Monday, 7 September 2015

The Arch Pirate – Long Ben Avery, the capture of the “Gunsway” and an orgy of violence

7 September 1695, Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s heavily armed trading ship “Ganj-i-Sawai” (Anglicized as “Gunsway”), one of the richest prizes in naval history, was captured by the pirate Henry Every (or Avery) in an orgy of violence.



“It is certain the Pyrates, which these People affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the People of the Gunsway and Abdul Gofor's Ship, to make them confess where their Money was, and there happened to be a great Umbraws Wife (as Wee hear) related to the King, returning from her Pilgrimage to Mecha, in her old age. She they abused very much, and forced severall other Women, which Caused one person of Quality, his Wife and Nurse, to kill themselves to prevent the Husbands seing them (and their being) ravished.“ (Letter from Sir John Gayer, then-governor of Bombay and president of the East India Company, October 1695)



Howard Pyle: "The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow" (1905),
 a fitting description for Long Ben Avery




When director George Sherman had it with his male lead being stinko paralytico around 4 pm and banned alcohol from the set of “Against All Flags” back in 1952, Errol Flynn came up with the rather brilliant idea of lacing oranges with liberal doses of vodka, eat them in the morning and being blitzed by late afternoon. At least according to his co-star Maureen O’Hara and her autobiography. A similar blend of facts and fiction happened to the historical background of the capture of the Moghul’s state ship, one of the movie’s key scenes. Boarding the “Qutb ad-Din” by Anthony Quinn’s alias Roc Brasiliano’s – in reality a rather unpleasant Dutchman – pirates is by and large a civilised affair, the Moghul’s daughters’ captured female attendants are promised as wives for the pirate crews back home in Madagascar and the redoubtable Molvina MacGregor’s poor lambie Princess Patma, continuously harassing Mr Hawke to kiss her again and promising him the Koh-i-Noor, all get of the hook, the pirate stronghold is captured by the RN thanks to Mr Hawke and Ms Spitfire Stevens and the threat to the trade relations between John Company and the Moghul is removed for good. It didn’t quite happen that way when Long Ben Every’s “Fancy” closed with the “Ganj-i-Sawai” to board her in 1695. Ms MacGregor called the movie pirates “Monsters”, Every’s men behaved as such in reality. Actually, they were British seamen, hired to sail to the West Indies for a rather dubious enterprise known as the “Spanish Expedition Shipping” in a joint venture with the Spanish crown. After being marooned in Corunna on grounds of bureaucratic red tape for half a year, the frigate “Charles II’s” first mate Henry Every or Avery had an easy job of convincing the hands to raise against their officers, seize the ship and turn pirate. Every had a cunning plan. Sail the warship to the Indian Ocean and raid the rich shipping between Mughal India, Persia and the Arabic Peninsula and the pilgrimage sites. The Rhode Island Pirate Thomas Tew had set the example two years before in the Red Sea. He and his crew became filthy rich after capturing a valuable Indian prize, much to the dismay of the Honourable East India Company, whose reputation was indeed damaged by the actions of the English pirates in 1692 at the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s court in Delhi.



Looking rather like a scene from the Battle of Navarino in 1827 -
Roc Brasiliano's "Scorpion" bearing down on the Moghul's state ship in George Sherman's "Against All Flags" (1952)

Rechristening the ship named after the merry monarch not inappropriately to "Fancy", the arch pirate-to-be, now known as "Long Ben Avery", sailed his man-of-war around the Cape of Good Hope towards the Indian Ocean. Even not quite Roc Braziliano's ship of the line "Scorpion" from the movie, "Fancy" with her 46 guns was still an uncommonly large and well-armed pirate ship and few vessels in the region could seriously threaten her in a single ship-to-ship engagement. Doing a bit of slave-trading on the side in West Africa and increasing his crew to more than 140 hands from captured French and Danish privateers and merchantmen, Avery reached the Straits of the Bab-el-Mandeb in August 1695, got elected to Admiral of a fleet of smaller privateersmen and other downright pirates, all hailing from HM's Atlantic Colonies' Eastern Seaboard, Thomas Tew among them, and lay in wait for the annual fleet, carrying the Mughal Emprire's high and mighty from Mocha in Yemen back home to Surat after their hajj. When the Emperor's ships finally hove in sight, Avery's flotilla charged in steeple chase-style, Tew attacked the escort of what could pass for Aurangzeb's state ship, “Ganj-i-sawai”, a 1,600 ton monster, was killed in the process and their prey got away. Avery pursued them for a couple of days, first overwhelming the escort and then making a go at “Ganj-i-sawai” herself on 7 September with "Fancy" and two smaller vessels. Still, twice the size of a 17th century East Indiaman, heavily armed and crewed by several hundred soldiers from the pilgrims' escort, the “Ganj-i-sawai” was more than a match for Avery's "Fancy", but one of his first broadsides shot the big ship's main mast away, Avery decided to board, one of “Ganj-i-sawai's” great guns exploded, the pirates managed to climb over her huge sides towering well over "Fancy's" freeboard and fierce hand-to-hand combat erupted. According to one source, the Mughal captain even went below and armed the slave girls on board, but to no avail. After several hours, the “Ganj-i-sawai” finally surrendered and for her passengers, hell on earth began, when Avery's men really turned into monsters, raping, torturing and killing them for days. And, allegedly, one of the captives was a close female relative of Aurangzeb, according to various contemporary sources either his daughter or his granddaughter.

Howard Pyle's “So the Treasure was Divided: Pirates dividing their loot.” (1905)


The “Ganj-i-sawai” managed to limp into Surat harbour after Long Ben Avery and his crew had finally left her and, as expected, the Mughal Empire exploded around John Company’s ears. The Honourable East India Company finally agreed to pay reparations, Parliament declared the pirates “ hostis humani generis” ("enemies of the human race") and put a bounty of £500 on Avery’s head, a relative value of £60,000 in 2015, but easily worth a million quid in today’s money, and a pardon for every informer on top of it. Tempting, of course, had Long Ben not just captured one of the richest prizes in naval history. The share for every man jack of his crew amounted to £1,000 when the spoils of the “Gunsway” as the English now called the Ganj-i-sawai, were divided in Réunion in November 1695. Avery was smart enough to cover his tracks afterwards, found safe shelter for a while in New Providence in the Bahamas, protected by a large bribe and transfer of the “Fancy” into the hands of the local governor and finally disappeared in England or Ireland. Some of his crew bribed the New England governors, went native and were duly forgotten by the local authorities, some were caught back home in merry old England and hanged, while the contemporary authority on pirates and their fates, Charles Johnson, claimed in his “History and Lives of All the Most Notorious Pirates and their Crews” that Avery died in poverty in Devon, while someone no less than Daniel Defoe commemorated him as “The Mock King of Madagascar”, reproducing a well beloved tale of the day with Avery falling in love and eloping with the Mughal’s granddaughter and setting up shop on the said, back then largely unexplored, island as the fantastically rich head of state of a pirate republic.



The American artist John Ward Dunsmore’s (1856–1945) imagination of Long Ben Avery’s
first meeting with the Mughal’s granddaughter (illustration of The Works of Daniel Defoe, 1905)


And more about Every or Avery and the “Gunsway” in an excellent and quite elaborate article on: