Biography of Henry Avery, the Most Successful Pirate

Henry Avery and crew illustration

Charles Ellms/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Henry “Long Ben” Avery (c 1659–1696 or 1699) was an English pirate, plying the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and making one big score: the treasure ship of the Grand Mughal of India. After this success, he retired. Little is known for certain of his ultimate fate. Contemporaries believed that Avery took his loot to Madagascar where he set himself up as a king with his own fleet and thousands of men. There also is evidence, however, that he returned to England and died broke.

Fast Facts: Henry Avery

  • Known For: Most successful pirate
  • Also Known As: Long Ben, John Avery
  • Born: Between 1653 and 1659 in Plymouth, England
  • Died: Perhaps in 1696 or 1699 in Devonshire County, England

Early Life

Henry Avery was born in or near Plymouth, England, sometime between 1653 and 1659. Some contemporary accounts spell his last name Every, while some references give his first name as John. He soon took to sea, serving on several merchant vessels as well as ships of war, when England went to war with France in 1688, and a few slave ships.

In early 1694, Avery took a position as the first mate aboard the privateer vessel Charles II, then in the employ of the king of Spain. The mostly English crew was extremely unhappy with their poor treatment and they convinced Avery to lead a mutiny, which he did on May 7, 1694. The men renamed the ship the Fancy and turned to piracy, attacking English and Dutch merchantmen off the coast of Africa. About this time, he released a statement declaring that English vessels had nothing to fear from him, as he would attack only foreigners, which clearly wasn't true.

Madagascar

The Fancy 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 the Fancy and had it modified to be swifter under sail. This improved speed began paying dividends immediately, as he was able to overtake a French pirate vessel. After looting it, he welcomed 40 new pirates to his crew.

Then he headed north, where other pirates were amassing, hoping to loot the Grand Mughal of India's treasure fleet as it returned from an annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Indian Treasure Fleet

In July 1695, the pirates got lucky: the great treasure fleet sailed into their arms. There were six pirate ships, including the Fancy and Thomas Tew's Amity. They first attacked the Fateh Muhammed, the escort ship to the flagship, the Ganj-i-Sawai. The Fateh Muhammed, outgunned by the large pirate fleet, didn't put up much of a fight. There were 50,000 to 60,000 British pounds in treasure aboard the Fateh Muhammed. It was quite a haul, but it didn't go far divided among the crews of six vessels. The pirates were hungry for more.

Soon 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 cannons and 400 to 500 musketeers, but the prize was too rich to ignore. During the first broadside they damaged the Ganj-i-Sawai's main mast and one of the Indian cannons exploded, causing mayhem and confusion on deck.

The battle roared on for hours as the pirates boarded the Ganj-i-Sawai. The terrified captain of the Mughal ship ran below decks and hid among the concubines. After a fierce battle, the remaining Indians surrendered.

Looting and Torture

The survivors 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 Mughal. Romantic tales of the day say that the beautiful daughter of the Mughal was on board and fell in love with Avery and then ran off to live with him on a remote island, but the reality was probably far more brutal.

The haul from the Ganj-i-Sawai was hundreds of thousands of pounds in gold, silver, and jewels, worth tens of millions of dollars today and possibly the richest haul in the history of piracy.

Deception and Flight

Avery and his men didn't want to share this prize 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 a chance of catching up with the speedy Fancy, which headed for the lawless Caribbean.

Once they reached New Providence Island, Avery bribed Gov. Nicholas Trott, essentially buying 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. He tipped them off, however, so Avery and most of his 113-man crew got out safely. Only 12 were captured.

Avery's crew split up. Some went to Charleston, some to Ireland and England, and some remained in the Caribbean. Avery himself vanished from history at this point, although according to Capt. Charles Johnson, one of the best sources of the time (and often thought to be a pseudonym for novelist Daniel Defoe), he returned with much of his loot to England only to be later swindled out of it, dying poor in perhaps 1696 or 1699, maybe in Devonshire County, England.

Legacy

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 managed to get away with that booty helped create the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" as thousands of poor, abused European seamen tried to follow his example out of their misery. The fact that he supposedly refused to attack English ships (although he did) became part of his legend, giving the story a Robin Hood twist.

Books and plays were written about him and his exploits. Many people at the time believed that he had set up a kingdom somewhere—possibly Madagascar—with 40 warships, an army of 15,000 men, a mighty fortress, and coins bearing his face. Capt. Johnson's story is almost certainly closer to the truth.

The part of Avery's story that can be verified caused great headaches for English diplomats. The Indians were furious and held officers of the British East India Company under arrest for a while. It would take years for the diplomatic furor to die down.

Avery's haul from the two Mughal ships put him at the top of the earnings list for pirates, at least during his generation. He took in more loot in two years than pirates such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny and "Calico Jack" Rackham—combined.

It's impossible to know the exact design used by Long Ben Avery for his pirate flag. He only captured a dozen or so ships, and no first-hand accounts survive from his crew or victims. 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.

Sources

  • Cordingly, David. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996.
  • Defoe, Daniel (writing as Capt. Charles Johnson). "A General History of the Pyrates." Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
  • Konstam, Angus. "The World Atlas of Pirates." Lyons Press, 2009.
  • "Henry Every’s Bloody Pirate Raid, 320 Years Ago." History.com.
  • "John Avery: British Pirate." Encyclopedia Britannica.