THE GOLDEN AGE OF PIRACY
TO THEIR ADMIRERS, pirates are romantic villains: fearsome men willing to forge a life beyond the reach of law and government, liberated from their jobs and the constraints of society to pursue wealth, merriment, and adventure. Three centuries have passed since they disappeared from the seas, but the Golden Age pirates remain folk heroes and their fans are legion. They have been the models for some of fiction’s greatest characters—Captain Hook and Long John Silver, Captain Blood and Jack Sparrow—conjuring images of sword fights, plank walking, treasure maps, and chests of gold and jewels.
Engaging as their legends are—particularly as enhanced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walt Disney—the true story of the pirates of the Caribbean is even more captivating: a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt that shook the very foundations of the newly formed British Empire, bringing transatlantic commerce to a standstill and fueling the democratic sentiments that would later drive the American revolution. At its center was a pirate republic, a zone of freedom in the midst of an authoritarian age.
The Golden Age of Piracy lasted only ten years, from 1715 to 1725, and was conducted by a clique of twenty to thirty pirate commodores and a few thousand crewmen. Virtually all of the commodores knew one another, having served side by side aboard merchant or pirate vessels or crossed paths in their shared base, the failed British colony of the Bahamas. While most pirates were English or Irish, there were large numbers of Scots, French, and Africans as well as a smattering of other nationalities: Dutch, Danes, Swedes, and Native Americans. Despite differences in nation, race, religion, and even language, they forged a common culture. When meeting at sea, pirate vessels frequently joined forces and came to one another’s aid, even when one crew was largely French and the other dominated by their traditional enemies, the English. They ran their ships democratically, electing and deposing their captains by popular vote, sharing plunder equally, and making important decisions in an open council—all in sharp contrast to the dictatorial regimes in place aboard other ships. At a time when ordinary sailors received no social protections of any kind, the Bahamian pirates provided disability benefits for their crews.
Pirates have existed for a long time. There were pirates in Ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire, in medieval Europe, and during the Qing Dynasty in China. Even today, pirates plague the world’s sea lanes, seizing freighters, container ships, even passenger liners, looting their contents, and, not infrequently, killing their crews. They are distinct from privateers, individuals who in wartime plunder enemy shipping under license from their government. Some mistake Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan for pirates, but they were, in fact, privateers, and undertook their depredations with the full support of their sovereigns, Queen Elizabeth and King Charles II. Far from being considered outlaws, both were knighted for their services, and Morgan was appointed lieutenant governor of Jamaica. William Dampier was a privateer, as were most of the English buccaneers of the late 1600s. Even the infamous Captain William Kidd was a well-born privateer who became a pirate accidentally, by running afoul of the directors of the East India Company, England’s largest corporation.
The Golden Age Pirates were distinct from both the buccaneers of Morgan’s generation and the pirates who preceded them. In contrast with the buccaneers, they were notorious outlaws, regarded as thieves and criminals by every nation, including their own. Unlike their pirate predecessors, they were engaged in more than simple crime and undertook nothing less than a social and political revolt. They were sailors, indentured servants, and runaway slaves rebelling against their oppressors: captains, ship owners, and the autocrats of the great slave plantations of America and the West Indies.
Dissatisfaction was so great aboard merchant vessels that typically when the pirates captured one, a portion of its crew enthusiastically joined their ranks. Even the Royal Navy was vulnerable; when HMS Phoenix confronted the pirates at their Bahamian lair in 1718, a number of the frigate’s sailors defected, sneaking off in the night to serve under the black flag. Indeed, the pirates’ expansion was fueled in large part by the defections of sailors, in direct proportion to the brutal treatment in both the navy and merchant marine.
Not all pirates were disgruntled sailors. Runaway slaves migrated to the pirate republic in significant numbers, as word spread of the pirates attacking slave ships and initiating many aboard to participate as equal members of their crews. At the height of the Golden Age, it was not unusual for escaped slaves to account for a quarter or more of a pirate vessel’s crew, and several mulattos rose to become full-fledged pirate captains. This zone of freedom threatened the slave plantation colonies surrounding the Bahamas. In 1718, the acting governor of Bermuda reported that the “negro men [have] grown so impudent and insulting of late that we have reason to suspect their rising [against us and]… fear their joining with the pirates.”
Some pirates had political motivations as well. The Golden Age erupted shortly after the death of Queen Anne, whose half-brother and would-be successor, James Stuart, was denied the throne because he was Catholic. The new king of England and Scotland, Protestant George I, was a distant cousin of the deceased queen, a German prince who didn’t care much for England and couldn’t speak its language. Many Britons, including a number of future pirates, found this unacceptable and remained loyal to James and the House of Stuart. Several of the early Golden Age pirates were set up by the governor of Jamaica, Archibald Hamilton, a Stuart sympathizer who apparently intended to use them as a rebel navy to support a subsequent uprising against King George. As Kenneth J. Kinkor of the Expedition Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts, puts it, “these were more than just a few thugs knocking over liquor stores.”
The pirate gangs of the Bahamas were enormously successful. At their zenith they succeeded in severing Britain, France, and Spain from their New World empires, cutting off trade routes, stifling the supply of slaves to the sugar plantations of America and the West Indies, and disrupting the flow of information between the continents. The Royal Navy went from being unable to catch the pirates to being afraid to encounter them at all. Although the twenty-two-gun frigate HMS Seaford was assigned to protect the Leeward Islands, her captain reported he was “in danger of being overpowered” if he were to cruise against the pirates. By 1717, the pirates had become so powerful they were able to threaten not only ships, but entire colonies. They occupied British outposts in the Leeward Islands, threatened to invade Bermuda, and repeatedly blockaded South Carolina. In the process, some accumulated staggering fortunes, with which they bought the loyalty of merchants, plantation owners, even the colonial governors themselves.
The authorities made the pirates out to be cruel and dangerous monsters, rapists and murderers who killed men on a whim and tortured children for pleasure, and indeed some were. Many of these tales were intentionally exaggerated, however, to sway a skeptical public. To the consternation of the ship and plantation owners of the Americas, many ordinary colonists regarded the pirates as folk heroes. Cotton Mather, Massachusetts’ leading Puritan minister, fumed about the level of support for the pirates among the “sinful” commoners of Boston. In 1718, as South Carolina authorities prepared to bring a pirate gang to trial, their sympathizers broke the pirates’ leader out of prison and nearly took control of the capital, Charleston. “People are easily led to favor these Pests of Mankind when they have hopes of sharing in their ill-gotten wealth,” Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood complained in the same year, adding that there were “many favorers of the pirates” in his colony.
I first thought of writing about these particular pirates while sitting under a palm tree with my future wife on an island off the coast of Belize, a Central American nation founded by English pirates and buccaneers, whose late-seventeenth-century words and phrases are still part of everyday speech. Three hundred years ago, this, like my native Maine, was a no-man’s-land, a wilderness coastline studded with islands, its scant indigenous population still ungoverned by Europeans. I imagined a bowsprit coming into view around the end of the island, then the patched sails and tar-seamed hull of a small ship, her sides pierced with gun ports, and a death’s-head flag flying from her mainmast. The vessel appeared real enough, all the way down to the scent of canvas and the abrasive nap of her thick hemp ropes. The crew was less clear, a jumble of pop culture references—bandanas and earrings, an eye patch for this one, a peg leg for that, a parrot on the captain’s shoulder, knives and rum bottles all around—decorating men with mildly sinister smiles, barking out clichés frequently punctuated by the signature “Arrrr!” Realizing that for all of their popularity, through movies and merchandising, I still had no real sense of who the pirates really were. Where did they come from, what drove them to do what they did, how did they dispose of their plunder, and had any of them gotten away with it?
Good answers were not readily available. Most pirate books, movies, and television shows continue to trade on the pirate myths, failing to distinguish between documented and demonstrably fabricated events, most of which are traceable to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, a 1724 book whose author wrote under the alias Captain Charles Johnson. Those that do, tend to focus not on the true pirates, but on the buccaneers and privateers of an earlier era— more respectable men, most of whose activities were legally sanctioned. The lives of these individuals—Henry Morgan, William Kidd, or William Dampier—are documented by far more voluminous paper trails. A few excellent overviews remain, but they focus on piracy as an institution, not on the lives of specific pirates. The biographical approach, I would find in writing this book, poses an entirely different suite of questions, revealing connections, motivations, and events that would otherwise be missed.
What follows is based on material found in the archives of Britain and the Americas. No dialogue has been made up, and descriptions of everything from cities and events to clothing, vessels, and the weather are based on primary documents. Previously lost aspects of the pirates’ history were recovered by integrating legal testimony and trial documents; the letters of English and Spanish governors, colonial officials, and naval captains; accounts in period pamphlets, newspapers, and books, scrawling in customs house ledgers, parish registers, and the logbooks of His Majesty’s warships.
When quoting from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources, modern punctuation and, occasionally, spelling, have been applied to ensure they are comprehensible to twenty-first-century readers. All dates in the text correspond to the Julian calendar that was then in use in the English-speaking world; this has required subtracting ten or eleven days from the dates in French and Spanish sources, wherein today’s Gregorian calendar was already in use. The original sources will be found in the notes in the back of this book.
My research led me to many of the settings included herein: London, Bristol, Boston, Charleston, and the Bahamas. I visited pirate haunts in eastern North Carolina, where divers from the state’s Department of Cultural Resources are exploring what is believed to be the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship. Artifacts from another Golden Age pirate ship, the Whydah, are still being discovered off the beaches of Cape Cod. I have benefited greatly from conversations and correspondence with archeologists and historians in these and other places, who continue to sift through evidence for more clues to the pirates’ past.
This book tells the story of the Golden Age of Piracy through the lives of four of its leading figures. Three were pirates: Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, and Charles Vane, all of whom knew one another. Bellamy and Blackbeard were friends, having served together under their mentor, Benjamin Hornigold, who founded the pirate republic at Nassau on New Providence Island. Both were also well acquainted with Vane, the protégé of Hornigold’s rival, Henry Jennings, a blustery privateersman declared an outlaw by King George. Vane shared many of his master’s characteristics: a penchant for unnecessary cruelty and violence, and a sadistic streak that eventually undermined his own authority. Bellamy and Blackbeard, following Hornigold’s lead, were more circumspect in their use of force, generally using terror only to compel their victims to surrender, thereby avoiding the need for violence. In the voluminous descriptions of Bellamy’s and Blackbeard’s attacks on shipping—nearly 300 vessels in all—there is not one recorded instance of them killing a captive. More often than not, their victims would later report having been treated fairly by these pirates, who typically returned ships and cargo that did not serve their purposes.
In the process, these pirates built powerful followings, sailing or recreating with virtually all of the leading pirates of the era: the flamboyantly dressed John “Calico Jack” Rackham, the eccentric Stede Bonnet, the infamous Olivier La Buse, the wig-wearing Paulsgrave Williams, and the female pirate Anne Bonny. At the height of their careers, each commanded a small fleet of pirate vessels, a company consisting of hundreds of men, and, in Bellamy’s and Blackbeard’s cases, a flagship capable of challenging any man-of-war in the Americas. So successful were their campaigns that soon governors, slave merchants, plantation owners, and shipping magnates—the entire power structure of British America—was clamoring for something to be done.
This brings us to our fourth and final subject, Woodes Rogers, the man the Crown sent to confront the pirates and pacify the Bahamas. More than anyone else, Rogers put an end to the Golden Age of Piracy. He was not a pirate, of course, but had served as a privateer during England’s most recent war with France and Spain and knew how the pirates thought and operated. A war hero and celebrated author, Rogers had led a successful assault on a Spanish city, been disfigured during a pitched battle with a massive treasure galleon in the Pacific, and was one of only a handful of men who had circumnavigated the world. Despite his swashbuckling past, Rogers held no sympathy for pirates. He represented everything the pirates were rebelling against. Unlike many of his peers, Rogers was courageous, selfless, and surprisingly patriotic, selflessly devoted to king and country. While many other governors, naval officers, and government ministers routinely lined their pockets at the Crown’s expense, Rogers emptied his pockets in support of projects he believed would further the public good and the established order of the young British Empire. Despite his heroic service, Rogers would suffer at the hands of his superiors and colleagues.
Bellamy, Blackbeard, and Vane didn’t start their pirate society from scratch. They had a role model in Henry Avery, a “pirate king” who was said to have led his fellow crewmen from oppression between the decks to a life of unimaginable luxury in a pirate kingdom of their own.
Avery’s feats were accomplished while Bellamy, Blackbeard, and Vane were still children, and had become legendary by the time they were young men. His adventures inspired plays and novels, historians and newspaper writers, and, ultimately, the Golden Age pirates themselves. The romantic myth of piracy didn’t follow the Golden Age, it helped create it. The pirates’ tale, therefore, starts with Henry Avery, and the arrival of a mysterious ship in Nassau three centuries ago.
THE SLOOP ARRIVED in the afternoon of April Fool’s Day 1696, swinging around the low, sandy expanse of Hog Island and into Nassau’s wide, dazzlingly blue harbor.
At first, the villagers on the beach and the sailors in the harbor took little notice. Small and nondescript, this sloop was a familiar sight, a trading vessel from the nearby island of Eleuthera, fifty miles to the east. She came to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, on a regular basis to trade salt and produce for cloth and sugar, and to get news brought in from England, Jamaica, and the Carolinas. The bystanders expected to see her crew drop anchor, load their goods into their longboat, and row toward the beach, as the capital had no wharves or piers. Later, their cargoes disposed of, the crew would go drinking in one of Nassau’s public houses, trading updates of the ongoing war, the movements of the infernal French, and cursing the absence of the Royal Navy. But not on this day.
The sloop’s crew rowed ashore. Its captain, a local man familiar to all, jumped onto the beach, followed by several strangers. The latter wore unusual clothing: silks from India, perhaps, a kerchief in bright African patterns, headgear from Arabia, as rank and dirty as the cheap woolens worn by any common seaman. Those who came near enough to overhear their speech or peer into their tanned faces could tell they were English and Irish mariners not unlike those from other large ships that came from the far side of the Atlantic.
The party made its way through the tiny village, a few dozen houses clustered along the shore in the shadow of a modest stone fortress. They crossed the newly cleared town square, passing the island’s humble wooden church, eventually arriving at the recently built home of Governor Nicholas Trott. They stood barefoot on the sun-baked sand and dirt, the fecund smell of the tropics filling their nostrils. Townspeople stopped to stare at the wild-looking men waiting on the governor’s doorstep. A servant opened the door and, upon exchanging a few words with the sloop’s master, rushed off to inform His Excellency that an urgent message had arrived.
Nicholas Trott already had his hands full that morning. His colony was in trouble. England had been at war with France for eight years, disrupting the Bahamas’ trade and supply lines. Trott received a report that the French had captured the island of Exuma, 140 miles away, and were headed for Nassau with three warships and 320 men. Nassau had no warships at its disposal; in fact, no ships of the Royal Navy had passed this way in several years, there not being nearly enough of them to protect England’s sprawling empire. There was Fort Nassau, newly built from local stone, with twenty-eight cannon mounted on its ramparts, but with many settlers fleeing for the better protection of Jamaica, South Carolina, and Bermuda, Trott was finding it almost impossible to keep the structure manned. There were no more than seventy men left in town, including the elderly and disabled. Half the male population was serving guard duty at any one time in addition to attending to their usual occupations, which left many of them, in Trott’s words, “terribly fatigued.” Trott knew that if the French attacked in force, there was little hope of holding Nassau and the rest of New Providence, the island on which his tiny capital was perched. These were Trott’s preoccupations when he received the merchant captain from Eleuthera and his mysterious companions.
The strangers’ leader, Henry Adams, explained that he and his colleagues had recently arrived in the Bahamas aboard the Fancy, a private warship of forty-six guns and 113 men, and sought Trott’s permission to come into Nassau’s harbor. Adams handed over a letter from his captain, Henry Bridgeman, containing a most outlandish proposition. The Fancy, Bridgeman claimed, had just arrived in Eleuthera from the coast of Africa, where he had been slave trading without the permission of the Royal Africa Company, which owned a monopoly over such activities. Captain Bridgeman’s letter explained that the Fancy had run low on provisions and its crew was in need of shore leave. Were the governor to be so kind as to allow the ship into the harbor, he would be amply rewarded. Every member of the crew would give Trott a personal gift of twenty Spanish pieces of eight and two pieces of gold, with Bridgeman, as commander, kicking in a double share. The strangers were offering him a bribe worth some £860 at a time when a governor’s annual salary was but £300. To top it off, the crew would also give him the Fancy herself, once they had unloaded and disposed of the (as yet) unspecified cargo. He could pocket nearly three years of wages and become the owner of a sizeable warship simply by letting the strangers ashore and not asking any pointed questions.
Trott pocketed the letter and called an emergency meeting of the colony’s governing council. The minutes of that meeting have since been lost, but from the testimony of others in Nassau at the time, it’s clear that Governor Trott neglected to mention the bribes to the councilmen. Instead, he appealed to their shared interest in the colony’s security. The Fancy, he pointed out, was as large as a fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy, and her presence might deter a French attack. The addition of her crew would nearly double the number of able-bodied men on New Providence, ensuring that Fort Nassau’s guns would be manned in the event of an invasion. And besides, where would they be if Bridgeman chose to refit his vessel at the French port of Martinique or, worse, decided to attack Nassau itself? Violating the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly was a fairly minor crime, an insufficient reason to deny him entry.
The members of the council concurred. The governor gave Henry Adams a “very civil” letter welcoming the Fancy to Nassau, where she and her crew “were welcome to come and to go as they pleased.”
Not long thereafter, a great ship rounded Hog Island, her decks crowded with sailors, her sides pierced with gun ports, and her hull sunk low in the water under the weight of her cargo. Adams and his party were the first to come ashore, their longboat filled with bags and chests. The promised loot was there: a fortune in silver pieces of eight and golden coins minted in Arabia and beyond. Longboats ferried the crew ashore throughout the day. The rest of the crew resembled the landing party: ordinary-looking mariners dressed in oriental finery, each bearing large parcels of gold, silver, and jewels. The man calling himself Captain Bridgeman also came ashore and, after a closed meeting with Trott, turned the great warship over to him. When the governor arrived aboard the Fancy, he found they had left him a tip: The hold contained more than fifty tons of elephant tusks, 100 barrels of gunpowder, several chests filled with guns and muskets, and a remarkable collection of ship’s anchors.
Trott would later claim to have had no reason to suspect the Fancy’s crew of being involved in piracy. “How could I know it?” he testified under oath. “Supposition is not proof.” Captain Bridgeman and his men had claimed to be unlicensed merchants, he added, and the people of New Providence “saw no reason to disbelieve them.” But Trott was no fool. He had been a merchant captain himself and well knew that treasures of the sort the Fancy carried were not the product of some unsanctioned bargaining with the people of Africa’s Slave Coast. Standing aboard the Fancy, her hold filled with ivory and weapons, her sails patched from cannonball damage and musket balls embedded in her deck work, Trott was forced to make a choice: enforce the law or pocket the money. He didn’t ponder very long.
On the governor’s orders, boats began ferrying the Fancy’s remaining cargo ashore. Soon the beach was littered with chests of ivory tusks and firearms, piles of sails, anchors and tackle, barrels of gunpowder and provisions, heavy cannon and their ammunition. Trott put his personal boatswain and several African slaves aboard the ship. The ivory tusks, the pieces of eight and bags of gold coins were delivered to his private quarters. Captain Bridgeman and his men were free to drink and carouse in Nassau’s two pubs and could leave whenever they wished.
So it was that England’s most wanted man bought off the law and sold his pirate ship to one of His Majesty’s own governors. Captain Bridgeman was in reality Henry Avery, the most successful pirate of his generation, a man whose exploits were already becoming the stuff of legend. At that moment, dozens of ships, hundreds of officials, thousands of sailors, informers, and soldiers around the world were searching for Avery, his crew, and a king’s ransom in stolen treasure. East India Company agents were following up rumors about his having been sighted near Bombay and Calcutta. Royal Navy captains were hunting for the Fancy off the shores of West Africa, Madagascar, and Arabia. Bounty hunters sailed the Indian Ocean and the approaches to the English Channel. Few would guess that Avery and his men were, at that moment, relaxing in the shadow of an English fort.
Henry Avery had spent most of his thirty-six years at sea. Born outside the coastal town of Plymouth in the English West Country, he went to sea as a young man and served as mate on a number of trading vessels. Shortly after England went to war with France in 1688, Avery enlisted in the Royal Navy, serving as a junior officer aboard HMS Rupert and HMS Albemarle and seeing combat on both frigates. Along the way, he and his fellow sailors had experienced beatings and humiliations from officers, eaten rotten or substandard food courtesy of corrupt pursers, and their salaries had gone unpaid for years on end. It was a beggar’s life for shipmates who lost arms, legs, hands, feet, or eyes in accidents or battle. Sailors said that prisoners led a better life, and after more than two decades at sea, Avery had to agree.
In the spring of 1693, he thought he’d found a better deal. He heard that a group of wealthy merchants was assembling a squadron of merchant ships for an unusually daring mission. Four heavily armed ships were to leave England, collect necessary documents in Spain, and sail for the Caribbean. Once there, they would conduct trade with the Spanish colonies and attack and plunder French ships and plantations. The merchants were paying well and, most importantly, their contract promised more certain prospects: a guaranteed monthly wage at fair rates, with one month’s pay advanced before the ships even left England. Avery knew there would be better food and drink than aboard the king’s ships, as well as the possibility of pocketing a small share of the plunder along the way. He applied for a position and, with his topnotch references and distinguished service record, was hired as first mate aboard the expedition’s forty-six-gun flagship, Charles II, under Captain Charles Gibson.
In early August, before the squadron sailed, the men received, as promised, their first month’s wages. More encouraging, the squadron’s chief owner, Sir James Houblon, personally came aboard the ships, assuring the men that they or their families would be paid every six months throughout their deployment. With that, the Charles II and her three consorts, the James, Dove, and Seventh Son pulled up anchor and floated down the River Thames. For Avery and his shipmates, it appeared to be the beginning of a profitable adventure.
Things went badly from the start. The journey to La Coruña in northern Spain should have taken two weeks, but for some reason it took the Charles II and her consorts five months. Upon arrival they discovered that the privateering documents they needed had yet to arrive from Madrid, so they sat at anchor and waited. A week passed, then two, and then a month, with no indication that the wheels of Spanish bureaucracy were turning. Aboard the crowded ships, the men grew restless, and some began asking why their promised semiannual salary payment had not yet been made. They sent a petition to Sir James Houblon, asking that salaries be paid out to the sailors or their wives, as previously agreed. In response, Houblon told his agent to put several petitioners in irons and lock them in the ships’ dank brigs.
Such reaction did not put the sailors’ minds at rest. While visiting other vessels in La Coruña’s sleepy harbor, some of the married sailors were able to send word back to their wives in England. A letter informed the women of their husbands’ plight and urged them to meet Houblon in person to demand the wages they no doubt needed to survive. The women then confronted Houblon, a wealthy merchant and founding deputy governor of the Bank of England, whose brother was chief governor of the Bank and would soon become Lord Mayor of London. His response chilled them to the bone. The ships and their men were now under the king of Spain’s control and as far as he was concerned the king could “pay them or hang them if he pleased.”
When word of Houblon’s response got back to La Coruña, the sailors began to panic. Several pleaded with the captain of a visiting English warship to take them back, but were refused. Captain Gibson’s personal steward, William May, offered to forsake £30 in back wages were he allowed to leave the Charles II; Gibson told him to return to duty or he would be thrown in jail. The ship’s company concluded they had been sold into the service of the king of Spain for “all the dayes of their lives.” Henry Avery came up with a solution. On May 6, 1694, four months after arriving in La Coruña, he and some of his fellow sailors rowed into town. Wandering the narrow, winding streets, they gathered up men from the other English ships in the harbor. He had a plan to gain their freedom.
At nine o’clock the following evening, several of these recruits set out from the Charles II in a small boat. When they came alongside the James, one of the sailors hailed a figure on deck using a prearranged password: “Is your drunken boatswain on board?” This failed to elicit the expected response, so they spoke more plainly, something along the lines of: “We’re part of the secret plan to seize control of the Charles, so all you mutineers hop on board and we’ll row you over there.” Unfortunately the man on the deck of the James was not a member of the conspiracy and he ran off to alert his captain. Before the captain sounded the general alarm, however, twenty-five conspirators from the James launched the ship’s pinnace—the largest of her boats—and rowed off after their colleagues in the direction of the Charles.
Back on the Charles, Avery heard the sounds of commotion echoing across the harbor from the James. He knew they could wait no longer. He and two dozen of his men rushed out on deck, seized the watchman, and took control of the quarterdeck, where the helm and many of a ship’s other controls were located. As their co-conspirators from the other ship arrived in boats, the captain of the James opened fire, sending two cannonballs splashing into the harbor next to the Charles. The cannon fire alerted the Spaniards manning La Coruña’s medieval fortress, who were now readying its guns. Avery barked out orders. Men rushed forward to cut the ship’s thick anchor lines or clambered up the ratlines to unfurl the sails; the helmsman brought the ship off the wind, while others hauled the sails into place. Slowly, the Charles pulled out of the harbor, under the guns of the fort, and into the open Atlantic.
A few miles out of port, Avery went below decks to speak with Captain Gibson, who was ill and bedridden, and the second mate, Jonathan Gravet, both of whom were now under guard in their respective cabins. By their accounts, Avery treated them with courtesy and even offered Gibson command of the Charles if he joined their conspiracy. He refused. Avery nonetheless promised to let both men go ashore come morning in one of the boats, along with any other men who wished to leave. Avery gave Gravet three parting gifts: a coat, a waistcoat, and his own commission as first mate. Gravet later recalled that Gibson’s steward, William May, “took me by the hand and wished me well home and bid me remember him to his wife.”
In the morning, Gibson, Gravet, and fifteen other men got into one of the Charles II’s launches and rowed off toward the mainland. “I am a man of fortune, and must seek my fortune,” Avery told Gibson before they parted.
Later that day, Avery held a general meeting of the ship’s company: eighty-five men in all, each of them there voluntarily except for the ship’s doctor, whose services they were unwilling to part with. Avery proposed a new and better way of providing for themselves and their families: They would raid ships and settlements as originally planned, only not in the Caribbean, and not for the profit of Houblon. Instead they would sail for the Indian Ocean, where they would go after the richly laden merchantmen of the Orient and keep the plunder for themselves. He’d heard that the island of Madagascar would make a perfect base of operations; located off the southeastern coast of Africa it had no European presence, hundreds of miles of secluded coastline, and natives who would happily trade food and other necessities. When it was all over, Avery told them, they could quietly slip back into England with their riches.
Avery must have been persuasive because the men agreed to his plan and appointed him as their captain. Collectively they laid out an equitable scheme for sharing future plunder. While on most privateering vessels, the captain got between six and fourteen shares to the ordinary seaman’s one, Avery would receive only one extra share, his mate an extra half. They would make all major decisions democratically, except during combat, when Avery’s command would be absolute. They also voted to rename the ship: From here on out she would be called the Fancy.
They spent the month of May sailing down the Atlantic, stopping at the island of Moia in the Cape Verde Islands, 350 miles off the West African coast. Moia was a depressing place, a treeless island baking under the tropical sun. It was frequented by mariners for its expansive inland salt ponds, salt being the main food preservative of the era. In the bleak cove that served as Moia’s harbor, they found three English merchant ships loading salt the natives had piled for them on the beach. Faced with the Fancy’s overwhelming firepower, the captains surrendered without a fight. Avery relieved them of provisions and an anchor to replace the one he’d left on the bottom of La Coruña harbor, but politely gave them a receipt for everything he had stolen. Less thoughtfully, he forced nine members of their crew to join his pirate band, probably because they, like the doctor, had special skills required to keep the Fancy operational.
Avery apparently regretted looting English ships in time of war. A few months later he wrote an open letter to all English shipmasters, in which he told them they had nothing to fear from the Fancy and her men. “I have never as yet wronged any English or Dutch [vessels],” he wrote,“nor ever intend to whilst I am Commander.” He signed it “As yet an Englishman’s Friend.” One can see why Avery would become a hero to the poor and downtrodden, a sort of maritime Robin Hood. He’d risen up against injustice and handled his prisoners with remarkable humanity, taking only what he and his band required for survival.
Not all of Avery’s subsequent actions were particularly honorable. His later admirers made much of his upstanding behavior toward English and European captives, but they tended to skip over or make light of his treatment of nonwhite foreigners who fell into his clutches. His crew and captives would later describe many acts of cruelty. Once, on the coast of West Africa, Avery lured a band of local tribesmen aboard his ship with the promise of trade, then stole their gold, clapped them into irons, and sold at least seven of them into slavery. There were numerous instances when his crew captured small, unarmed Arab trading vessels and, after seizing their humble cargoes of rice and fish, proceeded to burn them rather than return them to their captains. While cruising off what is now Somalia, the Fancy’s crew burned the town of Mayd to the ground because the residents refused to trade with them. Before leaving Asia, Avery and his men would do far worse.
By June 1695, thirteen months after the mutiny in Spain, Avery’s gang had captured at least nine vessels and sailed from Maio to Madagascar, from the Cape of Good Hope to the coast of India. They had set up camp in the secluded harbors of Madagascar, given the Fancy a thorough overhaul in the Comoros Islands, and gorged themselves on pots of honey purchased from traders in Gabon. Their numbers had swollen to over one hundred, including fourteen volunteers from a Danish merchant vessel and a party of French privateers found stranded on an island near the Mozambique Straits. They had stolen large parcels of rice, grain, brandy, wool, linen, and silks, but only very small quantities of gold, silver, and other easily transportable valuables. If they were to make a real fortune, they had to go after a bigger prize. From their captives they learned that a great fleet would soon be sailing from Mocha, a port on the Red Sea in what is now Yemen, and would pass out of the Red Sea’s entrance on its way to Surat, India. Aboard the ships would be thousands of Muslims returning from their annual pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Mecca and dozens of merchants repatriating the profits of their annual trading mission. The convoy’s treasure ships—property of the Grand Moghul of India—were the most valuable vessels to sail the Indian Ocean.
Avery and his crew sailed north for the mouth of the Red Sea, where they planned to lie in wait for the Mocha fleet. But they were not the only English raiders with this in mind. Along the way they came across two armed sloops—small, nimble, single-masted sailing vessels— flying English colors. Their captains turned out to be privateers from Rhode Island and Delaware, men who had been given a license to raid enemy shipping in time of war, but had decided, like Avery, to attack the neutral treasure fleet. A day after arriving at the narrows, three more American privateers showed up, including Thomas Tew of New York, who had been a famous pirate himself. Avery and the captains of the five privateers agreed to attack the treasure fleet together and to share the resulting plunder. They lay in ambush behind a tiny island in the passage of Bab-al-Mandab under the blazing sun: four six-gun sloops, the forty-six-gun Fancy, and a six-gun brigantine.
The treasure fleet, consisting of twenty-five ships, passed the straits late one Saturday night in August, their lamps unlit, moving so stealthily that the pirates and privateers failed to see the first twenty-four. However they did capture the very last vessel, a slow-moving ketch and, upon interrogating the crew, realized they would have to chase the rest of the fleet across the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. For three days Avery’s squadron pursued their quarry. The smaller vessels had trouble keeping pace with the Fancy. They burned the slowest of them so as not to be slowed down; a second sloop fell so far behind that it was never seen again.
Finally, near the Indian coast, the pirates spotted a sail on the horizon. This turned out to be the Fath Mahmamadi, a ship larger than the Fancy, but also slower and armed with only six guns. The crew of the Fath Mahmamadi fired one pathetic three-gun salvo as the pirate ships gathered around them. The Fancy responded with a deafening twenty-three-gun broadside and a volley of musket fire. The Indian captain surrendered, the Fancy came alongside, and Avery’s crew poured onto their 350-ton prize. In the holds they found the proceeds of the Fath Mahmamadi’s trade in Mocha: £50,000 to £60,000 in gold and silver belonging to the ship’s owner, the merchant Abd-ul-Ghafur. It was an impressive haul, enough to purchase the Fancy fifty times over, but Avery wanted more. He placed the vessel under the control of a detachment of his men—a prize crew—and, together with his fellow captains, continued his pursuit of the great fleet.
Two days later, along the shores of eastern India, a lookout spotted another ship in the distance bound for the Indian port of Surat. The pirates soon caught up with what turned out to be the Ganj-i-sawai, a gigantic trading vessel that belonged to Grand Moghul Aurangzeb himself. She was far and away the largest ship operating out of Surat, with eighty guns, 400 muskets, and 800 able-bodied men aboard. Her captain, Muhammad Ibrahim, had reason to be confident of fending off the raiders, having more guns and more than twice as many men as the Fancy and the three American privateers combined. The stakes were high, however, for Ganj-i-sawai was heavily laden with passengers and treasure.
As soon as the Fancy came into range, Captain Ibrahim ordered a gun crew into action. They loaded their heavy weapon and rolled it out of its port. The gunner took aim, lit the fuse, and stood back with the rest of his team, awaiting the cannon’s recoil. Instead of a loud report and a burst of smoke, there came a horrifying flash. Owing to some internal defect, the heavy cannon exploded, sending shards in all directions. The gun crew was blown to bits. As Ibrahim was taking in the gruesome spectacle, the Fancy returned fire. One of her cannonballs struck the Ganj-i-sawai in the lower part of her mainmast, the most critical of locations. The mast partially collapsed, throwing sails and rigging into disarray and compounding the chaos aboard the ship. The loss of sail area meant the Ganj-i-sawai began to slow. Her pursuers closed in.
Swords drawn and muskets at the ready, over 100 pirates crouched behind the Fancy’s rails, waiting for the ships to come together. When they did, lines snapping, sails tearing, their wooden hulls moaning and creaking with the stress, Avery and company rushed over the side and onto the decks of the crippled vessel.
An Indian historian named Muhammad Hashim Khafi Khan, who was in Surat at the time, wrote that given there were so many weapons aboard the Ganj-i-sawai, the crew would certainly have defeated the English pirates “if the captain had made any resistance.” Captain Ibrahim apparently panicked and fled below decks to the quarters of a group of Turkish girls he had purchased in Mocha to serve as his personal concubines. “He put turbans on their heads and swords into their hands and incited them to fight,” Khafi Khan wrote. Resistance aboard the Indian ship collapsed. Avery’s men began their plunder.
According to the stories that would later circulate in the waterfront pubs of England, Avery behaved chivalrously. One of the most popular accounts told of how he found “something more pleasing than jewels” aboard the captured ship: the Moghul Emperor’s granddaughter, en route to her wedding with a vast dowry and a gaggle of beautiful handmaidens. Avery, it was said, proposed to the princess and, upon receiving her consent, married her right then and there with the assistance of a Muslim cleric. In this version of the story, which was published in London in 1709, “The rest of the crew then drew lots for her servants and, to follow the example of their commander, even stay’d their stomachs ’till the same priest had said Grace for them.” The happy newlyweds were said to have spent the whole trip back to Madagascar engaged in conjugal bliss.
The true story is less romantic. Trial documents and accounts of Indian witnesses and English officials make it clear that Avery presided over an orgy of violence. For several days, the pirates raped female passengers of all ages. Among the victims was one of the Moghul emperor’s relatives—not a young princess, but the elderly wife of one of his courtiers. Khafi Khan reported that a number of women killed themselves to avoid such a fate, some by jumping into the sea, others stabbing themselves with daggers. Survivors said the pirates treated many of the captives “very barbarously” in an effort to make them confess where they had hidden their valuables. One of Avery’s crew, Philip Middleton, later testified that they murdered several men aboard the captured ship. Fact and legend only agree on the scale of the treasure the pirates loaded aboard the Fancy: a trove of gold, silver, ivory, and jewels worth £150,000 or more.
Once the pirates were satisfied, the Ganj-i-sawai was allowed to sail on to Surat with her surviving crew and passengers. The pirates left in the opposite direction, heading south toward Madagascar and the Cape of Good Hope. On the island of Réunion, halfway to the Cape, Avery and the privateer captains divided their plunder and went their separate ways. Most of the crew received an individual share of £1,000, the equivalent of twenty years’ wages aboard a merchant ship. Avery put to his crew that they sail directly for Nassau to avoid the emperor’s revenge. In November 1695 the Fancy began its long journey, halfway around the world, to New Providence Island.
Having concluded their deal with Governor Trott, Avery and his men spent several days in Nassau, drinking Trott’s refreshments and debating what to do next. A few men—seven or eight at least—resolved to stay right where they were and soon married local women. The remaining pirates split into three parties, each with its own idea of how best to slide into obscurity with their plunder. Twenty-three men, led by Thomas Hollingsworth, purchased a thirty-ton sloop called the Isaac from the islanders and sailed for England in the second week of April 1696, apparently wishing to quietly slip back to their homes. The second party of approximately fifty made their way to Charleston in Carolina, the nearest English colony, 400 miles to the north. The third group consisted of Avery and twenty others, who paid £600 for a fifty-ton ocean-going sloop, the Sea Flower, armed with four small cannon. Around the first of June, they loaded their possessions and treasure and made ready to depart. Henry Adams, the man who had carried Avery’s messages to Governor Trott, married a Nassau girl and brought her with him aboard the sloop. Avery ordered the sails raised and the Sea Flower began making its way north with the Gulf Stream, bound for the north of Ireland.
Nicholas Trott spent the early part of June picking the Fancy clean. To make this process easier—and because the ship was in poor condition already—he ordered her run aground on Hog Island shortly before the Sea Flower’s departure. Whether he knew the ship’s true identity is unclear, but sometime that summer, other mariners passed through Nassau and recognized the beached hulk as the Charles II. Trott brought a few men in for questioning but claimed “they could give no information.” In December he received a letter from his counterpart in Jamaica, informing him that Bridgeman was none other than the outlaw Henry Avery. Trott brought a few of Avery’s colleagues in for questioning. He soon released them, noting that the governor of Jamaica “gave no proof.” Months later he disingenuously ordered the Fancy be “seized . . . in the hope that evidence might be found.” Trott would ultimately lose his governorship over the incident, but ended his days prosperously enough.
Some of Avery’s men found shelter in other ports. Several of those who had gone to Charleston continued on to Philadelphia, where they bought the allegiance of another governor, William Markham of Pennsylvania, for £100 per man. Markham, who apparently knew who they were, not only neglected to arrest them, he entertained them at his home and allowed one of them to marry his daughter. When one of the king’s magistrates, Robert Snead, attempted to arrest the pirates, the governor had him disarmed and threatened with imprisonment. Snead, unperturbed, apprehended two of the pirates, but they “escaped” from Markham’s prison within hours. The incident, Snead wrote back to authorities in London, had allowed “all the people [to] see how Arabian gold works with some consciences.”
The Isaac, the first of the sloops carrying the England-bound pirates, landed on remote Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland during the first week in June. About a dozen pirates came ashore at the foot of Achill Head, piling bags of gold and silver coins onto the wide beach. They later made their way to Dublin and there vanished without a trace. The rest of the Isaac’s company sailed down to Westport, County Mayo, where they hastily unloaded and broke company. They offered townspeople £10 each for nags worth not one-fifth of that, and exchanged bags of Spanish silver for purses of gold guineas at a discount, simply to lighten their loads. On small Irish horses laden down with guineas, silks, and other valuables, many rode out of town in the direction of Dublin. Hollingsworth, their leader, sold the Isaac to local merchants and took off himself. Local officials estimated the sloop had arrived in Westport with £20,000 in gold and silver, plus several tons of valuable Bahamian logwood, a tropical species from which dyes were extracted. Only two men, James Trumble and Edward Foreside, were apprehended, though others were seen in Dublin later that summer.
Avery and the Sea Flower arrived at the end of June, landing at Dunfanaghy, County Donegal, in the northeast. They were confronted by the local customs official, Maurice Cuttle, who they handled in their usual fashion; each gave Mr. Cuttle about £3 in gold and, in exchange, he not only issued them passes to go to Dublin, he escorted them part of the way there. Six miles out of Dunfanaghy, Avery parted ways with the rest of the men, saying he was bound for Scotland and, ultimately, Exeter in his native Devonshire. Only one person accompanied the pirate: Henry Adams’s wife. Together Avery and Mrs. Adams made their way from Donegal Town.
The other men of the Sea Flower traveled to Dublin. One of them, John Dan, booked passage to England and then ventured overland to London. While passing through the town of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, he ran into Mrs. Adams, who was boarding a stagecoach. She told Dan that she was going to meet Avery, but refused to take him along or tell him where he was. A few days later, at an inn in Rochester, Kent, outside London, a maid discovered the £1,100 Dan had sewn into his quilted jacket. He wound up in prison, as did seven of his former shipmates. Five of them, including the steward William May, were hanged at the Execution Dock in London on November 25, 1696.
Avery was never heard from again.
Rumors of Avery’s fate circulated the English-speaking world for decades afterward, passing from deckhand to deckhand within the ships and pubs of the empire. It was said that he was literally the King of the Pirates, and had returned to Madagascar with his accomplices to reign over his own pirate domain. There he lived with his wife, the granddaughter of the Grand Moghul, in a sumptuous and well-defended palace, beyond the reach of English law. Pirates were drawing to him from the four corners of the world.
The legend gained credence in 1709, when a London bookseller published The Life and Adventure of Capt. John Avery, allegedly based on the journal of a man who had escaped from his pirate kingdom. The anonymous author claimed Avery presided over a fleet of more than forty large warships and an army of 15,000 men. “Towns were built, communities established, fortifications built, and entrenchments flung up, as rendered his Dominions impregnable and inaccessible by sea and land.” Avery had so much silver and gold that he’d begun minting his own coins bearing his likeness. “The famous English pirate,” he wrote, had gone “from a Cabin Boy to a King.” The story so captivated the English public that within a few years, London’s Theatre Royal staged a play based on Avery’s life. In The Successful Pyrate, Avery lived in a vast palace, “a sceptered robber at the head of a hundred thousand . . . brother-thieves . . . burning cities, ravaging countries, and depopulating nations.”
To abused young sailors and cabin boys, Avery had become a hero. He was one of their own, a man who stuck up for his fellow sailors and led them to a promised land, a sailor’s heaven on earth. A champion of the ordinary man, the Avery of legend was a symbol of hope for a new generation of oppressed mariners, as well as a role model for the men who would one day become the most famous and fearsome pirates in history.
Only years later, as the Golden Age of Piracy was coming to an end, would a competing account of Avery’s fate be published. According to A General History of the Pyrates, published in London in 1724, Avery never made it back to Madagascar. After taking leave of his shipmates in Ireland, he headed to his native Devon bearing a large quantity of diamonds. Through friends in Biddeford, he arranged to sell the gems to some Bristol merchants, men who, unlike Avery, were sufficiently wealthy that “no enquiry would be made [of ] how they came by them.” According to this account, Avery handed over the jewels, with the understanding that he would be sent most of the proceeds of their sale, and relaxed with kin in Biddeford. The payments he eventually received from Bristol “were not sufficient to give him bread.” He confronted the merchants and they threatened to turn him in to the authorities, showing themselves to be “as good Pyrates at Land as he was at Sea.” Reduced to beggary, Avery fell sick and died on his return to Biddeford, “not being worth as much as would buy him a coffin.”
But that version of the story was to be written a quarter-century hence. For those alive in the year 1700, the only versions of the Avery story were those of a robber king and his republic of pirates.
Excerpted from The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard. Copyright © 2007 by Colin Woodard.
First published 2007 by Harcourt Inc., Florida. First published in the UK in paperback 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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