The King of Pirates, and the Biggest Pirate Heist in History

There were a lot of downsides to being a 17th-century pirate. Never mind the severely unhygienic coworkers and cramped living conditions. If you were caught, you were usually tortured and killed in ways that made a stint in Guantanamo look like a weekend in Ibiza.

So what was the upside of the pirating life? Sometimes you got away with it, loaded with tons of filthy lucre.

Take Henry Every, for instance. A lack of primary sources means that many of the details of his life are guesswork, but we do know that he seized a ship (the Fancy, which is a spectacular name for a giant craft bristling with guns), assembled a pirate crew, and sailed into the Indian Ocean, where in 1695 he attacked a convoy that included the Ganj-i-sawai, an enormous treasure ship owned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, ruler of virtually the entire Indian subcontinent.

The attack was so audacious that it nearly vaporized England’s relationship with the emperor, who threatened to flatten the outposts of the East India Company in retaliation. It resulted in a manhunt for Every that spanned oceans —and ended in a way that perhaps nobody expected.

Every Man for Himself

Henry Every (also known as Avery, in some accounts, or even Evory) was born near Devon in 1659, although other, arguably more questionable sources cite a different date. As a young man, he became a sailor with the Royal Navy, which at that time was part of a “Grand Alliance” against an expansionist France.

After leaving the Navy, Every spent a few years as a slave trader. He then ended up on the Charles II, as part of a privateer convoy headed for the Spanish West Indies. Before the expedition could put so much as a single cannonball through the hull of a French ship, it stalled in a port in northern Spain. The sailors, unpaid for months, decided to take matters into their own hands. Every not only participated in the mutiny, but quickly rose to lead it.

It’s a short skip from privateering to outright piracy. Every convinced his new crew that their fortunes lay far to the east. The Charles II, now renamed Fancy, headed for the Indian Ocean.

The Raid

The Mughal emperor’s fleet made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which rendered its route predictable; its ships carried not only Muslim pilgrims, but also treasure and immense amounts of tradable goods. Upon reaching the Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Every teamed up with five other pirate captains in the area —it would mean dividing any loot among more people, but he probably figured that the additional men and cannons were necessary. Nearly five hundred pirates would go up against the 25 ships of the Mughal fleet, which included the massive escort ship Fateh Muhammed.

The fleet was sighted, and the pirates gave chase over five days. The Fateh Muhammed, overtaken first, put up startlingly little resistance for a 600-ton craft with a full complement of guns; the pirates stripped out its treasure and resumed pursuit of the big prize: Ganj-i-sawai.

Three pirate ships, including the Fancy, closed within range and opened fire, severing the Ganj-i-sawai’s mainmast (i.e., the principal mast, which you need if you want to sail anywhere). The Mughal ship boasted four hundred troops in addition to dozens of cannons, which might have kept the pirates at bay —until one of the Ganj-i-sawai’s artillery pieces unexpectedly exploded, spreading chaos belowdecks and changing the calculus of battle.

Every’s pirates swarmed aboard the wounded vessel, kicking off a three-hour battle. In disarray, leaderless, the troops onboard surrendered. What happened next was a storm of looting, rape, and murder. “It is certain the Pyrates, which these People affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the People of the Ganj-i-sawai and Abdul Gofor’s Ship, to make them confess where their Money was,” the governor of Bombay, Sir John Gayer, wrote in a letter that year. The pirates’ takings included 500,000 gold and silver pieces, as well as ivory and precious stones—an incalculable amount of wealth, and perhaps the biggest pirate haul of all time.

Every took his time pillaging the Ganj-i-sawai. “After having remained engaged for a week, in searching for plunder, stripping the men of their clothes and dishonoring the old and young women, they left the ship and its passengers to their fate,” wrote the Indian historian Khafi Khan. “Some of the women getting an opportunity, threw themselves into the sea to save their honor while others committed suicide using knives and daggers.”

The battered Ganj-i-sawai limped home to Surat. Emperor Aurangzeb, enraged, threatened the East India Company (and by extension, all British trade in India). The Company promised to pay reparations, which seriously affected its bottom line. As news of the raid spread, the authorities in England decided that Every and his crew would need to suffer a most gruesome death for what they had done.

The Manhunt

While leaders around the world yelled at each other, Avery and crew headed for Madagascar and then the Bahamas. Upon reaching the Caribbean, they tried to pass as slavers, but too many things didn’t quite add up: why would slavers have a fortune in ivory and gold onboard? And why was Fancy so battle-damaged?

With the authorities closing in, Every and his crew decided to split up. Some fled to the American colonies, while others kept sailing around the West Indies. Those who escaped had enough loot to last multiple lifetimes; but twenty-four were captured, and six hung after a perfunctory trial (there’s even a PDF of the trial transcript online).

Every, already a legend, managed to disappear into the night, eluding the noose.

The Robber Robbed?

Four centuries ago, it was a lot easier to disappear: no cameras, no Internet, no digital surveillance, no passports or driver’s licenses backed by databases, no credit cards or emails to leave a trail. You could sail into a new port, or ride to a new town, and call yourself by a new name; so long as you kept your story straight, and nobody from your old life showed up, you could adopt a whole new persona.

It must have been difficult for Every, the world’s most wanted fugitive, to pull off that kind of disappearing act; and yet he managed to do so. Although the historical record is somewhat sketchy with regard to his life’s details, it’s clear he was a ruthless man capable of both fastidious planning and improvisation in the moment.

There are several different versions of Every’s fate. One of the most prominent ones, which we’ll call the “Moral Ending,” comes from Daniel Defoe’s well-known but factually questionable “A General History of Pyrates.” In Defoe’s telling, Every made it to Ireland, but was too afraid to sell the diamonds he stole from the Ganj-i-sawai. He moved to Bideford, near where he was born, and entrusted his money and possessions to a group of merchants who promised to protect him —for a fee.

According to Defoe, what happened next was perhaps inevitable:

In some Time his little Money was spent, yet he heard nothing from his Merchants; he writ to them often, and after much Importunity they sent him a small Supply, but scarce sufficient to pay his Debts: In fine, the Supplies they sent him from Time to Time, were so small, that they were not sufficient to give him Bread, nor could he get that little, without a great deal of Trouble and Importunity, wherefore being weary of his Life, he went privately to Bristol, to speak to the Merchants himself, where instead of Money he met a most shocking Repulse, for when he desired them to come to an Account with him, they silenced him by threatening to discover him…

Every, trapped, supposedly fled back to Ireland, where he met his fate:

Whether he was frightened by these Menaces, or had seen some Body else he thought knew him, is not known; but he went immediately over to Ireland, and from thence sollicited his Merchants very hard for a Supply, but to no Purpose, for he was even reduced to beggary: In this Extremity he was resolved to return and cast himself upon them, let the Consequence be what it would. He put himself on Board a trading Vessel, and work’d his Passage over to Plymouth, from whence he travelled on Foot to Biddiford, where he had been but a few Days before he fell sick and died; not being worth as much as would buy him a Coffin.

“The robber robbed” has a nice ring to it, but many things about Defoe’s narrative don’t make much sense. Considering the enormous reward for Every, why didn’t anyone turn him in, especially a bunch of merchants who clearly wanted to exploit him? And after a life at sea, why would Every suddenly remain so resolutely land-bound?

Other narratives place a retired Every back in Madagascar, ruling over a pirate haven of some sort; or in the New World, under a new name. In any case, the man disappeared —and within a few years of his disappearance, he had transformed from flesh to fiction, his life retold (and exaggerated) in books, plays, and spoken narrative. He had beaten the harsh odds of the pirate’s life, and gotten away with it.

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store