to the small island of Bourbon, where they divided up their shares, and each went their own way. Or, according to another version of events, Every and his crew actually cheated out their comrades from their share and sailed away with the loot.

Whatever the truth about the pirates, what we know for certain is that Emperor Aurangzeb of the Mughal Empire was outraged when the news of what happened to his ships reached him. In his anger, he even considered throwing out the merchants of the British East India Company from his empire, but eventually, he calmed down and accepted the assistance of the Company to patrol the waters of the Indian Ocean.

The Company at the time was still from being the power that conquered India, so to win back the favour of the Great Mughal, they also put a large bounty on the head of Every and his men.

In the meantime, Every with his crew made their way to the Caribbean, where he tried to buy a pardon for himself, but much to his disappointment, he found out no colonial governor was able to give him a pardon.

In another daring plan, he proposed to his crew that they should return to England, as nobody would expect them to be daring enough to make their way home. Two dozen of his crew agreed to the plan, but Every abandoned his crew before they made landfall.

The fate of the Arch Pirate remains unknown even today, as British authorities never caught him. However, his crewmates were captured, making one wonder whether Every set them up by abandoning him, knowing that they would soon expose themselves by the riches they carried with them.

Many stories appeared since, trying to tell the ultimate fate Every, with some believing he got cheated out of his wealth by merchants and died penniless, not even having enough money to buy a coffin. According to another version, he bribed the English authorities and lived out his life as a rich man.

Source

Sherry, Frank. (2008). Raiders and Rebels: A History of the Golden Age of Piracy. Harper Perennial.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler