Solving the mystery of Captain Henry Every – The Pirate who became the subject of the first world-wide manhunt from India to North America

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on Colonel Blood and his audacious career that involved stealing the Crown Jewels and in the last few days I’ve been reading about a discovery of some Arabian coins unearthed in an orchard on Rhode Island that might shed new light on an incredibly infamous pirate, Captain Henry Every who was subject to the first global manhunt.

Why did this all happen?  Captain Henry Every and his crew,  plundered an armed trading ship of the Mughal empire. The ship went by the name of  ‘Ganj-i-Sawai’ (‘Exceeding Treasure’) and had been sailing to Surat, India, from Yemen, carrying pilgrims returning from Mecca as well as vast riches.

Captain Every and his crew initially took their ill-gotten gains to Bourbon (now Réunion), before making way to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas.  Nevertheless news of the bounty placed on their heads soon caught up with them which forced them to to keep a low profile leaving what happened to the pirate and many of his crew to be a mystery.

Recent discoveries  include a 17th-century Arabian coin found by amateur historian and metal detectorist Jim Bailey, 53, in Middletown may offer some answers.   It is thought that the coin belongs to the haul from the Ganj-i-Sawai, & so raises the possibility that some of Every’s crew and perhaps even the captain himself found their way to New England.

‘It’s a new history of a nearly perfect crime,’ said Mr Bailey, who coincidentally works as a security professional for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

In August 1695, Captain Every and his crew of the ship ‘Fancy’ teamed up with five other pirate ships led by their captains; Joseph Faro, William Mayes, Thomas Tew, Thomas Wake and Richard Want in the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb.

With Every in command of the pirate flotilla, they set their sights on a convoy of 25 Mughal empire ships — including the 1,600-ton Ganj-i-sawai, which was armed with 80 cannons, and its 600-ton escort, the ‘Fateh Muhammed’.

For any pirate of the time, the fleet was easily the richest picking in Asia and perhaps even the world.  Captain Every rightfully told his crew that if successful, it would leave them glutted with ‘gold enough to dazzle the eyes’.

Four or five days into the chase, the pirates caught up with and sacked the Fateh Muhammed, and a few days later on September 7th 1695, the Fancy and Mayes’ ‘Pearl’ engaged the Ganj-i-Sawai, which was owned by one of the world’s most-powerful men, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

The Mughal Empire ruled much of the Indian subcontinent during the 16th and 17th centuries and are known for consolidating Islam in South Asia, spreading both the Muslim faith as well art and culture. The empire reached its zenith under the leadership and conquests of Aurangzeb, who is often called the ‘last great Mughal emperor’.

However, the size of the empire along with Aurangzeb’s unpopular intolerant rule and aggressive taxation saw it go into decline.

Aurangzeb was the owner of the armed Ghanjah dhow (trading ship) Ganj-i-Sawai, which was ambushed by pirates led by Henry Every in 1695. On board the Ganj-i-Sawai were not only the worshipers returning from their pilgrimage, but tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver.

According to some historical accounts, the marauders tortured and killed the men aboard the Mughal vessel and raped the women in a so-called ‘orgy of horror’, seeking to extract information on where in her hold the Ganj-i-Sawai’s treasures had been hidden.

Some versions of the story also suggest, grimly, that Captain Every himself found ‘something more pleasing than jewels’ onboard the vessel — often said to be the daughter, granddaughter or another relative of emperor Aurangzeb.

The battle between the Fancy and Ganj-i-Sawai

The battle between the Fancy and Ganj-i-Sawai

Captain Every left the ransacked Ganj-i-Sawai to limp back to Surat and after compensating the crew of the Pearl for their share of the spoils, the Fancy set sail for Bourbon, today the island of Réunion, arriving two months later.

Here, the pirates divvyed up the treasures — with each man receiving £1,000 (the equivalent of around £128,000 today, and far more than any sailor could typically expect to make across their lifetime) as well as a selection of gemstones.

The attack had significant ramifications for both England and the East India Trading company which was still recovering from the disastrous Anglo-Mughal War if 1686–90 with the very future of English trade in India placed under threat.

Both the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai’s pilgrim travellers and the raping of the Muslim women were seen as a religious violation. The local Indian governor took the step of arresting all English subjects in Surat, partly as retribution but also to protect them from rioting locals.

Meanwhile, Emperor Aurangzeb closed down four of the East India Company’s factories in India and imprisoned their officers, even threatening to attack the city of Bombay with the goal of expelling the English from India forever.

To appease the Mughal empire, the East India Company promised to pay reparations for Every’s crimes, while Parliament declared the pirates ‘hostis humani generis’ (‘enemies of the human race’).

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This maritime law term placed them outside of legal protections and thereby allowing them to be ‘dealt with’ by any nation that saw fit.

Alongside this, the government placed a £500 bounty on Captain Every’s head — one which the East India Company later doubled to £1,000 — with the Board of Trade coordinating what became the first worldwide manhunt.

‘If you Google “first worldwide manhunt”, it comes up as Every. Everybody was looking for these guys,’ explained Mr Bailey.

Given their wanted status, Captain Every’s crew disagreed on where to sail next. Ultimately, the French and Danes elected to stay on Bourbon, while the rest of the crew set course for Nassau, the capital of New Providence in the Bahamas, which was considered a pirate haven.

Shortly before setting sail, Every is said to have purchased around ninety slaves, an acquisition which served the dual purpose of providing labour on the journey to the other side of the world, as well as serving as a resource that could be traded.  In this way, the pirates were cleverly able to avoid using their foreign currency, an act which would have served as a clue to their identities.

Breaking their voyage at the uninhabited Ascension Island, in the middle of the Atlantic, the crew succeeded in catching 50 sea turtles — enough food to last the rest of the voyage to Nassau — while losing 70 men who decided to remain there.

By the March of 1696, the Fancy had passed through St Thomas in the Virgin Islands where the crew sold off some of their treasure before dropping anchor near Eleuthera, some 50 miles (80 km) northeast of New Providence.

Masquerading as one ‘Captain Henry Bridgeman’, Every presented his crew to the island’s governor, Sir Nicholas Trott, as unlicensed English slave traders who had just arrived from the coast of Africa and were in need of shore leave.

In keeping with this deceit, the crew promised £860 and their ship the Fancy, once her cargo was unloaded, to Sir Trott in return for permission to make port and his keeping secret their claimed violation of the East India Company’s trading monopoly.

The arrangement was an attractive proposition for the governor, who also saw the benefits, with French forces reportedly en route, of having a heavily-armed ship in the harbour along with enough extra men on the island to properly man Nassau’s 28 cannons.

When the Fancy was handed over to his possession, Sir Trott discovered a further bribe had been left on board for him totalling 100 barrels of gunpowder and 50 tons of ivory tusks, as well as firearms, ammunition and ship anchors.

Understandably, Sir Trott initially turned a blind eye to the pirates’ possession of large quantities foreign-minted coins, as well as the patched-up battle damage on the Fancy. However, he was also quick to strip the ship of anything valuable and according to some accounts, deliberately arranged for her to be scuttled in order to dispose of evidence that could have later proved inconvenient for him.

When word finally reached Nassau that both the Royal Navy and the East India Company were hunting for Every/’Bridgeman’, the governor maintained that he and the islanders ‘saw no reason to disbelieve’ the crew of the Fancy’s story.

Nevertheless, to maintain his reputation, he was forced to disclose the location of the pirates to the authorities but not before tipping off Every and his 113-strong crew, who succeeded in escaping the island before they could be apprehended.

Exactly what happened to Captain Every after leaving New Providence in the June of 1696, however, has remained unclear. Conflicting accounts suggest he retired quietly back to Britain or some unidentified tropical island, or squandered his wealth and ended up destitute.

According to one tale, for example, the former crew of the Fancy split up with some remaining in the West Indies, some heading for North America and the rest returning to Britain. After this, Every and twenty of the men supposedly sailed aboard the sloop (a one-masted sailing boat) Sea Flower captained by Joseph Faro  eventually arriving in Ireland.

Unloading their treasure, however, the pirates aroused suspicion, the account goes, with two of the men arrested while Every escaped once again.  According to Mr Bailey, however, the coins he and others have found are evidence that the pirate captain first or at the vary least, a member of his crew, made their way to the American colonies where they spent their plunder on day-to-day expenses.

The first complete coin surfaced in 2014 at Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, a spot that had piqued Mr Bailey’s curiosity two years earlier after he found old colonial coins, an 18th-century shoe buckle and some musket balls at the site.

Waving a metal detector over the soil, he got a signal, dug down and hit his ‘paydirt’ — a darkened, dime-sized silver coin that he initially assumed was either Spanish, or money minted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

However, it was the Arabic text on the coin, he said, that got his pulse racing.

Arabian-silver-coin_178910e5d26_large

Analysis confirmed that the exotic coin was minted in 1693 in Yemen, a fact which immediately raised questions.

As Mr Bailey explained, there’s no evidence that American colonists who would have been struggling just to eke out a living in the New World, travelled to anywhere in the Middle East for trade purposes until decades later.

Since the 2014 find, other detectorists have unearthed 15 additional Arabian coins from the same era — ten in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island and two in Connecticut (one of which was found in 2018 at a 17th-century farm site.)

Another coin, meanwhile, was found in North Carolina, where records have indicated that some of Every’s men came ashore at the end of their voyage.

‘It seems like some of Captain Every’s crew were able to settle in New England and integrate,’ said Connecticut state archaeologist Sarah Sportman.

‘It was almost like a money laundering scheme,’ she added.

‘There´s extensive primary source documentation to show the American colonies were bases of operation for pirates,’ added Mr Bailey.

In fact, he said, obscure records show that a ship named the ‘Sea Flower’ — the same as the vessel Every supposedly reached Ireland on — sailed up the Eastern seaboard, arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1696 bearing nearly four dozen slaves.

Finding the Arabian coin is not Mr Bailey’s only pirate-themed find — in the late 1980s, he also served as an archaeological assistant during explorations of the wreck of the 18th Century pirate ship the Whydah Gally off of the coast of Cape Cod.

‘It seems like some of [Captain Every’s] crew were able to settle in New England and integrate,’ said Connecticut state archaeologist Sarah Sportman.  ‘It was almost like a money laundering scheme,’ she added.

‘There´s extensive primary source documentation to show the American colonies were bases of operation for pirates,’ added Mr Bailey.

In fact, he said, obscure records show that a ship named the ‘Sea Flower’ — the same as the vessel Every supposedly reached Ireland on — sailed up the Eastern seaboard, arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1696 bearing nearly four dozen slaves.

The exploits of Captain Every and his crew have inspired a variety of modern-day tales of swashbuckling — including the characters of ‘Captain Henry Avery’ who appear in PlayStation’s popular ‘Uncharted’ video game series (left) and the 2011 Doctor Who episode ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

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While Captain Every may have successfully vanished from recorded history after fleeing from the island of New Providence in June 1696, not all of his crew similarly evaded justice.

At the end of July the same year, Every’s coxswain, John Dann, was arrested in Rochester on suspicion of piracy, after his chambermaid discovered he had sewn £1, 045 of gold sequins and ten English guineas into his waistcoat and reported as much to the local authorities.

Dann ultimately agreed along with another captured crewman, Philip Middleton, to testify against other members of the Fancy’s crew, who had been caught after trying to sell their treasures to jewellers.

Six of the pirates were convicted at trial with five hanged and the sixth, Joseph Dawson, shown leniency for his guilty plea.

What became of Captain Henry Every and his final resting place remains a complete mystery but if you fancy becoming very rich then here is a guide to some of the most valuable missing treasures.

Captain Henry Every

Captain Henry Every

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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3 Responses to Solving the mystery of Captain Henry Every – The Pirate who became the subject of the first world-wide manhunt from India to North America

  1. Pingback: Solving the mystery of Captain Henry Every – The Pirate who became the subject of the first world-wide manhunt from India to North America – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. modestly says:

    this is an amazing read!thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

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