By Lucas Bernard
Anyone who thinks pirates aren’t badass is either lying or a Fed. Although piracy is recorded as early as the 14th century BC, the popular image of a pirate comes from a distinct period. The Golden Age of Piracy lasted between the 1650s and the 1730s. Ships full of valuable cargo darted across international waters begging to be plundered. There was no shortage of potential pirates, as the harsh discipline and low wages on legally sanctioned ships made raising the black flag much more appealing. Pirate crews were surprisingly democratic, with captains often being elected and booty being doled out according to merit; the complete opposite of serving on one of the King’s ships. However, the chance for freedom and wealth came with a heavy price. Pirates often found themselves on the wrong end of a noose or condemned to a watery grave. But there was one man who had his cake and ate it, too; his name was Henry Every.
Like many infamous characters, Henry Every’s background is steeped in mystery and speculation. He was an Englishman, probably earning his sea legs in the Royal Navy. “Probably” is a common refrain in descriptions of his early life. His naissance as a pirate however, is well documented. In 1693, English investors wished to jumpstart their lagging economy. To make a little money and assist their Spanish allies, four warships were launched to trade, salvage gold from wrecked Spanish ships, and pillage French vessels up and down the West Indies. This audacious plan was cemented by a rare practice for the era: regular and guaranteed pay for sailors. Henry Every came aboard the Charles II as first mate. It wouldn’t be long before he commanded it.
The expedition started poorly. Privateering required paperwork, and the ships were stuck in Spain waiting for it. The men became discontented. To ensure they wouldn’t leave, they hadn’t been paid. When sailors get pissed off, there’s only one thing on their minds: mutiny. Every made his way amongst the crews fomenting unrest. The mutineers seized the Charles II effortlessly and slinked off under cover of darkness. With Every elected captain, the Charles II was rechristened the Fancy and set sail to the Indian Ocean.
The men of the Fancy raided their way to glory, always convincing a few sailors from captured ships to turn pirate. The Fancy was improved, with some of the decks cut away to make the ship quicker and more maneuverable. As Every approached his intended target, he had everything a pirate could want: a fast and agile ship, plenty of plunder, and a salty crew of about 150 loyal men. But like all real pirates, he needed more. In the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, Every assembled a rogue’s gallery of other captains and their crews, constituting a fleet of six ships and over 440 men. With his fleet in tow, Every set his sights on a convoy of Mughal ships coming straight their way, with the Ganj-i-Sawai as his primary aim. It was the jewel of the Mughal treasure fleet, a fitting pursuit for Every. Its English translation perfectly encapsulates the raison d’être of all pirates, Exceeding Treasure. It was a hard target, boasting eighty guns, a guard of 400 musket-men, and 600 odd sailors and passengers. When the two met at broadsides, Every’s skill and grit triumphed, with the Fancy managing to disable the Ganji-i-Sawai’s mainmast, rendering the craft dead in the water. A fierce belch of musket fire initially halted the men of the Fancy, but then one of the Ganj-i-Sawai’s cannons exploded. Exploiting this opportunity, the pirates clambered aboard into a desperate clash of sword and shot. In the end, the rapacity of the Fancy’s crew won out. They had come to exchange iron for gold.
And gold they got—500,000 odd pieces amongst other treasures. Each man’s share was more wealth than any sailor could expect to earn in a lifetime. However, this ensured a commensurate price on their heads. The raid put the British East India Company in hot water with the Mughals. Their men in India were seized and their facilities shut down. To appease them, Parliament declared the crew of the Fancy to be hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind. The first global manhunt began. However, one does not go down in history as the King of Pirates rotting in a cell. Every vanished, the remainder of his life shadowed in myth and conjecture. Some stories say he died a pauper, others that he died in peaceful obscurity back in England. My preferred version is that he ran his own pirate island utopia, attended by buxom women in grass skirts serving rum punch. Whatever his true fate, Every’s story went on to set the standard for any man thinking to raise the black flag.