Captain John Avery: The Arch-Pirate

Piracy is like gambling: those who play at it long enough are sure to lose. The only hope for success lies in knowing when to quit. By nature, the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries were inveterate gamblers, and even those who had the chance to abandon their predatory ways usually found themselves drawn back, eventually facing a violent death. With this in mind, the accomplishment of Captain Avery becomes clear: not only did he seize two of the richest prizes in the history of piracy, but then he also retired with his loot.

Little is known of Avery’s life before he “went on the account,” as the pirate euphemism went. He was likely born in the 1650’s, although the exact year varies in the literature. His last name is variously spelled as Avery and Every; as for his first name, he was more popularly known as John, but he signed his name as Henry. His crewmen knew him as neither of these, calling him “Long Ben.” The appellation “the Arch Pirate” came much later, when tales of his stunning success made their way through the public.

By his late thirties, Avery was already operating on the wrong side of the law, participating in the slave trade in violation of the monopoly held by the Royal African Company. Like many pirates, he owed his ability to stay in business to bribed officials in a friendly port: in this case, to the governor of the Bahamas, Cadwallader Jones. Also like so many pirates to come a generation later, Avery made the transition to piracy through the intermediate step of privateering.

A privateer is basically a pirate who has license to attack certain targets. This license, called a Letter of Marque, is presented by a government authorizing the privateer to prey on ships of an enemy nation. Usually, privateers serve their own nation during a time of war, but in this case, Avery took service with the Spanish against French interests in the Caribbean. By the late spring of 1694, he was First Mate on the Charles, and the crew’s mood was turning ugly. Morale had plunged with a combination of protracted inactivity and arrears in payment, and one night, when the captain was insensible with drink, the crew mutinied.

Avery had become the captain of a ship purpose-built for piracy. He renamed the 46-gun ship the Fancy, and sailed south along the coast of Africa. The goal was to operate in the Indian Ocean, because the shipping between India and Arabia was as treasure-laden as the Spanish fleets sailing home through the Caribbean. Along the way, he robbed three English ships, but endeavored to cover himself in the event of being caught by sending a letter to England expressing his intention not to harm British interests. His claim was, in essence, that if a British ship were attacked, it was only because he could not fully control his men.

Sailing around the southern tip of Africa, he pressed on to Madagascar and beyond. Other pirates were already in the area, and in fact, one of the first prizes he took was another pirate ship, this one French in origin. He was not, however, there to fight fellow pirates, and upon reaching the Red Sea, he came into contact with the pirate forces that took shelter there, among them the notorious Thomas Tew. Avery made common cause with Tew and some of his associates, gathering a flotilla of about eight pirate vessels in the process. Only then were the pirates strong enough to challenge the Indian fleet.

Of course, the downside of a flotilla is that it is much easier to spot as it approaches. When the pirates came into view, the Indians tried to escape into the night. As luck would have it, the pirates found two vessels accessible the following morning. Even more fortunately for the pirates, these two vessels, the Fateh Mohammed and the Ganj-i-sawai, were the most heavily laden of the treasure ships. The smaller Fateh Mohammed was taken easily, but the Ganj-i-sawai, which was the property of the Great Moghul and consequently was heavily armed, resisted. The fight was hard, and Tew was among those killed, but after two hours the pirates were able to board the Ganj-i-sawai. According to the testimony of pirates that were later apprehended, the survivors were treated in an egregiously wretched fashion.

The treasure proved to be beyond the pirates’ expectations. The pirates regrouped on a small island near Madagascar to dole out their portions, and even the common sailors among them received more than 1,000 English pounds. Even this basic share was a princely sum, more than an honest sailor could expect to earn in his lifetime; by convention, Avery was entitled to two shares. Some grumbled that Avery had managed to take more than that, a supposition that is borne out by the size of the bribes that Avery would offer when he returned to the Caribbean.

The combined fleet broke up. Avery sailed back to the Bahamas, hoping to sell his goods and buy a pardon. The new governor was as friendly as the old, but Avery’s exploits had made him too notorious for this kind of arrangement. The Crown and the East India Company had each offered a reward in the amount of 500 pounds for his capture; pardoning Avery would draw too much unwelcome attention.

As it was, the pirate crew had to break up; some traveled to more remote colonies, such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, for their pardons, while others returned surreptitiously to England. Some of the latter were eventually caught and executed. Avery changed his name to Bridgerman and settled in Ireland, where he ended his life in the same obscurity with which he began it. Captain Johnson’s 1724 history of pirates claims that Avery was eventually cheated of his shares of the treasure, but there is no independent confirmation of this assertion. It is just as likely, and fully in keeping with the moralizing tone of the age, that Johnson was trying to undercut the public perception that Avery was the pirate who got away with it.

That, of course, is precisely how he was viewed. Whatever the truth of his retirement may be, he led the taking of one of the largest prizes ever, and managed to escape with his ill-gotten gains. It is for this that he became known as “the Arch Pirate.” Tales of his success likely provided much inspiration for the pirates who emerged twenty years later. The great captains of that age, such as Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, would have been boys when Avery made his mark. Together with the stories of buried treasure associated with his contemporary, Captain Kidd, Avery brought a glamorous element to the popular image of the pirate.


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